Have You Been Grounded? IT Companies Struggle with Travel Cutbacks5:06 PM EST Thu. Sep. 20, 2001
For many IT executives, business trips are a major part of their jobs, having to fly to different cities around the globe on an almost weekly basis to keep contacts fresh and business flowing. But things may be changing--at least for the time being.
A number of computer vendors and other IT firms are revisiting corporate travel policies in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
For many companies the safety of employees forced to travel on airplanes has become a top priority. Many are telling employees not to fly unless they absolutely have to. Others are looking at alternative ways to conduct meetings, including video conferences, to lessen the need to travel.
Sun Microsystems had curbed its business travel before the terrorist attacks ever took place, as part of an effort to cut costs because of the economic slowdown. That said, the company is allowing employees to fly at their own discretion.
"Employees are being encouraged to take trips as they are deemed necessary. And it is their discretion," says spokeswoman Samantha Moulton. "The message is, 'Use common sense to minimize the cost of travel.'"
Sun's top-level executives, meanwhile, are continuing to travel. For instance, Mark Canepa, executive vice president of storage products, is going ahead with a scheduled business trip to Europe next week.
"We are trying to be sensitive to people's feelings about travel but we also are trying not to let this overtake us," says Moulton. "They are traveling as needed."
Similarly, EMC spokeswoman Ann Pace says the company has not instituted a specific policy in response to last week's events but is leaving decisions up to the specific employees and their managers. Separately, the company has scaled back on traveling for cost-cutting measures.
Hewlett-Packard has restricted travel to "customer critical business," according to an internal company memo. "Travel is authorized only when it is needed to meet the needs of customers," the memo says, but any such travel will be limited within geographic regions to limit the number of employees stranded by future flight stoppages.
It's not just vendors that are curbing employee's time in the air. Executives at distributor Ingram Micro added a number of new guidelines to their existing travel policies, said a spokeswoman.
The first one is that all travel has to be approved by senior execs of the company. "That isn't too different than before, but really it's so that everybody is aware of who's traveling where," says the spokeswoman. Second, all travel has to be booked through the company's internal travel department. While that has been the case for most of Ingram employees already, now all associates will use the service as well. That will also help execs keep track of employees on the road. Third, all employees who travel must carry cell phones and make sure those numbers are registered with the corporate travel department.
In addition, the company is reportedly looking into alternative ways to conduct meetings, like teleconferences, video conferences.
"Knowing that in our industry face to face meetings are very important and so not to say that will preclude us from doing those face to face meetings, we're just looking at all the ways that meetings can be conducted," says the spokeswoman.
Competitor Tech Data is taking a similar tact. The distributor put a ban on all corporate travel immediately after the events in New York and Washington, D.C., focusing solely on finding ways to get all of its employees back home in the days that followed. In the following week, the company allowed only "essential travel," and employees weren't allowed to take intercontinental flights.
"This week central travel on every continent should continue and travel between continents should be critical travel--business that can't be deferred or delayed or handled with a video conference," says Ben Godwin, vice president of real estate and corporate services. "Everyone will make greater use of conference calls and video conferences."
Other companies, including Microsoft and IBM, refuse to discuss employee travel policies.
"While we are all stunned by the tragic events of Sept. 11, we share the view of President Bush and other leaders that it is important for the economic activity of this nation and the world to move forward wherever possible and appropriate in as normal a fashion as possible," said a public relations contact for the company in an e-mail to VARBusiness.
While an IBM spokesman told VARBusiness the company could not give out information on the travel policies concerning its employees, one executive who spoke to VARBusiness this week says employees have been getting messages from chairman and CEO Lou Gerstner himself, telling them to use their own judgment.
"Lou's done a nice job of sending us notes, basically saying that people should use their own discretion. Nobody's going to force anybody to travel if they don't want to," says the executive.
The executive said that despite the recent events, he still plans to fly to Europe in the next few weeks for business.
"Personally, I'll probably be a bit more apprehensive, but it won't stop me from traveling," says the exec. "[But] it's definitely changed some of our opinions in the safety of air travel."