Okay, it doesn’t necessarily need to be your travel policy, but I think it’s particularly useful for this exercise.
Allow me to explain.
Culture has lots of different definitions. Feel free to Google them if you’re a completist. For me, I look at culture as how work gets done in an organization. That encompasses a lot of stuff, and many tend to think solely of the people component – attitudes, values, behaviors, etc. Those are all part of it, so I’m glad people consider it! Some also think about culture in terms of reward and recognition, employee perks, stuff like that. Also part of it, so keep that on the list!
The piece that is often missed, though, is process and policy. You know, the nuts and bolts of how you enable (or disable) work to be done within your organization. We forget this part of our culture because it’s in the background. Shit gets done regardless, and we fail to think about the mechanisms that we put in place unless legislation forces us to take a look at it. But it’s having one hell of an impact on your corporate culture whether you realize it or not.
In the FABULOUS book Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnus Nutter, Witch, Crowley (“An Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”) ruminates on some of his greatest accomplishments of demony on Earth. He’s frustrated by the old school demons who think one soul at a time. Crowley puts in place entire systems that ratchet up stress just enough for a person to take it out on another person who would then take it out on another…well, you get the idea. Traffic jams from a poorly designed highway is one example. The resulting negative psychic energy from poorly designed systems poisons the world and primes it for the appearance of the AntiChrist.
Which brings us to the travel policy.
If you could design the optimal travel policy, what would it look like? Let’s assume that you have to cap spending and all that fun stuff. Good chance that you might say, “Okay, you can get a flight that works for you and your family – as long as it’s not unnecessarily pricey (e.g., first class all the time). And go ahead and book it on the airline’s web site and use your corporate card so it’s not too complicated. Pick a hotel that comfortable, safe, and near the facility where your visiting. You know, don’t stay at the Ritz, but you don’t need to hit the Motel 6. Oh, and for your food and transportation? Here’s a per diem. You spend that as you see fit.” Doesn’t that sound lovely?
I sort of doubt you’d create one with overly complicated rules about which flights you can book, or require you to use a centralized travel site that doesn’t work 40% of the time, or make arbitrary cutoff points about how long a flight has to be in order to pay for early seating or business class. You wouldn’t set a spend limit on each meal ($10 breakfast, $10 lunch, $20 dinner), or require use of public transportation. You certainly wouldn’t limit the amount of tip someone was allowed to leave for a waitress. And surely you wouldn’t then force your employees to spend hours entering receipts into an overly complicated and antiquated computer system.
Now, if reading the previous paragraph made your blood boil or scoff in disbelief, imagine working under that sort of policy. Because that is a real thing. This policy exists in the world today. (I won’t say where. BUT YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.)
No matter how much you talk about the value of people, or how much you want your culture to be one of trust, or how much you want to be an employer of choice, a policy like the one above undermines all of it. It tells your employees that saving a little money is WAY more important than your employees’ time. Or that you don’t trust them to spend money like it’s their own.
It’s hurting your culture because sometimes, employees want to spend $25 at breakfast and then eat a protein bar for lunch. Or sometimes, they just want to take the 2 hour earlier flight to see their kid after a long trip. Or they want to stay an extra night in the hotel because they want to be able to visit their internal customers without feeling like they have to sneak in a key meeting. They don’t want to feel like their work is overly burdensome.
Before you get all, “But, Mary…” on me, yes, I know you need to have some controls in place – not just to ensure good spending practices, but for risk management compliance. I’m not saying you get rid of everything. Just get rid of the stuff you don’t need. (And you don’t need a lot of it.)
So if you’ve got “culture” in any form on you list of organizational initiatives this year, don’t forget to look at your travel policy. In fact, look at all your policies. And your systems. And your workflows.
You may be surprised at how much impact you can have on that always elusive “culture improvement.”