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T&E | The Role of Habit in Expense Culture

by Uri Kogan June 21, 2021

Business travel is a series of habits

In his bestselling book, “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg explains how humans have evolved habits to save energy and perform common tasks efficiently. Habits rely on a three-part sequence: first, a cue; second, a routine; and third, the reward. While traveling for business, this could be the alarm that wakes you up in the morning, the Lyft you order to get to the airport, and the wake-up latte you sip once you’ve made it through security and are on time for your flight. 

When you traveled pre-pandemic, things felt easy, because you had formed a lot of habits that could be repeatable. The go-bag you packed, the car you took, the coffee you drank, and even the favorite hotel you stayed in while away. And crucially, after long stretches traveling on company business, you memorized what kinds of expenses were acceptable and which would be frowned upon, so you never had to pull out and review your policy in order to make a purchase. These decisions and actions had become automatic, built over months and years of practice, which meant you could focus on getting business done and enjoying the city. But habits, while tough to form, are even harder to break, as any smoker or cookie-jar-lover will tell you.

Today, things are different, and you may find you’re questioning everything. How long will it take to get through airport security? Is the lounge or coffee shop you enjoyed still in operation? Is the hotel you preferred still in policy? What about the new, post-COVID-19 fees? Is the 8 a.m. flight you used to prefer still available on the airline where you have status? Do you even still have status?! Almost every time you pull out your wallet, you have to think a little bit more than you did before.

And if you’re leading the finance team setting the policies that guide these decisions, you have an even greater challenge ahead of you. Your best bet is to meet it head on.

A rare and valuable opportunity for finance leaders

For finance leaders, this is a rare and very valuable opportunity to change the culture of business expenses in your company. Your employees aren’t locked into habits of mind. Many of them might even be new to the business and will soon be traveling for the first time on your company dime. Old habits have been broken, and new ones are about to be created. Are you going to help shape those new habits to fit the expense culture you want to build? Or are you going to let old habits creep back? Certainly, you don’t want poor ones to form.

How to proactively form good expense habits — T&E

Hopefully you’ll agree that taking a proactive approach to expense culture is the right way to bring T&E back. Here are three suggestions for doing it the right way:

  1. Make sure to communicate with all employees so they know what the company expects.

    People should be very open to hearing from you and your team these days, as they probably have questions about travel in a not-quite-post-pandemic world. What is safe? Has the list of approved hotels changed? What are the protocols they need to follow when visiting customer or company sites?

    These dialogs are a great time to pepper in suggestions or advice on the kind of expense culture your company expects.
  2. Remind employees and managers that expenses are valuable ways to get business done, but they should also be thoughtful and judicious with their spending habits.

    Before the pandemic, business travel was a reflex for many companies. Customer meeting? Go ahead. Quarterly team offsite? Let’s do it. Distributed team planning week? See you there.

    After over a year of nearly-impossible travel circumstances, it’s easy to jump at the opportunity to get “back to normal.” But “normal” wasn’t just expensive, it was also disruptive to individuals’ personal lives. We also have to take into account that many of us have built new habits for the COVID-19 era, like remote or hybrid schooling for our kids, that make returning to a regular cadence of travel really challenging, at least in the short run. So it’s worth thinking about what travel is necessary, what travel is valuable, and what travel is just a hair-trigger reaction based on how we did things in the past. The time to think about it is NOW, before old habits return and reassert their hold on us.
  3. Put tools in place to identify early signs of cultural drift and address them before bad habits form.

    For people managers and travel approvers, the norm in the past was to rubber-stamp expense reports. After all, who has the time to spend reviewing every line? But for some employees at some companies, that led to a culture where policies weren’t that meaningful, and even sometimes put companies at risk for embarrassment or fraud.

    Are there ways to give managers visibility, not just to individual line items but to trends which could help highlight particular behavior patterns that should be addressed before new norms are established? (Hint: Yes, there are.)

In his book, Duhigg also talks about how organizations can use a crisis as an alarm bell to break the cycle of bad habits and create change.

Finance leaders have recognized the recent pattern of shifting habits and uncertainty. Many of our customers have told us they have transformed their processes more in the last year than in the previous five because of the necessity that the pandemic created.

So don’t waste this opportunity. As the crisis wanes in the US, and soon in Europe and elsewhere (it can’t end soon enough, we’ll all agree), your chance to effect change and instill new habits is also waning. Now is the perfect time to build better expense habits for your organization.

Not sure how? Contact us today.

Uri Kogan

Vice President of Product Marketing