Anyone who has recently booked a plane ticket or hotel room knows that the demand for and cost of travel skyrocketed after many COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. Combine this with the rise in remote work, and you have the perfect motivation for employees to merge their business and leisure trips, which is sometimes referred to as “bleisure” travel. Now is the time to weigh the pros and cons of allowing employees to combine work and play and consider creating a clear policy on what type of travel is permissible on company time.
Defining the Latest Trends
Perhaps your employees are tacking on a few vacation days at the end of a work conference in Orlando. Maybe they’re working remotely for a week from Puerto Rico and learning to surf in their off time. But what if they’re secretly sampling the digital nomad life in Portugal while you think they’re working from home in Denver? Employers should recognize the following popular travel trends that are expected to continue through 2023:
Bleisure travel. The portmanteau may be new, but the concept has been around for a long time. This term is used when an employee takes a scheduled business trip and either brings friends and family along for the ride or extends the trip for some personal time off. Generally, the employer covers the airfare, as well as the accommodations for the workdays, and the employee covers any added costs.
Workcation. This buzzword has been popping up more since many employees shifted to remote or hybrid work. Rather than adding some paid time off to a business trip, employees who take a workcation continue doing their remote jobs from an ideal location that they explore in their free time.
Hush trip. Here’s where the waters get a bit murky. A hush trip is just like a workcation, except the employee doesn’t tell their employer that they’re traveling at all. The worker might be trying out the digital nomad life for a week or two abroad or escaping a cold winter at home for some sunshine, but generally it’s temporary, and an employee who takes a hush trip isn’t necessarily traveling abroad full time.
Weighing the Burdens and Benefits
When updating workplace travel policies, employers should start by considering their message and how such travel options may or may not fit into their company culture.
Such policies could also have a positive impact on retention efforts. Employees may be more motivated to stay with a company that extends this trust and gives them accountability to manage their work and free time. Additionally, these policies can ease the burden on employees who want to visit family members who live far away.
Identifying Legal Risks
Employers will need to work through a host of potential compliance issues, including the following:
- Health and safety. Whether an employee is working from a main worksite, a home office or somewhere else entirely, employers still have a duty to ensure a safe and healthy work environment.
- Wage and hour issues. Will both exempt and nonexempt employees be allowed to combine work and vacation? Blending business and leisure travel is more complicated for nonexempt employees, and you’ll have to carefully review the applicable wage and hour laws and set clear parameters for such employees.
- Payroll and tax compliance. Employers need to consider the tax implications when employees work from another state or a foreign country. While a brief business trip with a few vacation days tacked on the end might not raise any red flags, longer workcations or hush trips might create some issues.
- Data security. Will employees be working from airports and train stations? Will they access public WiFi? Will they be sharing accommodations with fellow travelers? Employers should ensure employees know how to protect their company-issued equipment and confidential information from theft, cyber-attacks and viruses.
- Liability insurance. Does your business liability insurance cover foreign travel? You’ll need to review your coverage and ensure your travel policy aligns with it.
- Written policies. To ensure consistency, you’ll want to develop a written travel policy and clearly communicate it with employees. You may want employees to sign an agreement before their travel begins.
What Policy Fits Your Workplace Culture?
Perhaps you’re comfortable with bleisure travel and will allow employees to add vacation days on an existing trip, but you’re not comfortable with a workcation that blurs the lines between work and play. Maybe you fully support such travel and want to encourage or sponsor a workcation. Be clear in your policy and consider the following additional questions:
- Will you allow foreign travel or only domestic?
- Will you limit the time zones for travel?
- Will you establish clear working hours to separate company time and leisure time?
- Will there be consequences for taking a hush trip? How will you respond if you discover an employee is working from somewhere other than their designated location?
- Who will cover the cost of travel? For example, will you cover all expenses for a bleisure trip or ask employees to track and pay for expenses incurred on their leisure time? Will employees be required to pay the difference in airfare if their extended return date results in a higher fare?
- Have you set clear performance expectations? How will you measure productivity? What actions will you take if employees aren’t meeting their goals?
- Have you defined eligibility requirements? For example, are exempt and nonexempt employees eligible to travel? Must certain performance goals be reached prior to eligibility?
- Are your policies fair and applied consistently? Be clear about your reasons for denying a travel request and ensure you are not unintentionally discriminating against employees based on a protected characteristic, such as gender, race, disability or age.
- Do you have a process for addressing emergencies, illnesses, and injuries?
- Will you limit the amount of time employees can spend per trip or each year on bleisure travel or workcations?
Workcations, bleisure travel, and hush trips are gaining popularity as employees adjust to new workplace norms and remote work arrangements. Whether or not you allow, support or encourage such travel, it’s a good idea to set clear expectations for employees and work through the potential issues with experienced legal counsel.
Courtney Leyes is an attorney in Fisher Phillips’ Memphis, Nashville, and Gulfport offices. Emily Litzinger is an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Louisville, Ky. Lisa Nagele-Piazza, SHRM-SCP, is legal content counsel for Fisher Phillips in Atlanta. © 2023. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.