Effective Risk Management at the Heart of Safe Travel
– By Angus Darroch-Warren, BA (Hons) MSc PSP RISC CSyP FSyI, Group Director The Linx International Group
In January 2021, the UK Government commissioned the research company Ipsos Mori, to survey UK company decision-makers, to understand the impact of Covid-19 on companies and their domestic, non-commuting business trips.
Perhaps obviously and unsurprisingly, there was a considerable reduction in the number of people travelling for business generally. Where business trips were made, use of private vehicles and hire cars saw a jump, while trains and domestic flights recorded significant drops in use. This was due to the restrictions in place as each country sought to mitigate the Covid threat and national position with regards to lockdowns.
But in some ways more interesting was the section of the report that related to ‘projected demand’ for business travel once Covid restrictions were completely lifted. In a nutshell, the surveyed respondents expect the number of employees travelling for business purposes to return to a level comparative to, or just below, pre-Covid levels.
“Cutting travel budgets and keeping employees either at home or in the local office is a pragmatic approach to cost optimisation that allowed many companies to survive the pandemic.”
The poll also looked at the use of virtual meetings, with roughly half of respondents stating they felt virtual or blended meetings were adequate replacements for face-to-face meetings. However, this is tempered by the confirmation of how important face to face interaction remains to business development and relationship building. Given the fact that virtual cannot entirely replace ‘human’ interaction, it is unsurprising that companies are considering how to return to travel and in-person meetings.
As border restrictions begin to lift and Covid infections are slowly reducing, it will be interesting to see whether domestic and international travel opportunities are embraced and taken up by employees. Obviously, there are those who, throughout the pandemic, wanted to travel and did so at the earliest opportunity – resuming travelling as soon as domestic and international restrictions allowed it. Others ‘seamlessly’ transitioned to video conferencing services as their organisations cut travel budgets, relying on virtual visits to premises and clients. Cutting travel budgets and keeping employees either at home or in the local office is a pragmatic approach to cost optimisation that allowed many companies to survive the pandemic. There are also those who have seen the benefits of working from home and have minimal desire to leave the Covid-free environs of their own home. Work-life balance is most definitely a core consideration.
Without another strain to compete with Delta and Omicron, many businesses are expecting to reach the levels of travel seen in pre-Covid times by Q4 2022; whether this will be achieved remains to be seen. Conferences and exhibitions are already moving from ‘virtual only’ to ‘hybrid’ versions – utilising technology to enable delegates to interact both online and in-person, and ‘fully normal’ iterations are already taking place. Indeed ‘normal’ (for the UK) seems to be ever nearer as restrictions on working from home, the requirement for Covid passports and the mandatory wearing of face coverings are being dispensed with.
As mentioned above, there will be a hardcore group who want, indeed need, to travel both domestically and internationally, while there will be others who will (even with reduced Covid transmissions, vaccinations, and boosters), be reticent to step onboard a train or aircraft.
“How do businesses manage risk and decision-making around those who choose not to be vaccinated or cannot be vaccinated, without infringing on personal liberties?”
Public perception of what is ‘safe behaviour’, as we move out of the controlled existence of the last couple of years, will colour the interpretation of what is acceptable to business travellers. Behavioural norms have changed dramatically – for example, hand sanitising, mask-wearing, and having to carry proof of vaccination status were unheard of prior to the pandemic. These changing behaviours present challenges and considerations when planning and managing the security provision of the organisation. How do businesses manage risk and decision-making around those who choose not to be vaccinated or cannot be vaccinated, without infringing on personal liberties such as privacy, whilst meeting health, safety and other compliance imperatives?
However, as I write I am conscious that there are some who view these types of checks as a novel attack on their personal liberties. This is despite the fact that systems to manage the control of infectious diseases have existed for many decades – for example, the ‘Carte Jaune’ that shows the holder’s vaccination against Yellow Fever, without which one cannot enter certain countries.
In the UK, disclosing vaccination status is a legal requirement in the health and social care sectors. Requiring disclosure outside of these roles is at the cognisance of the company – there must be a justifiable reason for doing so. From the privacy perspective, essential business travel requires disclosure of vaccine status to ensure that all conditions are met prior to departure and on return to the home country. How the personal data is handled in line with GDPR will require, if not already done so, a review and potentialtightening of processes.
So, what does this mean for international travel and those risk professionals with a remit for ensuring the health, safety and welfare of their organisation’s key assets, its people?
Having a robust and flexible travel policy is key. Adapting working processes will have an impact in terms of additional management time, as will the practical costs of Covid testing, upgrades to airplane seats, improved hotel accommodation and potential time away from the business on return. Most companies have re-defined ‘essential travel’ and tightened approval processes for travel, revised policies considering the priority of safety over the need to make cost savings.
While the company must have in place the necessary frameworks to ensure the employee is safe, the onus also rests upon the traveller to take heed of, and comply with, the requirements of the travel safety policy. The traveller must take reasonable care in their behaviour to ensure they do not expose themselves to undue risks and comply with relevant national legislation in their destination.
“Companies should review travel policies, applying clear parameters that allow travellers to personalise their travel”
Recent research in relation to business travel and corporate travel indicates that there will be an expectation that corporate travel will be more flexible. Flexibility may extend from the option to choose the airline they travel with, the accommodation selected and other transportation – based on hygiene factors and individual needs. Where previously indirect flights were used as a means of reducing costs, the traveller requirement to minimise waits (and potential infections) at transport hubs by using direct flights may move towards the norm. Travellers now expect there to be some leeway in choosing the rating of the hotel or seats in premium locations on aircraft. This will evidently come at additional cost to the organisation and require scrutiny of budgets to ensure that the necessary financial returns are achieved, even with the higher travel costs.
To manage these expectations, companies should review travel policies, applying clear parameters that allow travellers to personalise their travel: including flexibility in purchasing to avoid potential infections.
Communication is an essential part of the planning process – ensuring that affected personnel have the right information, before, during and after their travel. It may be that they are not comfortable with travelling and require the reassurance that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure their health and welfare. For example, the employee may not be aware of the low probability of catching an illness on board an aircraft due to the filters used to recycle air throughout the cabin. Additional information and instructions on how to take precautions specific to parts of their travel (taxis, aircraft, trains etc.) may also allay fears.
Planning the trip requires scrutiny of locations to be visited and a dynamic assessment of the changing risk associated with each. As countries seek to manage their response to the pandemic, border closures, isolation times and entry requirements can change overnight. Up to date information is required for the traveller and potential options explored in the event they are left stranded due to changes in restrictions. It is essential that the traveller understands the protocol of what to do if they do encounter disruption to their journey and have on hand the contact details of who to turn to when needed. The disruption will potentially stress the traveller, so preparedness will be key in managing rapidly evolving situations effectively.
The difficulty lies with the speed that restrictions are changed or updated, and the scope of the restrictions themselves. Examples include France, where most Covid restrictions will be lifted in February, albeit their vaccine pass (pass sanitaire) will require people to have a certificate of vaccination to enter public places such as long-distant trains, cinemas, cafés and restaurants. China has a ‘zero-covid’ policy and Beijing has introduced strict measures that require all residents to be tested in outbreak areas, with travel out of affected areas prohibited (these measures come only a few days before the Winter Olympic Games).
“The company needs to document the risks and provide proportionate mitigation measures – it may be that travel packs with essential PPE (masks, hand sanitiser and wipes) are appropriate.”
Hygiene and health conditions in the destination will be essential considerations in whether to travel or not. For organisations operating in areas with heightened risk profiles, it is not uncommon for security audits and surveys to be conducted to ensure proportionate physical security measures are in place to mitigate the risks from terrorism and criminality. Part of the selection process for accommodation should consider the hygiene of the premises generally, common areas and rooms.
The company needs to document the risks and provide proportionate mitigation measures – it may be that travel packs with essential PPE (masks, hand sanitiser and wipes) are appropriate. Information on how to minimise potential for infection when in the hotel, at a meeting or in a restaurant should be provided as part of any briefing pack.
All considerations fall squarely within the general duty of care that organisations have to their personnel. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to take reasonable steps to reduce workplace risks. Ensuring the health, safety and welfare of travellers will require focus on educating the traveller to the potential risks of travel, the current situation (vis Covid) in their destination location and the precautions they should take to mitigate the risk of infection.
“The choices are to avoid the risk, reduce it, or accept it.”
Effective risk management is at the heart of safe travel. As with all risk management considerations, the choices are to avoid the risk, reduce it, or accept it. With such a fast rate of change within the parameters of travel, decisions can only be responsibly made based on the most current information possible and then communicated effectively to all involved stakeholders.
Whichever risk treatment pathway you walk down, the approach must be documented in such a way as to satisfy scrutiny in the event of an incident and more importantly will serve to assure the traveller(s) that appropriate and considered effort has gone into their safety and well-being in preparation for their trip.