Last week, business tech giant SAP told its 102,000 personnel worldwide that they now have permanent flexibility in whether they work from home or on company premises – or both. Employee surveys by SAP suggest a hybrid will be the overwhelming choice. Only 16 per cent intend to work remotely at all times, and just 6 per cent wish to visit the office five days a week.
The workplace revolution, which precedes, but was accelerated rapidly by, Covid, opens up some big questions for travel managers. Does an employee journey from home to a company location now count as a business trip rather than a commute? And what constitutes a meeting space – and who should manage use of it?
Ford Motor Company divides its office premises into what it labels Me Space, where employees work alone, and We Space, where they interact with others. Before Covid, Ford offices were 70 per cent Me Space and 30 per cent We Space. Now it’s the other way round. “The assumption is that when you do come into the office, it’s not to do the day job but to meet colleagues on a project basis or suppliers,” says Ford travel manager for EMEA and APAC Stephen Swift.
But for many businesses which conclude they need less Me Space, the chances are they will end up with less We Space too as they shrink their property estates. That means employees could have to find alternative, external meeting facilities. “The way the work environment has changed is having an impact,” says Ciaran Delaney, CEO and founder of the booking tool Meetingsbooker.com. “We’re getting new clients who are reducing their office footprint and going to meet twice a week elsewhere in those cities instead.”
Others are less sure. Rosaria Torriani, talent and organisation manager for the motion and control technologies manaufacturer Parker Hannifin, emphasises that the overwhelming trend will be towards less travel overall, if only for sustainability reasons, and that most collaboration can be covered during the two to three days weekly that employees will continue to attend their regular workplace.
Torriani does not anticipate frequent offsite meetings. “Theoretically it is possible but these days most people are managing multiple projects,” she says. “You can’t say you need one meeting per month for each project team. That would mean everyone attending 3-5 meetings per month.”
A travel manager at another company, speaking on condition of anonymity, also believes the link between work and travel has been severed by the shift to home working. “If you commute to the office, you’re more likely to have the attitude of ‘Let’s travel to the client as well’,” the travel manager says. “When people stop commuting so much, they will not feel the need to go on business trips either. If they do, the trip will have to be meaningful.”
When is a commute not a commute?
The journey from home to office is coming under the microscope as well. Whether it remains designated a commute or is redefined as business travel has all sorts of financial, legal and managerial implications.
“This is an open question in HR and is something that needs to clarified,” says Torriani. “Many companies are saying employees are not home-based, so this is a commute.”
But that position may become harder to argue as employees’ connection to a specific place of work becomes more tenuous. The anonymous travel manager, for example, points out that “organisations are beginning to look at hiring talent anywhere rather than talent located near the office.” If that geographical connection has been broken, the employer can hardly expect the employee to bear the cost of a trip to headquarters.
“The question of who pays is going to become very important for companies to navigate when they are updating their expenses policy,” says the travel manager. His own view is that the key determinant will be whether the employee makes the journey because they like being in the office or because they have been summoned there.
Also relevant will be how companies’ overall costs look once savings generated by reducing office footprint have been taken into account. “Some businesses are saying they will use some of those savings to pay for travel to the office to show they are a good employer,” says Raj Sachdave, managing partner of the business travel and meetings consultancy Black Box Partnerships. “Yesterday’s commuter is tomorrow’s business traveller.”
Sachdave argues that if one accepts home-to-office now counts as business travel, then it becomes as much part of the managed travel programme as any other trip, with attendant considerations including duty of care and sustainability.
There is a need for formal recognition in such cases. “If you spend the majority of your time at home, your place of work is home and there are associated benefits, including elements you can claim against tax,” says Sachdave. “You also need to to change employees’ contracts to state clearly that your travel and expense policy kicks in as soon as you leave your front door.”
There are tax implications beyond benefits in kind for travel by remote workers, but the issue is complex. Both Swift and Torriani say their companies are actively working through the ramifications. In an op-ed published last month in BTN, Global Tax Network business traveller and remote worker solutions global practice leader David Livitt warned that avoiding tax pitfalls for journeys to company headquarters “will take diligent efforts from companies to monitor corporate and income tax issues, payroll withholding obligations, social security risk and compliance both pre- and post-travel.”
Other risk issues need to be considered. Sachdave points out that motorist insurance policies typically cover social, domestic and commuting purposes but not business trips. “If the trip to the office is no longer commuting but business travel, that needs looking at,” he says.
Travel suppliers are also adjusting to hybrid working. Sachdave draws attention to the new rail carnets being offered in the UK aimed squarely at workers who visit their office a couple of times a week. The carnets provide eight reduced-price trips over a 28-day period.
Once again, the transformation from the world we knew pre-Covid is making business travel more complicated than it used to be. Sachdave reckons that presents an opportunity for travel managers. “The blurring of commuting and business travel widens the remit of the travel buyer,” he says.