Who will business travelers hold accountable for their safety after the pandemic?

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Business travel levels might never return to what they once were before 2020—or at least they won’t return soon—but more former road warriors than you might expect are eager to take their next business trip.

Fifty-nine percent of business travelers expect to feel positively about their next business trip, according to SAP Concur, the German software giant’s travel and expenses unit. Surveyed in May and June 2020, SAP’s findings are based on the responses of approximately 4,850 business travelers in 23 global markets and 800 travel managers in eight global markets.

“Of all corporate spending, travel has always been the most personal expenditure,” says Mike Koetting, chief product strategy officer at SAP Concur. “COVID-19 has made it even more personal, and companies must weigh business needs and meet employees where they are when resuming business travel.”

Perhaps feeling a bit of nationwide cabin fever, more U.S. business travelers than the international average said they expect to feel excited about their next work trip, at a response rate of 41% versus 32%.

Nearly all business travelers surveyed expect a new normal for business travel, with new protocols and precautions to take root for good even once restrictions put in place amid border shutdowns are lifted. Among the most commonly expected measures include mandatory personal health screenings for traveling employees, limiting business travel to only the most business-critical trips, and easier access to personal protective equipment, like gloves or face masks.

And even if people are traveling less and teleconferencing more, domestic and international travel will still be critical to meeting business demands after the COVID-19 outbreak. Ninety-two percent of business travelers expect their companies to experience negative outcomes due to travel restrictions around COVID-19, including a reduced number of deals or contracts signed that require in-person interactions and declines in new business wins that require in-person sales meetings.

“Our world has been impacted by COVID-19 for several months, and resuming business travel is returning to some degree of normalcy for many employees,” Koetting says. “For many businesses, that normalcy includes securing new contracts and winning new business, which often require in-person visits. Our survey respondents reported that they expect a reduction in both of those areas because of travel restriction.”

But health and safety concerns will be more paramount than ever, and the pandemic has finally made it so that employers and HR departments can no longer shirk responsibility for health care concerns that arise for employees while traveling for work. Ensuring personal health and safety while traveling is most important to business travelers, with 65% placing it in their top three considerations. Top concerns about returning to business travel also include infecting their families and getting sick themselves.

“This conversation is sure to continue in public discourse, but based on these survey findings, it is clear that employees do place responsibility for their health and safety on their employer,” Koetting explains. “Businesses must consider and prioritize employees’ health, safety, and personal comfort levels as travel resumes. It’s the right thing to do, on top of having duty of care responsibilities to meet.”

Still, U.S. business travelers are most likely to hold themselves accountable to protect their health and safety when traveling (37%)—compared to the global average of 36%—followed by their employers (17%), travel agencies and management companies (14%), transportation providers (13%), and their government (10%).

Regardless, companies will need to establish new policies to protect employees’ health and safety at every stage of the business trip, and they should over-prepare to meet emerging expectations while also addressing less predictable travel conditions in the future. Among surveyed travel managers, 96% admitted their companies were not fully prepared to manage evolving travel demands during the outbreak. Small-business managers, in particular, said their companies were unprepared to provide any safety guidelines to employees traveling for work.

The biggest pain points included handling the volume of canceled reservations; processing the volume of refunds, receipts, and unused tickets; and determining if it is safe to travel in the absence of government guidelines.

And if companies do not adapt or respond to their employees’ health care needs, many of them intend to act—or even walk. Globally, nearly one in five employees plan to look for a new role—inside or outside the company—that does not require travel if measures aren’t implemented. In the U.S., nearly one in four plan to look for a new role that does not require travel if changes aren’t made.

“Safety is now more than just a responsibility for companies,” Koetting says. “It has become a requirement to retain staff and deliver a positive employee experience. People have to feel confident in their employer and comfortable with the support they’re receiving.”

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