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Use Business Travel To Drive Success Through Internal Engagement

Using business travel to drive success through internal engagement

5 min
Posted: 18 March 2024
Coworkers Talking In Office

Traditionally, companies have prioritized business travel around top-line growth. But the evolving needs of a hybrid workforce demand a new perspective. Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, in association with American Express Global Business Travel, conducted a survey with 425 respondents involved in their organization’s internal traveler programs to find out how they were using business travel to drive success through internal engagement.[1]

The survey examined:

  • Why recent shifts in the hybrid workforce model have increased the need for connection.
  • How companies can benefit from business travel to improve collaboration, employee engagement, and relationships, while strengthening company culture.
  • What the key drivers of a successful business travel program are, and examples of what they look like.
  • How companies can use their travel policy to achieve momentum towards larger business objectives.

The insights uncovered in the survey show that travel is not just a cost to be contained, but an investment in an organization’s employees and its culture. In fact, 88% of respondents say that in-person interactions like meetings, workshops, and offsites are critical for positive long-term relationships between employees and coworkers.

Reshaping how the workforce works

That need for in-person interaction is even greater in today’s environment. Respondents say that during the pandemic, collaboration, employee engagement, and company culture suffered. But just because widespread travel restrictions are over, doesn’t mean we’ve gone back to business as usual.

Remote and hybrid workforce models are here to stay. With only 7% of those surveyed saying their organization’s workplace is completely in-office today, most companies are having to adapt how they run their business.

Many companies are retooling their physical spaces for a hybrid workforce, reducing their office footprints and updating their spaces to better support remote workers. Offices are becoming more like hubs for a fluid mix of personnel rather than the bedrock on which company culture is built. Within this new context, business travel becomes the connective tissue of what are otherwise disassociated parts.

How successful organizations are using business travel to strengthen internal structure

With the dissolution of the old model, where meetings and one-on-ones and water cooler conversations happened on a daily basis, organizations need to be more intentional about when, where, and why they bring people together.

Survey respondents acknowledge this need, with 71% agreeing that a primarily remote work model can make employees feel disconnected from the office and company culture. Yet, according to survey results, companies have been slow to adopt a new mindset that strategically prioritizes in-person connection.

Survey results support the value of investing in that sort of internal travel:

  • 71% of respondents say their organizations realize tangible business value from trips to meet with coworkers and other employees in person.
  • 74% say meeting face-to-face develops stronger relationships between employees and teams.
  • 88% say in-person interactions (meetings, offsites, workshops) are critical for ensuring positive long-term relationships between employees and co-workers.
  • 83% agree that they’ve gained greater awareness and empathy towards coworkers and customers because of business travel.
  • And 60% say in-person internal meetings make for greater collaboration.

Success starts at the top

Survey respondents were also clear that for a managed travel program to succeed at driving internal engagement, support has to come from the top down. Eighty-two percent say support by executive leadership is very important.

At Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), travel to internal leadership summits is an important element of developing the company strategy and culture. Adam Goldberg, global head of travel and meetings, says, “It sets an example from the top down of the importance of getting teams together in person to better focus, collaborate, and set a course for our success as an organization.”

Members of top management at Ohio-based STERIS agree that strategy sessions, product launches, intensive training, and certain celebrations are worth traveling for. “Getting together in real life energizes and invigorates. While cost for business travel is watched, our leaders do a good job of driving face-to-face meetings where necessary,” says Karoline Medancic, Director of Meeting, Travel, and Customer Events. “Executive leadership support is a key component to the success of the program, which includes funding, strategy alignment, and adaptability.”

Evolving travel policy to meet today’s needs

Updating corporate travel policy to support shifting company agendas is another key to success. Eighty percent of respondents agreed that aligning with the organization’s overall business strategy is very important to a travel program.

Sustainability and employee well-being are two other high priority objectives for many companies, and their travel policies are evolving to reflect them. But organizations need to be willing to walk their talk. While 78% of survey respondents say that being adequately funded is very important for a travel program to best support an organization’s success, only 33% say their companies largely possess that trait.

This disparity must be reckoned with, because in organizations that have more full-time and part-time team members working remotely, achieving the benefits highlighted in the report is likely to require more business travel, not less. Whereas cost savings used to be the primary focus for managed travel, in today's era of more deliberate travel, companies need to balance considerations of cost, traveler well-being, and sustainability to make informed decisions.

Partnering with an expert TMC can boost success

Most survey respondents say they have a formal, centrally managed travel policy (89%) and 61% report using a single travel management company (TMC) across the enterprise. Indeed, enterprise oversight of travel and working with a single TMC can offer significant benefits.

BMS also leans heavily into its TMC as a partner. The travel function meets with its TMC regularly to assess performance, perform root cause analysis, and improve the travel program over time, which is more important than ever in today’s fluid business landscape. “The environment has changed so dramatically that we can’t assume that the way we set up services before is the right way to be operating now,” says Goldberg.

For instance, BMS is investing in a TMC agent onsite to handle travel disruptions for some of its more prominent meetings. “Knowing there’s enough risk in the system that cancellations and changes are likely to occur, we’ve found that it’s a best practice that we are thoughtful about employing.”

Yes, travel is a significant expense. But well-managed travel for intentional internal purposes can also be a smart investment that yields stronger relationships among employees, greater collaboration, increased employee engagement, a more unified culture, and increased feelings of inclusion. “Many things can be done remotely,” says Medancic. “But relationships and collaboration are better built in person.”

If you’re looking to get your travel program up to speed with today’s business needs and drive growth internally, don’t miss the insights in this report.

Download the full report for details.

[1] Harvard Business Review Analytic Services is an independent commercial research unit within Harvard Business Review Group, conducting research and comparative analysis on important management challenges and emerging business opportunities. The May 2023 survey is based on 425 business respondents familiar with their company’s business travel.

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