How should companies be planning?

Cecilia Nysing

It seems that, finally, the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is in sight—at least in some parts of the world. In 2020, total global business travel expenses contracted by 52 percent, while managed corporate-travel spending in the United States plummeted 71 percent, or $94 billion. Last year, when we reported on the impact of COVID-19 on corporate travel, we projected that the road to recovery would be a long and uneven one.

Much has changed since then, thanks largely to progress on the vaccination front. Even though there’s much debate surrounding the timing of herd immunity in the United States, it’s indisputable that vaccination rates are on the rise across the country. At the time of writing, more than 40 percent of the US population has been fully vaccinated, with more than 50 percent having received at least one dose. Companies are starting to bring employees back to offices. Corporate executives are planning in-person meetings and gatherings with customers and colleagues.

In light of new developments, to what extent will videoconferencing replace business trips? How should corporations prepare for the next phase of business travel? While our insights from last year still hold, we’ve sharpened our understanding of how business leaders could be thinking about the postpandemic role of corporate travel. In this article, we identify four categories of business travelers—the “never left,” the “never returning,” the “fear of missing out” (FOMO), and the “wait and see” segments—and provide recommendations for how key players in the corporate-travel ecosystem can make effective plans in this context.

What’s changed: Increased vaccination is expanding flexible work arrangements

The most significant change shaping our thinking about the return of corporate travel is the rising vaccination rates in the United States and Europe. We project that the United States and the United Kingdom will slowly transition toward normalcy in mid-2021, with the rest of the European Union following shortly after (Exhibit 1).

Notwithstanding the risks presented by new virus strains and limited visibility into the duration of vaccine immunity, rising vaccination rates are ameliorating some of the travel anxiety. Many organizations are now proactively figuring out the future of work—which includes the role of business travel.

For many companies, COVID-19 has proven that more workplace flexibility is possible. Around 70 percent of executives said their companies will employ more temporary workers than before the pandemic, and 72 percent of executives report that their companies have started to adopt permanent remote-working arrangements for a subset of their employees. Nearly 40 percent of the workforce in the United States has the potential to work from anywhere. These signals and others suggest that many organizations are reevaluating working and organizational arrangements, including when, why, and how their employees should hit the road.

There’s no consensus, however, among business leaders about what to do with this newfound flexibility, and many organizations have not yet clearly communicated a vision for postpandemic work: around 30 percent of executives in a recent survey say they have not heard about specific plans for corporate travel after the pandemic, while another 28 percent described their companies’ plans as vague.


About McKinsey & Company

McKinsey & Company is a global management consulting firm. We are the trusted advisor to the world’s leading businesses, governments, and institutions. We work with leading organizations across the private, public and social sectors. Our scale, scope, and knowledge allow us to address problems that no one else can. We have deep functional and industry expertise as well as breadth of geographical reach. We are passionate about taking on immense challenges that matter to our clients and, often, to the world. We work with our clients as we do with our colleagues. We build their capabilities and leadership skills at every level and every opportunity. We do this to help build internal support, get to real issues, and reach practical recommendations. We bring out the capabilities of clients to fully participate in the process and lead the ongoing work.

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