Return to Work Calls for Adjustments to Travel and Expense

Laura Houldsworth, who is SAP Concur’s senior vice president and general manager for Asia Pacific Japan (APJ) and Greater China, shares with Business Today Malaysia her views on how finance managers have had to adjust travel and expense policies – both at the beginning of work from home mandates and now as employees progressively return to the office. With changes that have been made and additional adjustments that may be required, it’s even more important to ensure control of travel and expenses and compliance to policies.

The last few months have been an exercise in adaptability for businesses in Malaysia and throughout the Asia Pacific region. With the sudden mandate to work from home, company processes that were ingrained in employees’ day-to-day routines were either put on hold or turned upside down. The new office normal now includes virtual meetings, conversing through instant messaging instead of in the hallway, and the redefining of “business casual” attire.

Many of the processes that have undergone changes fall into the category of travel and expense. With most business travel on hold and the nature of expenses changing, finance managers have had to adjust policies and practices to accommodate the new world of work. Examples of travel and expense related changes that were made at the beginning of work from home mandates include:

· A slowdown in international business travel and its associated expenses.

· Temporarily ending expensed meals for business lunches, dinners, or in-office meetings.

· Increase in office expenses like monitors and chairs as employees furnish their home offices.

· New expenses to consider like Internet and mobile phone bills for employees who must work from home.

Now, as companies begin thinking about return to work plans, finance managers are discovering it’s not simply business as usual again. New policies and processes need to be put in place to accommodate travel restrictions and changes in expenses. While finance managers need to stay flexible as the business environment continues to evolve, spend control and compliance should still be a high priority.

Here are a few questions that can help finance managers prepare for return to work while keeping control and compliance top of mind:

· What will travel look like for the company? Finance managers must work with travel and HR counterparts to determine the need for employee travel, if at all, and how to keep employees safe. A recent SAP Concur business traveller study found that 91% of APAC business travellers feel concerned about resuming travel. They are especially worried getting sick themselves (55%) or infecting their family (51%). Hence, clear guidelines should be developed, even if they are temporary or evolving, so it’s clear who can travel, when they can travel, and how they can travel. Duty of care plans should also be re-evaluated and businesses should ensure they know at all times where employees are traveling for business and how they can communicate with them in the event of an emergency.

Organisations that are not proactively protecting employee well-being on business trips could risk consequences – 51% of APAC business travellers told the same study they would ask to limit travel if their company does not implement the measures they want. About 14% would look for a position that does not require travel – including 5% who would consider a position at a different company.

· Who needs to approve travel and expenses? While it may be temporary, businesses may have to implement a more stringent approval policy for travel and other expenses. Due to health concerns related to travel and the need to conserve cash flow, business leaders like CFOs may want to have final approval over all travel and expenses until the situation stabilizes. To help ensure new approval processes don’t cause delays and inefficiencies, finance managers should implement an automated solution that streamlines the process and allows business leaders to review and approve travel requests, expenses, and invoices right from their phones.

· What types of expenses are within policy? Prior to social distancing, employees may have been allowed to take clients out for entertainment. In-person team meetings held during the lunch hour may have included expensed lunches. As employees return to work, finance managers need to determine if these activities and expenses will be allowed again. Clear guidelines must be put in place and expense policies need to be updated to reflect any changes.

· What happens to home office items that were purchased? While new office equipment may have been purchased for employees’ home offices, they remain the business’s property and what to do with them as employees return to work needs to be determined. Perhaps employees will continue to work from home a few days a week and need to keep the equipment to ensure productivity. However, if a full return to work is expected, finance managers have options that can maximize their asset investment and possibly save the company money, like replacing old office equipment with the new purchases, reselling to a used office furniture company, or donating to a non-profit. Such considerations will become increasingly relevant, with a recent SAP Concur finance study revealing that 71% of employees in APAC want their organisations to subsidise or fully pay for the expenses needed to create a productive home working environment. Employer provision of IT peripherals is widely expected.

· How can cost control be ensured? For many businesses, cash flow will be tight for the foreseeable future. Spend needs to be proactively governed and managed to help ensure recovery and stability. An important aspect of controlling costs is having full visibility of expenses throughout the company. Some organisations have experienced the pressing need to deal with paper invoices that are continuing to be mailed to their largely empty offices. Invoice digitisation and automation will let firms take control of the accounts payable process. With control and real time visibility into their liabilities, they can accurately forecast their cash positions and make better business decisions.

Implementing an automated spend management solution that integrates expense and invoice management brings together a business’s spend, simplifying finance managers’ work and giving them a better understanding of where they can save, where to renegotiate, and where to redirect budgets based on plans and priorities.

Once finance managers have asked themselves the questions above and determined how they want to approach travel and expense procedures, it’s vital they create guidelines and communicate clearly to employees. Compliance can only be ensured if employees have a clear understanding of what has and has not changed with travel and expense policies, and what’s expected as they return to work.

Note: Laura Houldsworth is SAP Concur’s senior vice president and general manager for Asia Pacific Japan (APJ) and Greater China.

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