Recently, a friend was complaining about an upcoming business trip. Between meetings, and presentations, manning a trade show booth, and group dinners, she was already exhausted. It didn’t sound like her company gave staff much room for variation on a set schedule.
I suggested my favorite recipe for self-care on a business trip especially when I’ve been with clients, authors, and co-workers all day. “Sometimes you just have to stay in and order room service if they want you to bring the magic.” She replied “My company doesn’t pay for magic.”
Wow. What a stark truth from an employee. From her perspective, business travel was something the company did on the cheap. It was dreaded by staff with no per diems, limited expense reimbursement, and group meals (and maybe even shared rooms.) Meals outside of group endeavors were not reimbursed leaving a perfectly capable adult staffer to choose between that solitary, much-needed alone-time, room service burger and paying out of her own pocket. Sure, for the company, it keeps expenses down, but at what cost? As business owner, if you’re so worried about the costs of traveling staff to an event, is it worth it if they’re so irritated — and exhausted — that they can’t “bring the magic” of your product, your service or your company?
As an executive or budget manager, I’ve been there. I’ve had to carefully plan which conferences and shows staff can attend and carefully cost out an expense line item only to have finance tell me to cut it all by 10%. I’ve had to give staff ground rules for behavior while traveling or chat with an employee about overages in expenses outside the rules. I’ve had staff who’ve begged to attend training or a show in order to improve knowledge of their job, only to have to say “no” due to budget re-forecasts or cuts. I’ve even had to have hard conversations about who strategically is best to send to what event and why. With all of that, I never resorted to cramming 2 — or more — adult professionals into a hotel room or forced them eat at a crappy pasta restaurant every night (and worse, called it a “treat”.) Good organizations know that cheaping out on staff travel won’t help them increase revenue or retain employees. And staff certainly will remember that the company that couldn’t justify covering their room-service burger spends money on things no one wants like monthly pizza parties or other forced, all staff activities at home.
These misplaced priorities are an example of fixed, old-school thinking that too many organizations still utilize when it comes to employee travel. The old assumptions generally fall into a few areas:
1) That employees can’t be trusted away from home. (They can, especially with good managers to guide them.)
2) That employee travel on the cheap doesn’t affect morale and on-the-ground performance. (Ever tried to do an on-point, up-beat presentation after sharing a room with a co-worker who snores or was on the phone to their spouse all night?)
3) That who travels, why and to where has to be the same, always. (Why do things the same way every time? If it’s valuable, budget for it.) and, perhaps most importantly,
4) That all employees are the same and have the same job and needs when traveling. (Forget extroverts, introverts, and people with families, and everyone else.)
After her depressing declaration, my friend shared her company’s perspective on business travel. Their message to employees? You should be grateful for the opportunity. Look what we’re investing in you! You’re on our dime when you’re traveling. We own you, so don’t you forget — or complain. You might not get to go next time! (“Really? That’s all it takes to get out of this misery?” is what I’d be thinking.) Or, my favorite, “You should thank us, business travel is a perk.” Hahahahahah — oh, that’s so cute!
In the 1990s, I lived in San Francisco and worked for a technology company. As a Vice President of Programming, I traveled extensively, but as the junior member of the team. Fortunately, my senior colleagues modeled good business travel behavior teaching me business etiquette, how to maximize my time on the road scheduling, and how to set boundaries when we all needed to prepare for meetings, presentations, or just simply rest. I was young, and at first, couldn’t understand why people didn’t want to go out! The workday was over! Let’s explore a new city or have a a few drinks! But I learned the value of a night to stay in to work — or workout — or have a quiet dinner with a friend. I learned it was hard to be “on” for a presentation or for day-long meetings if I’d had no downtime the night before. I learned that it was more tiring to do my job — and do it well — if I wasn’t rested and didn’t feel prepared. Without a night on my own to recharge — which my company happily paid for — I wasn’t able to bring the magic. And bringing the magic was what I was paid for!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for that manager (you know the one) who insists on staying in a better hotel than everyone else. The one who you hear has private car service to the airport while you’re riding the airport bus. Sure, there are exceptions for top sales team and your deal-making execs who bring the money in. I’m also not advocating for an employee in the right position to ensure they’re using time wisely. Business dinners can build bridges with outside partners and make invaluable connections. I often can’t waste the opportunity when I travel. What I’m asking companies to think about what it takes for your regular staffers to bring the magic. What does it really cost? What impact does it have on your endeavor is if they don’t?
Employees don’t fit into one-size-fits-all molds. Not everyone has the same work habits or even office hours, so why should we expect them to all operate the same way on the road? Sure, you have hours they need to work and duties they need to perform at an event — that’s why they’re there! And they may well exceed an 8-hour work day. However, while it’s not expected to cater to every Myers-Briggs personality type, it is important for a manager to understand that staff who travel are people, too. They have families, and partners. They have homes and lives that don’t stop for a 3-day trade show junket. They may have been working since 6 a.m., taken meetings, presented, conducted roundtables and closed the booth at 7 p.m., so it it fair to require that if they want dinner, they have to go with everyone together to the cheap pasta place down the street?
It’s a hard mindset shift for some managers. They were abused on the road in early days, so younger people should have to endure it, too. They were denied trips they wanted to make in their early career, so feel others should have to earn it to. You are on our dime, so we get you — the entire time! It didn’t matter if they were extroverts who needed to wind down at the end of the day or introverts who needed to be alone to recharge. No one cared what it took for them to be successful.
Thankfully, times change, employees change, and managers and companies need to change with them. If you don’t, you’re going to have employees showing you hard truths. “My company doesn’t pay for magic.” Wow. I sure want to make sure mine does. I need that magic — and I hope it’s why I hired you. That magic is what sets my organization apart from others. That magic is a result of the respect I show employees and how they know they’re valued.
As a leader, you’re in charge of ensuring they bring the magic, regardless of who they are and how they work. And that’s why you reimburse them for their room-service burger.