Preparing for the return of business travel in a post-Covid-19 world

As companies resume business activity, careful considerations around the need for travel, as well as travellers' safety and concerns must be taken, advises Aditya Luthra, International SOS' security director, Asia Pacific

Companies wanting to ensure their employees are looked after and feel safe on the road when restrictions ease off should prepare now and consider what they can do to strengthen their duty of care

For the past three months, most countries have gone through a partial or complete lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, many employees have had to cancel or postpone business trips, attend conferences virtually and work from home.

Almost four months since the initial outbreak, governments across the world are starting to emerge from lockdown. To strengthen economic recovery, it is important to slowly restore travel and trade links safely. Some countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region have started to re-open business and relax safe distancing measures.

In early May, the Singapore Government also announced that it is working on guidelines with four other countries to resume flows of goods, services and personnel. This multilateral effort would allow essential cross-border travel for purposes such as maintaining global supply chains.

The future of travel
Domestic travel will likely be the first to restart and will be the litmus test of efficacy of measures by the local governments before they open international routes.

Gradually, governments will implement ‘travel corridors/bubbles’ to facilitate essential travel on certain routes. While tourist and business travel should eventually resume to pre-pandemic levels, the way we travel will now require a lot more planning and managing of risks in safety and wellbeing.

A balancing act between safety and resumption of travel
This starts with a need for organisations to thoroughly review and implement the necessary policies and procedures to balance the necessity of domestic and international business travel with the potential medical and security risks.

Decision making complexities that many organisations are facing include – when is the right time to resume travel and to which destinations; how to ensure their staff are adopting appropriate due diligence when assessing the risks associated with each trip; how to ensure their travellers are taken care of in the event of a medical or security incident while overseas, and what to do if travellers are symptomatic upon return.

It is important for organisations not to merely react to these problems. By adopting robust travel policies, organisations can proactively mitigate the risks, optimising productivity as well as ensuring compliance with Duty of Care obligations.

While the risk threshold for each organisation and the safety guidelines by the authorities of each location varies, there are some best practices we observed in supporting our clients where business travel is essential. It is about access to a dynamic and granular assessment of the medical and security risks of the destination, awareness of all travel restrictions, and the vulnerabilities of the individual traveller.

Organisations have to ensure a ‘mobile bubble’ for their travellers, which means putting in place a set of strict measures that shields the individual in transit, from personal protective equipment, to validated ground transportation or accommodation with stringent measures against Covid-19. Organisations also need to ensure compliance with certain medical regulations.

To this end, International SOS has partnered with the International Chamber of Commerce to launch an app called ICC AOKpass, with a view towards ensuring Covid-19 medical compliance during travel.

To help our clients assess the potential risks of their planned trips, we developed a Covid-19 country scorecard, which includes risk factors from infection rates to medical infrastructure. In some locations, there are also underlying in-country security risks because of the local Covid-19 situation.

We hence overlay the medical risk assessment with a security risk assessment of risks like xenophobia, reversals of restrictions, social unrest driven by growing economic and social grievances, general public panic, resource scarcity, security force actions, misinformation and more.

During the trip, equipping business travellers with tools like the International SOS Assistance App for round the clock medical and security situational updates, assistance and location tracking, ensures that they stay informed and supported if a situation arises. Our app is underpinned by our 26 Assistance Centres worldwide. One call puts the affected staff in touch with doctors, security and logistics experts, anytime and anywhere.

Upon return, organisations also need to implement necessary precautions like quarantine and medical pre-access screening procedures for returning travellers, in compliance with guidelines and standards outlined by local governing authorities.

Managing employee concerns and fears
It is also critical to manage and assuage the fears of the travelling workforce, which is likely to manifest in various ways – they might fear exposure to the virus while in transit, during meetings, or even staying in hotels.

Others might be fearful of the uncertainties and risks in other countries which can range from uneven relaxation of restrictions, international and local transport restrictions, xenophobia, anti-government protests, and access to medical care in an unfamiliar place.

The uncertainties about a global economic recession have also given rise to fears about job security. While employees might harbour concerns about resuming travel, they could also be hesitant of voicing their fears with their managers and organisations. Employees will be wary of how their reluctance to travel might compromise their job security or career progression.

In consideration of all these concerns, companies need to be prepared to support the travelling workforce emotionally and restore confidence that staff safety is their utmost priority.

This could involve running educational campaigns for employees to communicate the return to operations plan and organising employee Q&A sessions to address lingering doubts. Companies can also arrange pre-trip briefings to help their travellers prepare for the security or health risks in their destinations, either conducted by their in-house medical and security colleagues, or in partnership with workforce risk management providers.

Providing business travellers with 24/7 access to remote medical and security advice and assistance while they are away, would also be helpful in allaying employee concerns.

Preparing for the future of business travel
Ultimately, the resumption of travel does not rely solely on lifting travel restrictions, nor does it signal the end of the pandemic. The gradual easing of restrictions provides an opportunity for organisations to review their plans for business travel and help employees adapt to and be confident while travelling in a post-pandemic world. Organisations that implement the correct measures will have the greatest chance of success in returning to work.

Aditya Luthra is based in Singapore. He leads client engagements around Asia and Australasia, developing bespoke solutions in support of organisations and managing their travel risk mitigation strategies, policies and procedures.

He has overseen the team’s development of actionable intelligence to incident management teams and clients on the ground during crises and emergencies, notably during the elections and ensuing violence in Papua New Guinea (2017), the Resorts World Manila attack (2017), the Islamic State-inspired attacks in Dhaka and Jakarta (2016), in the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal (2015) and Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (2013), and during the political turmoil in Bangladesh and Thailand (2013-14).

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