Open for Business Podcast - Episode 3
aired on May 05, 2020

HR’s Elevated Role in Business Travel

Podcast illustration. Woman doing yoga.

The third episode of Open for Business -- HR’s Elevated Role in Business Travel -- explores the new responsibilities that HR and People teams have as organizations prepare to resume business travel. COVID-19 has shifted the workplace in many ways -- and highlighted the importance of culture in fortifying and supporting employees during unexpected interruptions.

As traveling employees return to the road and office, HR and people teams will play an even more important role in caring for their employees. They must continue to create a purposeful culture, provide support as employees shift from WFH schedules, and establish health and safety practices.

We sat down with Leslie Kurkjian Crowe, Chief People Officer at TripActions, to understand where and how HR and business travel now intersect more than ever moving forward.

In this episode of Open for Business: A Corporate T&E Podcast, we’ll discuss:

  • Maintaining culture + alignment while WFH
  • Navigating how + when to reopen offices
  • Factors to consider in restarting business travel
  • Supporting business travelers moving forward
  • Communicating + engaging with employees, without overwhelming them
  • Elevating health + well-being initiatives
  • Integrating purpose and mission into changes
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Leslie Kurkjian Crowe

There is a real role for HR in terms of guiding the company as to how they can take care of employees on the road and ensure that traveling employees feel communicated with and understand what precautions are being taken by the company as you reopen business travel.

Joining us on the podcast this week:
Leslie Kurkjian Crowe
Chief People Officer, TripActions

As Chief People Officer for TripActions, Leslie Kurkjian Crowe oversees the People, Human Resources and Talent teams at TripActions. Prior to TripActions, Leslie was the global Vice President of Talent at Mulesoft, scaling the company through a successful IPO and acquisition by Salesforce. Before MuleSoft, she was at Dropbox, responsible for attracting, developing, and retaining teams across functions. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from the University of Chicago.

HR’s Elevated Role in Business Travel
Podcast Transcript

Samantha Shankman: Joining us on the podcast this week is Leslie Kurkjian Crowe, Chief People Officer at TripActions. Thank you for joining us, Leslie.

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: Hi Samantha, thank you so much. I appreciate you having me.

Samantha Shankman: Let’s jump right now.

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: Wou have to acknowledge that there’s been a shift and you have to shift in order to meet your employees where they are, because you’re now in a totally different world now. It comes down to communication and there's a delicate balance that we’re trying to hit.

When we started working from home, there was a communication overload. We got really intense. Managers were having all these touchpoints and we had daily standups and all-hands and you’re doing all these things. Now that everyone has settled in a little bit, you can face information overload. While communication is really important, it’s also important to make sure that you’re constantly asking your employees for feedback and you’re pivoting based on what they’re saying.

We have a few different feedback channels at TripActions. This week we’re launching a pulse survey to our employees just to get a sense of where their heads are at and to make sure that we’re investing our time and energy in the things that are most impactful for them in this interim world. I don’t want to call it the new world. We’ll figure out what the new world looks like later.

You also made a comment about alignment, which I think is interesting. When you’re working from home, documentation and communication becomes so much more important because you’re not having those organic conversations. You’re not sitting around in a pod talking about the same things or overhearing what’s happening around you. To keep alignment you have to start thinking about how you’re documenting what’s going on around you, how your teammates are strategizing. As a leader of a team, you have to understand that your communication is going to look different and ask how we make sure that people sitting behind their commuters know what’s going on in the company or on their team. We haven’t done formalized goal setting, but at a time like this, maybe it would make a little more sense so people have clarity or understanding about what they’re working on and how it connects to the whole.

Samantha Shankman: One thing that I found really interesting was that with everyone working from home, I felt equally connected to all of the colleagues no matter if they are in San Francisco or Amsterdam or Sydney. It’s felt like we’re all together in this virtual office and it is an equalizer in some ways. I think that was only possible, because culture remains such an important factor.

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: That’s a really interesting point you make about it being an equalizer, because I think there are good things that can come out of this period of time. It’s obviously challenging for those companies that were used to operating in person. The fun part for my team is that we get to see what’s going on in each other's houses. It’s fun when someone’s dog runs in the room or a child comes in with their artwork. It brings such a human aspect to work that I don’t think we normally get to see in an office. There are plenty of perks and connection building experiences that happen during a period of time like this.

Samantha Shankman: Especially when we’re able to communicate openly and there is an effort for everyone to be available and also understand that we are at home and human. That being said, obviously, we miss our offices. We want to see each other again in person as do many of the companies around the world that are working from home right now. Something that we heard a lot about in our most recent office hours was that HR teams are really thinking through how and when they’re going to reopen offices. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: How we started here at TripActions was deciding on our operating principles. How are we actually going to make our decisions and how do we think about this?

The things that we decided on were (1) Following the experts. Making sure that we were listening to the CDC, WHO, and following scientific guidance and people who have more experience with viruses than we do instead of our own gut instinct or even what other companies are doing.

(2) To act locally. Right now we have a very global approach. All of our offices are shut down, which is probably similar to most other companies although I know that there are some reopening soon, which is exciting. How the virus affected the globe is very unique in terms of the circumstances and how it infects each of the different communities where we operate, so we’re really making sure that we understand the climate in each of the locations where we are operating so we can make decisions that make the most sense for each of those locations. When we think about office reopenings in particular, when is each of the offices in that region ready to open? It may not necessarily be the same exact date across the globe so recognizing that is important. (3) Last but not least and probably not surprisingly, is taking precautions so doing everything we can as we think about reopening offices. How are we going to make sure that the office environment is as safe as possible for employees when they come? We’re taking all the precautions to have the right amount of space between people, to make sure we have the right sanitation equipment and process, to make sure that the food is served safely. We won’t open until we feel confident that we have the right guidance across all of those three principles.

In the end, it’s also about deciding how you make those decisions. We have a health, safety, and security task force that is obviously very much focused on this right now. The task force includes workplace, HR, legal, and a set of people that are involved in understanding and preparing to reopen our offices. The group is also responsible for reviewing the right guidance and making sure that we’re making decisions to open our offices in the right way. You want to make sure that you have all the right stakeholders in play and involved to make a decision as serious as this.

Samantha Shankman: Absolutely, one of the great lessons that’s come out of this time is how dependent and integrated our companies are and how important it is that all of these different departments are working together when they’re making decisions. The departments are working together to make these decisions with everyone bringing their piece and element to that process.

Why we really want to talk about HR teams and People teams and what an important role they play is because they are really in communication with the employees and they’re both communicating with and listening to the employees to make these decisions -- or at least be able to communicate them in the right way. In that, we started to think through HR’s elevated role in business travel. Can you tell me more about how the relationship between HR teams and business travel and business travelers has changed?

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: Everyone on a HR team listening to this has a perspective whether it’s that they’re already a big part of business travel or maybe they have a very passive role previous to all of this happening. The reality is that there’s really no choice but to have the HR team take a much more active role when we think about business travel.

Obviously, travel was hugely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and because of that business travel is a bigger part of the employee experience. Business travel has always been part of the employee experience, but that doesn’t mean that HR was necessarily involved in every company. Now it’s going to be an even more important part of the employee experience. Making sure that we can keep employees safe and healthy on the road will be the forefront concern and thought for any business that’s thinking about reopening business travel. I don’t think there is an option to take a backseat at this point.

There is a real role for HR in terms of guiding the company on how to take care of employees on the road and make sure that employees feel communicated with and understand what precautions are being taken by the company as you’re starting to reopen travel. I think that there’s a lot of presumptions that employees make about each of the roles of each of the leaders or teams at the company. If the head of sales is saying, “Get back on the road,” it is because they want to meet their goal. The role of the head of HR is to take care of employees and really represent the employee interest. I think that voice is very powerful here. I think HR can really be a strategic voice for the other key stakeholders in understanding the employees’ perspective and making sure that as you start to get back on the road that employees feel supported and healthy and safe doing so.

Samantha Shankman: How do you account for the human element in deciding to reopen offices and business travel? How much weight do you put on your individual employees’ feelings or worries about these next steps and decisions.

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: Like anything else, there’s always a wide variety of opinions. No matter what company you’re at, there are people who want to move on and get back to reality. There are people on the other side of the spectrum who are very nervous and uncomfortable. Then there’s the people in the middle.

I don’t think there is an option not to take into account the feelings, thoughts, emotions, and worries of all of your employees. It doesn’t mean that you’re always making decisions that everyone loves, but it means that people understand that you’re taking their point of view into account and you’re doing your best to communicate with them and have their interests in mind. I think that there really is no choice at this point, because we all want to retain our employees and get through this. I’ve been hearing in the HR community that the companies who are taking a very employee-centric approach to this are getting so much good will from those employees. In a time of a crisis, whether it's your work life or personal life, you always remember the type of support that you get from your employer and the people around you. I think this example is no different. Because of that, the employers that are taking a really employee-centric approach to their communications and how they’re navigating the situation are getting a lot of good will and employees will likely be loyal to them for longer. It comes down to communication. Their feelings, emotions, and worries - This is a major health crisis so it's not like you’re going to brush aside employees’ feelings, emotions, and worries. It’s likely that even if all your employees aren’t communicating this with you that they feel this way. So, take it as a given that there will be lots of feelings, emotions, and worries. Then step back and ask how you can communicate with a group of people who feel uneasy.

One of the things that we’ve done recently is commit to Monday communication with everybody with our thoughts on what’s happening around the crisis and how we’re thinking about the potential reopening of our offices and how we’re trying to keep people safe. That communication will evolve over time. It’s a big step to commit and say, “You will hear something from us every Monday,” and it may just be a few musings or it might be major updates around what’s happening and government announcements in each of the areas that we’re operating. One of the things that we realized is there is a lot of anxiety so we want to bring our employees into the decision-making process and the things that we’re thinking about so that it doesn’t feel as dramatic when a decision does get made or we are starting to travel for work again.

I think we all have to recognize this is an incredibly emotional journey. We’ve been cooped up inside. We’ve been trained right now to think that going outside your house is bad and you have to wear all this protective gear and go outside the least amount of times as possible. That can do some really interesting things to your psychology as a human being. I think that recognizing whenever we get back to whatever version of normal there is -- whether it is reopening an office or getting on a plane for work -- there’s a mental shift involved.

As a HR professional, I would say the best thing you can do is ask yourself how you can guide people along during that shift, how can you get them to be part of the process and understand how things are unfolding so whenever that shift happens and you reopen that office, they don’t feel like it came out of nowhere. You’re helping people through the mental shift and it will take time when some of these things happen. The same way that it was weird for people to go from working in an office to working at home overnight, we’ll have to make several more of those mental shifts moving forward.

Samantha Shankman: This is so interesting, because we so often approach these topics from the perspective of a travel manager or a finance leader and the people element - especially in a time like this -- is just so important. So to really dive into these topics and hear your perspective and hear what the community is talking about really gives a lot to all of us listening. Listeners in a finance or logistics role can take even one lesson or insights and integrate it into their work.

Our first two podcasts talked about a return to business travel from the health and wellness perspective and also from a travel managers’ preparation perspective. How do you, your team, and the HR community talk about supporting business travelers as travel does resume over the next couple of months as our road warriors are getting on flights again? How are you prepared to support those travelers once they are traveling again?

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: I think the keyword there is prepare. There’s a discussion that’s coming up in the HR community around how we are preparing for all of the different things that can and should come out of this -- that we’ll have to get ready for at some point. I think it’s an overcorrection of that fact that no one could really prepare for this at all so now it’s about preparing for all the different scenarios that we can see moving forward. Preparation comes down to a few key factors.

We’ve talked a lot about communication, but I think it’s important to bring employees into the decision-making process around how you as a company will be deciding whether or not and when business travel can resume. It goes back to what we were saying earlier about how the virus, while having an impact globally, has a very different impact in each location. There are some places in the world that have a much better control on the spread of the virus than other places.

When you think about restarting business travel, it’s important for employees to know that they are safe. Bringing them into the decision-making process for how you’re actually thinking about opening up certain routes in the world where your employees travel. It’s also about sticking with some of the things that are already important and helping employees while they’re traveling. It’s about giving people flexibility to skip the red-eye or choose their own hotel, policies that are a little more employee-centric in terms of how we think about travel are probably even more important now. If the goal is to get employees back on the road and selling and building those connections across your offices, you have to create a sense of comfort for each of those employees and a sense that leadership has made strong decisions as a company on allowing them to start to travel and that we’re taking the right level of precautions.

Right now we’re drafting a guide on how to travel safely as more information comes out and there is more of that coming out as people are thinking about getting back on planes or trains. We’re creating the guide for our employees to help them start to think through all the different things that they’d want to do when they’re packing for a trip. It’s very much still in draft mode because we’re at the beginning of all this. We’re looking at how we can start to get the ball rolling on some of these initiatives to make sure once we do start traveling again, our employees feel really safe and looked after.

Samantha Shankman: I think it’s really interesting how you’re talking about how these guides will evolve over time as we have more information. There’s an interesting conversation that we were having on one of our earlier podcasts was around responsibility: the organization’s responsibility, the travel manager’s responsibility, and the individual business traveler’s responsibility as we’re moving forward. Who is going to be saying, “We’re willing to take the responsibility for this trip?” Everyone has a different opinion and, ultimately, it will be spread across those different stakeholders.

I want to bring this around to health and wellness. Obviously, safety is such an important aspect of this as well as making sure that business travelers have the right mindset when they head out on a trip and that they have the right tools and the time to take care of themselves. Is there anything you’re seeing from a HR perspective when it comes to empowering traveling employees to own their health and wellness as part of the equation in addition to what the organization can do?

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: Absolutely, especially in light of the times we’re in right now, there is a huge movement around mental and physical well-being. I think there were companies that only did the basics around that or maybe they didn’t have an employee well-being strategy at all. That has definitely shifted. Even companies where it wasn’t a huge part of their plan and strategy are shifting.

It’s also an environmental thing. There are employees that are home, possibly alone or in stressful environments or with their families, trying to work and live life together. It is very challenging and hard to feel connected to others and your work when you’re in that environment. So there’s a huge shift towards mental and physical well-being. I think where that comes in for your employees when they’re on the road is for everything from free services that are being offered now -- whether it’s meditation apps or even mental wellbeing apps -- to reminding employees of the services they have and can leverage. They want to have some advice or thoughts outside of their normal world. There’s much more of a push on that front.

I think the other way you can promote health and wellness on the road is in how you approach travel in general. It might be a good time to revisit how you think about your traveling employees, how you get them the most information so they can pick a place to spend the night where they feel the most comfortable or a hotel with the kind of gym they’d like to use.

There is definitely an opportunity, from a HR perspective, to give employees the most amount of information so they can have the most amount of control over their trip. It’s often challenging. I think the role of a travel manager or CFO can often feel like you’re putting these restrictions on how people think around travel. It’s obviously very important to make sure that a certain level of those restrictions are in place, but are there places where you can give people a little more flexibility in choice.

We live in a world right now where people do not feel like they have control so are there things that you can do within your company’s travel policy to make people feel like they can have more control over the experience of their trip and stay healthy and well while they’re on the road. Those are just a couple things to consider. Going back to the shift that we’re seeing, if you want to get employees back on the road, it’s going to come down to how comfortable you can make them as they start to have those experiences.

Samantha Shankman: This is really interesting. It sparks two questions for me. The first is around this idea of restarting business travel with the objective of making in-person connections and growing a company. Because there’s been a pause on business travel, there’s an opportunity to readjust our mindsets around it or approach it in a different way.

Have you put any thought into how you communicate the purpose behind business travel or how you can help reconnect traveling employees with the mission that they’re on when they do take a business trip? Any time we pause a habit, we are able to reintroduce it into our lives with a different energy or different perspective.

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: I really like that idea and I think that it is true. I think we’ll see it across all parts of our life even leaving your house to go to the gym. You might think, “Am I at the right gym? Do I even like this gym? Should I reevaluate my choices?” No matter what it is, you’re right and we are at this interesting point where we paused so we’re going to be restarting something. Business travel is one of those things.

The good news is that this will bring more intentional to business trips. People are seeing what’s happening now and recognizing that they’re missing something. It’s usually a connection. If you’re a salesperson, it might be the ability to close a deal in person. Even just taking a normal trip to another office to build a relationship with the team there and what that does to culture, comes down to that connection. That’s what everyone is missing here. And as much as it's been so wonderful to see the power of technology for companies that are able to have their employees work from home, the reality is that we’re all craving and missing is this in-person connection. There’s only so far that you can build those connections without being together.

I think the return to business travel will mean that CFO and travel managers will be very intentional about how they reopen travel and how they think about travel policies. Employees too will be really intentional and thoughtful about the trips that they’re taking and maximize those trips, really recognizing the value of the experience in a way that we all took for granted before.

I include myself in that. I unsurprisingly travel a fair amount for work given the fact that we have offices all around the globe. It became a normal way of operating for me. I knew what I did on my trips and I had a routine every time I showed up. I don’t think that I necessarily appreciated it at the end, because I had been doing it for so many years in my life. What I hope comes out of this is a new level of appreciation for the experience that you get when you’re on the road, which will likely lead employees to maximize those experiences more than they did before.

Samantha Shankman: Absolutely, it is so wonderfully said. I love those ideas of intention and appreciation as we do travel for work again. For the travel managers out there that are listening, that are working or hoping to work with their HR departments more closely or in a new way, is there anything that you’d whisper in their ears? Or a word of advice for these teams that are going to be working together more closely than they have in the past?

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: Absolutely, come find us early and often. The HR team can be a great thought partner for these kinds of things and I also think that we tend to have really good communication vehicles to connect with employees. As a travel manager, there is likely a lot of leverage that you can get out of the HR team in terms of really starting to socialize how we’re thinking about these things, make sure that we’re communicating early and often in a very cohesive way -- not only coming from one angle. We’re happy to be thought partners and can hopefully help create some leverage for you as you’re starting to think through how to get employees back on the road.

Samantha Shankman: Leslie, thank you so much for spending some time with us and sharing some insights. This is a really important perspective especially right now as we head into May and companies start to shift into a new way of operating again.

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe: Thank you so much, Samantha. This was lovely. Thank you for having me.


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