SMEs need to navigate changing working patterns to attract the best talent
Aneen Brynard, Human Resources Director, Global SME at American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT)
Business travel and meetings can support company culture
The challenges of managing a business in a world adjusting to changing working patterns are well documented. Finding that delicate balance between offering flexibility and fostering innovation and productivity is arguably even more of a challenge for SMEs – establishing a successful workplace culture is crucial as the business grows.
There’s a dynamic tension in some organisations, between employees who value the flexibility of working from home – or anywhere with wifi – and their employers, who want them back in the workplace.
It’s a confusing picture: one day you’ll read in the media about a famous brand mandating its staff back to the office, the next day a story about another group of employees winning the right to flexible working. So it’s hard to discern where the workplace future lies.
Of course there is no ‘one size fits all’ scenario. Every company has different needs and circumstances, but I think for many organisations there is a balance to be found in hybrid working, meeting employees in the middle: allowing the flexibility of working from home to manage work life-balance and reduce commuting times, along with the benefit of collaboration and face-to-face connections in the workplace. Recent research found a majority of HR leaders saying that hybrid work leads to a happier, more loyal workforce, and that it can be used as an effective recruitment tool.
As a travel management company, one significant area where Amex GBT is seeing change within organisations of all sizes, is to the role of business travel. As more companies adopt digital processes and hybrid and remote working, business travel becomes a key lever for bringing people together. New patterns of working are also blurring the boundaries between commuting and business travel.
These changes are driving businesses to rethink how colleagues meet and interact, and how this affects workplace culture. Amex GBT recently commissioned a report from Harvard Business Review, which found that business travel is becoming a strategic channel to drive tangible business value. More than 400 senior business executives were surveyed for the report, in which interesting findings included:
- 88% of respondents said in-person interactions are critical for ensuring positive, long-term relationships between coworkers.
- 81% agreed that in-person interactions foster greater levels of innovation – with 7 in 10 saying in-person meetings are the best way to facilitate brainstorming.
The increasing value placed on colleagues and teams meeting face to face is also reflected in the findings of Amex GBT’s latest annual Global Meetings & Events Forecast for 2024. When companies batten down the financial hatches, it’s often expected that internal meetings will get cut back, to focus spend on sales and customer-facing meetings. Yet in this report, the meetings professionals surveyed expect the internal meetings category will see the strongest growth in 2024.
At Amex GBT, we’ve seen compelling evidence of the value of business travel and face-to-face to SMEs – smaller companies were first out of the gate when pandemic restrictions were lifted, leading the return to travel – and this trend continues today. Moreover, of our strong growth in SME customers, around 30% of this comes from SMEs who previously did not manage their business travel.
Why is this happening? A range of factors are at play here.
Companies of all sizes became more profoundly aware of the value and importance of travelling and meeting when the lockdowns took this ability away. Plus there’s now increased recognition of the need to connect dispersed and remotely working colleagues, to support team cohesion, innovation, company culture, more equitable opportunities for employees and a range of other benefits.
And then, putting a spotlight on this area of activity reveals what a significant area of spend it is for some companies. That highlights the need for effective control of this spend – via transparency, reporting and analytics, effective policies and compliance. If you’re spending a significant amount on travel, you want to be sure it’s a good investment that’s delivering value. Therefore you need to manage that spend.
But just as finance bosses may be scrutinising travel and meetings, there are also strong reasons for HR leaders to be focused on this area. Where finance are looking at cost control and savings, HR is looking primarily at value.
Talent attraction and retention is a major challenge for all organisations, and SMEs are competing with the scope, benefits and opportunities offered by large companies.
So the employer value proposition is highly important when it comes to recruitment. Travel and meetings play a central role in creating a company culture that fosters strong team cohesion, interaction and collaboration, and opportunities for personal and career development.
Then there’s the employee experience to consider. When colleagues need to travel for work, what do the policies and processes for that look like? What is the user experience for booking, approvals and expenses? Do colleagues feel, safe, supported and in touch when on the road – particularly when, as often happens, travel is disrupted by delays, cancellations, missed connections?
The more you look into it, the more there is to unpack. When you examine your company culture from duty-of-care and DE&I (diversity, equity and inclusion) perspectives, more questions arise. Think about LGBTQ+ employees travelling to certain destinations, or colleagues with disabilities having equal opportunities for personal and career development. Today’s employees – and customers and partners – want to work for and with companies that are responsible, inclusive, sustainable.
So it becomes clear why HR leaders want to drive travel and meetings strategies – in short, how their people connect – that help build a strong workplace culture and a competitive employer value proposition.