Here’s how Columbia Sportswear is shifting their business travel policies for COVID-19

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As the world begins to reopen from COVID-19 closures, many employers are deciding when they should resume business as normal. A huge part of this: business travel.

Before the pandemic, business travel was a daily part of the work routine for many employees. Flying to and from a client’s city to settle a deal, checking in on operations in another state, or going to conventions were all everyday trips that created the need for air travel, rental cars and hotel rooms.

Read more: How the coronavirus pandemic is shaping the future of work

For employees at Columbia Sportswear, corporate travel was a large part of their daily operations, according to Jerry Underwood, Columbia’s global travel manager.

“[Columbia is located] in Portland, Oregon, and it was not uncommon to need to engage with colleagues in Northern California,” Underwood says. “So we would jump on an airplane and bounce down there, do a day trip, and come back. Now, like most organizations, many of those engagements are occurring virtually.”

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the travel industry. According to the International Air Transport Association, business travel will likely not rebound to 2019 levels until 2024. Airline companies like Delta, United and American have laid off thousands of employees, and are continuing to warn more employees about possible furloughs and layoffs. With air travel halted, rental car businesses and hotel chains have also suffered.

But now, travel is slowly on the rebound. So what does this mean for business travel policies?

Honore Hishamunda, an employment lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw, says that though firms face a multitude of challenges when it comes to resuming business travel, keeping track of state and city restrictions is top of mind.

“The practical considerations of what you have to do from jurisdiction to jurisdiction is probably the top [consideration] that we're seeing,” Hishamunda says. “That's as a result of companies that operate throughout different states, and then even throughout different cities or counties within a state.”

Travel restrictions vary. Some states are completely open, while others like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have created travel advisories, requiring travelers from a running list of 36 states to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Further complicating matters, some cities have restrictions that differ from the state mandate.

These unique restrictions can be a headache for firms, Hishamunda says.

“If you are a small employer and you've got operations in two different cities that happen to be having two different [restrictions], it can be confusing about what you can and can't do, and what you need to tell your operations folks and your safety folks,” Hishamunda says. “What we're seeing is firms tracking these on a weekly basis, and making sure that they’re tailoring that advice to the specific location.”

At Columbia, the policies are shifting as the health outlook shifts, Underwood says. The company is currently allowing only absolutely essential travel, and it must be approved by firm leadership. Previously, an employees’ direct manager could approve travel.

In the event travel is approved, the company is looking at state and regional restrictions, following guidelines from the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and their travel management partners to make decisions.

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Hishamunda says that, traditionally, most firms have let business decisions drive business processes. But going forward, he anticipates that business processes will begin to drive business decisions instead.

“People will start taking a closer look at whether business travel is really necessary, and what kind of goals you're trying to achieve,” Hishamunda says. “On the other end, it also has highlighted how necessary business travel really is. The key thing is having that process be interactive with your employees, and seeing whether there are benefits to remote [work].”

As employers continue to weigh those benefits with their workers’ safety, they will need to keep a close eye on the constant shifts and changes to restrictions and policies.

“The way our program looks today is different than it looked three months ago, and it will probably look different three months from now than it does today,” Underwood says. “As the situation evolves, as [coronavirus] caseloads continue to change in various localities, regions and countries, it's going to be so important that we stay on top of that, that we are continuously creating resources for our employees, and that we are implementing policies to accommodate those changes.”

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