Low Kiang Wei, medical director at International SOS, shares how businesses can instil greater travel confidence among their employees by having robust policies in place to balance both business needs and a range of other concerns like government regulations, on-ground safety protocols, and ensuring employees' health and wellbeing
In recent weeks, we have seen Singapore ink various â€˜green laneâ€™ agreements with other countries, signalling the return of essential business travel.
For many organisations who rely on business travel as a critical component of daily operations, these are welcome developments. However, many are also cognisant of the challenges that lie ahead for the travelling workforce, due to Covid-19 resurgences in various countries and security incidents exacerbated by the global pandemic.
Amid this ever-evolving situation, how can organisations prepare their workforce for the return of business travel?
While pre- and post-pandemic travel will look very different, one thing that remains is the need for organisations to have robust yet flexible travel policies that contribute towards a culture where their workforce feels supported throughout this â€˜new normalâ€™. In doing so, organisations can inspire renewed travel confidence and instil greater workforce and business resilience. But where should travel managers even begin?
Top three concerns in resuming business travel
In a recent survey by International SOS, 40 per cent of businesses in Asia-Pacific are planning to resume business travel within the next six months â€“ in critical locations such as China, India and Australia.
Three major concerns were highlighted among these organisations as well. These include getting stuck in a destination country (81 per cent), adhering to varying guidelines on safety and health practices (57 per cent), and safety and hygiene levels at the accommodation and transportation (52 per cent).
Understanding these concerns provides a critical guide for organisations to implement policies and protocols that reassure, support and safeguard the travelling workforce from pre-trip plans until their safe return home.
The new normal of travel: â€˜Green laneâ€™ measures, â€˜mobile bubblesâ€™ and digital health passports
As more â€˜green laneâ€™ measures are being introduced in the coming months, we will be seeing organisations resume business travel. These reciprocal arrangements, subject to safeguards and requirements that are mutually agreed by two countries, will allow employees to travel in and out of both countries with greater ease.
That said, organisationsâ€™ travel policies should also recognise that every â€˜green laneâ€™ arrangement has its own procedures and guidelines. For example, an arrangement between Singapore to China could look quite different from one between Singapore to New Zealand. Thus, being able to account for these various measures puts organisations in a good position to support their travelling employees as they navigate the new travel environment.
Beginning with pre-trip preparations, organisations should first identify when and where to resume business travel. This will involve looking at the risks of a second wave or virus resurgence, the status of healthcare resources and of course, whether any â€˜travel bubbleâ€™ or â€˜green laneâ€™ measures are in place in the destination country.
Individualised travel risk assessments for employees should also be conducted to identify and mitigate their health and safety risks. These include thoroughly reviewing any underlying medical conditions and destination-specific risks. With this information, we work with clients to ensure a â€˜mobile bubbleâ€™ for their employees â€“ a set of strict measures that shields the individual in transit, from personal protective equipment to validated ground transportation or accommodation with stringent safeguards against Covid-19.
Training and education programmes go a long way in restoring travel confidence as well.
Creating an open environment for employees to share their travel concerns, organising Q&A sessions to address any issues and conducting pre-trip briefings to help employees prepare for the identified destination-specific risks will empower employees to protect themselves while travelling, and alleviate fears of the unknown. These sessions can also underscore the importance of staying within their â€˜mobile bubblesâ€™ and taking the advised precautions while abroad.
During trips, many of our clients are adopting round-the-clock tracking to locate at-risk travellers via real-time updates, to swiftly respond to pressing incidents on the ground, as well as 24/7 access to remote medical and security advice and assistance. These can include remote confidential counselling and telehealth services for anyone who needs help while abroad.
Organisations must also be able to support their travelling workforce in worst-case scenarios. In the event that their business travellers have an unexpected medical condition or are stranded overseas due to sudden border closures and cancellation of commercial flights, organisations should be prepared to include evacuation plans via chartered aircraft or air ambulances with the support of trusted providers, to safely repatriate them back home.
Upon return, organisations must ensure that returning employees understand and follow the necessary quarantine and medical screening procedures, in compliance with local authoritiesâ€™ guidelines. A post-travel assessment will also help to uncover strengths and weaknesses in the travel policy, so that it can be improved for the future. An agile plan that responds to an ever-evolving global environment will enable both organisations and their employees to confidently adapt to any existing or emerging challenges.
As part of global efforts to facilitate a faster and safer return to work and travel, we are also working with the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) on the deployment of ICC AOKpass, a mobile app that uses a standardised global system to enable the trusted recognition of individualsâ€™ Covid-19 compliance status while leveraging blockchain technology to maintain the highest levels of privacy preservation over user data. Successful pilots have been carried out with Singapore company Energy Drilling Management, and International SOS Singapore office.
Balancing vulnerability with privacy
Many of these protocols depend on sharing personal information, such as employeesâ€™ medical history and vulnerabilities. Understandably, employees might have reservations about sharing this information with the organisation, in fear of discrimination or inability to resume business travel.
This is especially so for vulnerable employees with higher medical risks of contracting Covid-19, like diabetes, cardiovascular or lung conditions.
Organisations should reassure employees that confidentiality safeguards are in place to store, use and disclose personal data, without any job-related consequences. Ultimately, this comes back to creating a culture where employees are confident that the organisation prioritises their well-being and safety, while respecting and protecting their privacy.
Restoring travel confidence
The way we travel henceforth will require a lot more planning and responding rapidly to global developments. However, recognising that business travel remains an indispensable part of business operations, organisations must stay flexible and ensure that travel policies are thoroughly reviewed and updated to safeguard their travelling workforce.
When employees are assured that their health and emotional well-being are a key priority for the organisation, they will regain the trust and resilience to continue weathering the next half of this pandemic, and any future crises that come their way.
Low Kiang Wei is medical director at International SOS, where he oversees all Medical Services and Health Consulting projects in Singapore.
Additionally, Low is responsible for driving Digital Health integration within the Group across Asia-Pacific, via implementing innovative telehealth and medical technology solutions.