Now that the omicron wave is subsiding, COVID-19 cases are trending lower and the U.S. is inching toward normalcy, many companies are returning to pre-pandemic operations, which includes a return to business travel.
However, travel for work isn't necessarily what it used to be in 2019. Many companies are embracing employee travel again, especially when working to attract new clients and retain key employees who want to stay competitive by building new skill sets. But organizations are taking precautions to ensure that travelers are safe in this new environment.
Getting Back to Business
At Emburse, an expense-management software company with 850 full-time employees and offices in Los Angeles and Portland, Maine, employees are traveling to attend conferences, hold team meetings offsite, meet with clients and attend internal meetings, said Danielle Tabor, SHRM-SCP, chief people officer.
"Much of what we do can be accomplished easier through in-person collaboration and communication," Tabor said. "Colleagues have expressed incredibly positive sentiments about the community that they feel when we are able to get together, the human connection that they missed for so long and the simple efficiency that they experience when collaborating in person rather than virtually."
Maria Flores couldn't agree more. As HR department head and chief operating officer at MediaPeanut in New York City, she said letting employees travel again is a way of moving business forward.
"For any business to grow, there needs to be improved social and physical interactions with potential clients, as well as camaraderie among stakeholders within our industry," Flores said. "[We want to] gain insights and learn from our peers, and virtual networking is really limiting our potential. That's why travel needs to be resumed to pre-pandemic levels."
That sentiment is especially true for HR professionals, said Mikaela Kiner, who spent 15 years in HR at Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon before becoming a certified coach and launching an HR consulting firm called Reverb, based in Seattle. For the first time in two years, she said, she and her team have travel planned for March and beyond to several HR conferences.
"Our goal is to learn about new HR trends and technologies, and also to help promote our online manager training," said Kiner, who added that they also expect to "learn best practices, meet like-minded leaders and grow our network." All team members at Reverb are fully vaccinated and will only go to events where organizers are putting COVID-19 guidelines in place.
"In addition, no one is required to travel," Kiner said. "Travel is voluntary for employees who feel safe doing so."
Keeping Travelers Safe
Businesses are ensuring that when employees want or need to travel, they are protected as much as possible. Tabor said Emburse requires traveling employees to follow local guidelines relating to face masks, social distancing and vaccine requirements. In order for employees to travel, they need to be fully vaccinated and provide proof of a negative test within 72 hours of an event they are attending, as well as proof of a negative test no later than five days after they return from the trip, she said.
Some Emburse employees may not feel comfortable getting back onto airplanes, which is why travel is not mandatory. "At this point in time, all travel and in-person meetings are on a voluntary basis only," Tabor said. "As we navigate the various variants of COVID-19 and how they impact different geographies, we find it important to remain flexible and communicate that to our employee base."
At MediaPeanut, when employees book a business trip, they are provided with antigen test kits. Under the company-paid insurance health plan, Flores explained, employees' expenses for testing, initial hospitalization and quarantining are covered in case they test positive and need medical attention.
"We have had experiences of employees turning out positive in these tests, which is why we have made it a point to have regular testing, including the gold standard RT-PCR tests, before we actually meet in person or in our office," Flores said. "We meet quarterly, and we make sure that prior to any physical meeting, an RT-PCR test is conducted and those turning out positive will have to attend these meetings virtually."
At UpLead, a sales intelligence company based in Walnut, Calif., employees aren't allowed to travel on business until after they complete a mandatory RT-PCR test, CEO Will Cannon said. "Organizations are working hard to get back to business and are keen to maintain their productivity while keeping their employees' safety in perspective."
Chris Walker, CEO and founder of Legiit, a marketplace for freelance talent based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., agreed that travel is essential to his bottom line. It leads to sales opportunities and contributes to the growth of his business, which is why business travel has returned at his company, he explained.
After employees return from a business trip, Walker makes sure that they stay home and quarantine so that they aren't accidentally spreading COVID-19 to colleagues. "Thankfully, we are predominantly online, and it makes working in constantly flexible environments possible," he said.
Though he believes it's critical for his employees to start traveling again, Walker emphasized that he puts travel safety measures into place because, after all, their well-being matters most.
"It's important to consider the safety of our employees. They have family and friends and lives that they want to live outside of work," he said. "If I endanger my employees for the sake of business, it would misalign with the morals and values of my core business model, [which is] helping others and utilizing others' strengths."
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.