THE COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight the importance of employees’ health within today’s organisations, and notably so where business transactions involve travel and in-person contact. Here, Angus Darroch-Warren reviews the key considerations underpinning travel risk management policies and procedures.
In January last year, the UK Government commissioned research company Ipsos Mori to survey UK business’ decision-makers in a bid to understand the impact of COVID-19 on companies and their domestic non-commuting work trips.
Perhaps obviously and somewhat unsurprisingly, there was a considerable reduction in the number of people travelling for business generally. Where business trips were made, the use of private vehicles and hire cars witnessed a jump, while trains and domestic flights recorded significant reductions in use. This was due to the restrictions in place as each country sought to mitigate the COVID threat and maintain national positions as regards lockdowns et al.
In some ways more interesting was that section of the report related to ‘projected demand’ for business travel once COVID restrictions are completely lifted. In a nutshell, the surveyed respondents fully expect the number of employees travelling for business purposes will return to a level comparative to – or otherwise just below – pre-COVID levels.
The poll also looked at the use of virtual meetings, with roughly half of respondents stating they felt virtual or blended meetings were adequate replacements for face-to-face gatherings. However, this is tempered by the confirmation of how important face-to-face interaction remains for business development and relationship building.
Given the fact that ‘virtual’ cannot entirely replace ‘human’ interaction, it’s somewhat unsurprising that companies are considering how to return to travel and in-person meetings.
As border restrictions begin to lift and COVID infections are slowly reducing, it will be interesting to see whether domestic and international travel opportunities are embraced and taken up by employees. Obviously, there are those who, throughout the pandemic, wanted to travel and did so at the earliest opportunity, duly resuming travel plans as soon as domestic and international restrictions allowed. Others ‘seamlessly’ transitioned to video conferencing services as their organisations cut travel budgets, relying on virtual visits to premises and clients.
Cutting travel budgets and keeping employees either at home or in the local office is a pragmatic approach towards cost optimisation and allowed many companies to survive the pandemic.
There are also those who’ve seen the myriad benefits of working remotely and now harbour a minimal desire to leave the COVID-free environs of their own home. Work-life balance is most definitely a core consideration to be observed here.
Without any further COVID strain to compete with Delta and Omicron, many businesses are expecting to reach the levels of travel seen in pre-COVID times by Q4 2022. Whether this will be achieved remains to be seen. Conferences and exhibitions are already moving from ‘virtual only’ to ‘hybrid’ versions, using technology to enable delegates to interact both online and in-person, while ‘fully normal’ iterations of trade shows are already taking place.
Indeed, ‘normal’ (for the UK) seems to be ever nearer as restrictions based on having to work from home, the requirement for COVID passports and the mandatory wearing of face coverings are being dispensed with.
As mentioned above, there will be a hard core who want – and, indeed, consider that they need – to travel both domestically and internationally, while there will be others who, even with reduced COVID transmissions, vaccinations and boosters, will be somewhat reticent to step on board a train or an aircraft.
Public perception of what is ‘safe behaviour’ as we move out of the controlled existence of the last couple of years will almost inevitably colour the interpretation of what’s acceptable to business travellers. Certainly, behavioural norms have changed dramatically. For example, hand sanitising, mask-wearing and having to carry proof of vaccination status were unheard of prior to the pandemic.
These changing behaviours present challenges and considerations when planning and managing the security provision of the organisation. How do businesses manage risk and decision-making around those who choose not to be vaccinated or cannot be vaccinated, without infringing on personal liberties such as privacy, while at the same time meeting health, safety and other compliance imperatives?
There are some who view these types of checks as a novel attack on their personal liberties. That’s despite the fact systems to manage the control of infectious diseases have existed for many decades (for example, the ‘Carte Jaune’ that shows the holder’s vaccination against Yellow Fever, without which one cannot enter certain countries).
In the UK, disclosing vaccination status is a legal requirement in the health and social care sectors. Requiring disclosure outside of these roles is at the cognisance of the company – there must be a justifiable reason for doing so.
From the privacy perspective, essential business travel requires the disclosure of vaccine status to ensure that all conditions are met prior to departure and on return to the home country. How such personal data is actually handled in respect of the General Data Protection Regulation will require – if not already completed – a review and potential tightening of processes.
What, then, does all of this mean for international travel and those risk professionals with a remit for ensuring the health, safety and welfare of an organisation’s key asset – its people?
Having a robust and flexible travel policy is key. Adapting working processes will have an impact in terms of additional management time, as will the practical costs of COVID testing, upgrades to airplane seats, improved hotel accommodation and potential time away from the business on return.
Most companies have re-defined ‘essential travel’ and tightened approval processes for business trips, duly revising policies by virtue of considering the priority of safety over and above the need to make cost savings.
While the company must have in place the necessary frameworks to ensure that a given employee is safe, the onus also rests upon the traveller to take heed of – and comply with – the requirements of the travel safety policy.
The business traveller must take reasonable care in terms of their behaviour to ensure they don’t expose themselves to undue risks and comply with any relevant national legislation enforced at their destination.
Recent research in relation to business travel and corporate travel indicates there will be an expectation that the latter will be more flexible. Flexibility may extend from the option to choose the airline travelled with through to the accommodation selected and other transportation based on hygiene factors and individual needs.
Where previously indirect flights were used as a means of reducing costs, the traveller requirement to minimise waits (and potential infections) at transport hubs by using direct flights may move towards becoming the norm.
Business travellers now expect there to be some leeway in choosing the rating of the hotel or seats in premium locations on aircraft. This will evidently come at additional cost to the organisation and require the detailed scrutiny of budgets to ensure that the necessary financial returns are achieved, even with the higher travel costs.
To manage these expectations, companies should review travel policies, applying clear parameters that allow travellers to personalise their travel (including flexibility in purchasing to avoid potential infections).
Communication is an essential element of the planning process, duly ensuring that affected personnel have the right information before, during and after their travel. It may be that they’re not comfortable with travelling and require the reassurance that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure their health and welfare.
For example, the employee may not be aware of the low probability of catching an illness on board an aircraft due to the filters used to recycle air throughout the cabin. Additional information and instructions on how to take precautions specific to parts of their travel (involving taxis, aircraft and trains, etc) may also allay fears.
Planning the trip requires an in-depth and necessarily detailed scrutiny of those locations to be visited in tandem with a dynamic assessment of the changing risk associated with each. As countries seek to manage their response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, border closures, isolation times and entry requirements can (as we’ve seen) literally change overnight. Up-to-date information is required for the business traveller and potential options explored in the event that they are left stranded due to changes in restrictions.
It’s essential that the business traveller understands the protocol of what to do if they happen to encounter disruption to their journey. They must have to hand the contact details of whom to turn to for assistance if and when necessary. The disruption could stress the traveller so preparedness will be key in managing rapidly evolving situations on an effective basis.
The difficulty rests with the speed at which restrictions are changed or updated and, indeed, the scope of the restrictions themselves. Examples include France, where most COVID restrictions will be lifted in February, albeit the nation’s vaccine pass (the ‘pass sanitaire’) will require people to have a certificate of vaccination to enter public places such as long-distance trains, cinemas, cafés and restaurants.
China has a ‘zero-COVID’ policy, while Beijing has introduced strict measures that require all residents to be tested in outbreak areas, with travel out of affected areas prohibited (these measures were introduced only a few days before the commencement of the Winter Olympic Games, in fact).
Hygiene and health conditions at the destination will be essential considerations in whether to travel or not. For those organisations operating in areas with heightened risk profiles, it’s not uncommon for security audits and surveys to be conducted to ensure proportionate physical security measures are in place to mitigate the risks from terrorism and criminality. Part of the selection process for accommodation should consider the hygiene of the premises generally, as well as that of common areas and rooms.
The company needs to document the risks and provide proportionate mitigation measures. It may be that travel packs with essential PPE are appropriate. Information on how to minimise the potential for infection when in the hotel, at a meeting or in a restaurant should be provided as part of any briefing pack administered.
All considerations fall squarely within the general Duty of Care that organisations have for their personnel. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to take reasonable steps to reduce workplace risks. Ensuring the health, safety and welfare of the business travellers will require a keen focus on educating that traveller as to the potential risks of travel, the current situation (referencing COVID) in their destination location and the precautions to mitigate infection risk.
Effective risk management is at the heart of safe travel. As is the case with all risk management considerations, the choices are to avoid the risk, reduce it or otherwise accept it. Given the fast rate of change within the parameters of travel, decisions can only be responsibly made based on the most current information possible.
Angus Darroch-Warren BA (Hons) MSc PSP RISC CSyP FSyI is Managing Director of the Linx International Group (www.linxinternationalgroup.com)
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