This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of BTN Europe
Companies have for years allowed employees to work from home, either in extremis or for two or three days a week in the interests of work/life balance. However, lockdowns on account of Covid have made it a must for many and, ten months later, few organisations are showing any sign of asking employees to rush back into office buildings.
Overnight, this has transformed the way companies work, with Microsoft among companies softening its stance and its co-founder Bill Gates predicting time spent in offices could be cut by a third across all businesses in the long term.
E-commerce company Shopify, meanwhile, “is going to be digital by nature, digital by design. It is going to ditch most of its offices and some of its 5,000 employees are considering becoming digital nomads; work is not a place,” says Aurélie Krau, consultant at Festive Road. To to attract this cohort, destinations as diverse as Bermuda, Barbados, Dubai and Estonia have introduced digital nomad visas.
“Offices may not be used in the same way anymore so savings made from reduced office space are going to be reinvested in areas such as company culture,” says Krau. “Corporates are starting to embrace such models, which have the added benefit of reduced CO2 emissions.”
“Companies may consider allocating some of what they save on rent to opening satellite offices so that there is a hub for remote workers at a fraction of the price of a city centre office,” says managing partner at Black Box Partnerships, Raj Sachdave. “And that will support regional communities, with the positive impact travellers have on the local economy.”
As part of reinventing itself, BP has sold its office buildings in Sunbury and St. James’s London, and taken a 20-year and two-year leaseback respectively, allowing investment elsewhere. Office space will be used for collaborative projects and it is also setting up hubs through meetingsbooker.com.
“Where we do not have an asset, people can meet at a central point and use the tool to book instantly and pay for a space to use,” says BP’s global category manager (travel, meetings & events) Richard Eades. The organisation has also moved from CWT to digital services with Egencia: “Having a dynamic booking environment and lowest logical fare is aligned with our policy; 63 countries are operating on that platform and 37 are using a mobile app and live booking,” he says. BP hopes employees will comply with travel policy because they want to and any leakage is approached with a view to understanding why it happens and programme improvement, rather than upbraiding the individual.
Reconstructed travel policies come hand-in-hand with these changes and even trips to the office become business travel rather than a commute. Similarly, small meetings formerly held in situ now require all parties to meet somewhere, involving travel, booking a room, sustenance and more. This raises the question of what form of transport is acceptable for getting from A to B – public transport, self-drive, taxi.
As a result, grey fleet is back on the agenda in a big way. It is second nature to jump into the car to leave home for a short journey, which also drives a coach and horses through employers’ environmental policies. At the moment, many organisations require people to clear all travel with a senior executive but this is not sustainable and as confidence returns, it will fade away.
Small gatherings are making their way on to WFH T&E policies, which promise to look very different from before, with the need to cover eclectic requirements that range from traditional mobility and accommodation to office space and Covid tests. And as partner at Areka Consulting Louise Miller points out: “Travel policy is an evolving beast because the pending vaccine might make current decisions redundant in six months’ time.”
Meanwhile, some travellers are returning to short-haul travel. “A lot of companies are justifying meetings that generate revenue – sales, customer engagement – to keep those relationships going. Travellers are unlikely to go into the office first because that is more potential exposure to the virus; these are things organisations are thinking about when writing policy,” says Miller.
Locations for get-togethers will become more prolific and more creative. Meanwhile, hotels and serviced apartments have put themselves to the purpose, renting rooms by the hour or day. Accor’s Hotel Office led the way and is available in 320 properties in Europe; Radisson Hotels’ Hybrid Rooms are available by the day to non-residential customers or taken as an add-on by guests.
Ascott’s Work in Residence provides rooms for day use in 60 properties and most Cycas Hospitality properties have similar offers such as the Day Pass at Residence Inn Amsterdam Houthavens. These programmes variously include fast wifi, printing, refreshments and access to fitness facilities and other hotel amenities.
“While using hotels for remote working is still far from becoming a permanent feature in travel policies, it seems clear that hotels will have a key new role to play in helping employees achieve a better work/life balance,” says commercial director for Cycas, Neetu Mistry.
Use of hotel office programmes has not reached critical mass, so procurement is not yet involved. Such concepts are also not available on GDS systems and although it is only a matter of time, it is a drawback amid the chaos of ever-evolving policies.
However, American Express GBT has found a way around this by listing hotel office guest rooms on its Meetings Express booking tool. “Booking these workspaces via Meetings Express aggregates the fragmented content, enabling customers to keep bookings within the corporate travel programme, giving visibility and control on spend and employee activity, as well as getting preferential rates and terms,” says vice president global supplier partnerships, Wes Bergstrom.
Duty of care has also become complicated. “Corporate security, HR and travel are collaborating on that because when employees worked in an office and travelled, it was black and white. Now there is no knowing where they are – in a day room, at home, travelling and staying in a hotel, or working in an independent office,” says Louise Miller.
Other considerations include checking whether employees have a suitable set-up for working at home. BP’s HR, health & safety and office support teams oversaw moves to working from home: “Line managers make sure anyone working from home has safe and appropriate equipment. There is a budget for people to order from our supply base, where necessary,” says Richard Eades.
Digital nomad: Aurélie Krau, Festive Road
To me, being able to work from anywhere is the ultimate freedom. Office centricity is over and 2020 made a point: there is a better, more fulfilling way to design our work life! I returned from Central America early March last year (good timing!) and, in the summer, drove to the French coast and worked from Brittany. After months without travelling internationally, I visited friends in Dubai. France went into a second lockdown soon after my arrival in Dubai so I decided not to fly back and instead continued working there which offered a great
environment with life relatively back to normal. That’s the power of dispersed teams and cloud computing – I don’t need to sit in an office! I’m experience-led and I typically stay in residential areas for local vibes or in international areas with fellow nomads. I prefer co-living spaces or apartments. You need to expect to work at unusual hours to navigate time zones, which is why I combine workspaces. I rent my own apartment (easier when I work on confidential projects) and I work in cafés, at friends’ places, and in co-working spaces.
“We have set up Outlook so that meetings last for 45 minutes not an hour, giving people a 15-minute gap, and they are encouraged to put aside an hour or two to go for a walk or spend time with their family. Balance of work and home life has never been as important as in the past year,” says BP's Eades.
Employees are encouraged to speak up if they are not happy with their environment, addressing anything from poor wifi bandwidth to mental health concerns, and the response is quick.
The Covid-induced further blurring of boundaries between work and leisure may also lead to travellers’ taking longer trips. “Employees will look for experiential travel, so rather than going several times a year, they will go once or twice and will not stay in hotels but look for other types of accommodation, and use co-working spaces or local offices,” says Aurélie Krau.
This is a double-edged sword: it is difficult to build this level of flexibility into travel policy but it is crucial for attracting talent – and not just the digital native generation; there are many people to whom a peripatetic lifestyle appeals.
EY was looking at the possibility of employees working from anywhere before the pandemic ran rampant but there have to be caveats: “If they need to meet a client or come to the office, how is that paid for?” said global head of travel, meetings and events, Karen Hutchings, in a recent BTN Europe podcast.
Marriott Bonvoy’s Day Pass, Stay Pass and Play Pass programme caters to work, rest and play, and reflects the anticipated change in behaviour Aurélie Krau refers to.
“Globally, we surpassed 2,000 bookings for the Stay Pass in the first three weeks alone and have seen strong demand for these flexible booking options from our guests and loyalty members,” says chief sales & marketing officer for Marriott International EMEA, Neal Jones.
“At the moment these bookings tend to be for individual guests rather than companies but many of our corporate partners expect to take advantage of the new product over the coming weeks as we roll it out across the EMEA region,” he says. “In 2021, I think companies will evolve their travel/working policies to embrace the work from anywhere mindset – and this brings great opportunities to us as hoteliers too.”
From having been locked to one place for nearly a year, suddenly the world is our oyster and employees and employers alike are revving up to embrace a new-found freedom that can only lead to raised morale, released creativity and better work/life balance. The corporate shackles have been shed.