Wednesday 11 December 2019

Globalised firms not counting on a happy new year

Business travel

Clashes: Hong Kong protests
Clashes: Hong Kong protests

Mark Evans

Right now you're probably thinking of mince pies, buying in the booze and whom to avoid by the mistletoe at the Christmas party.

Within a few weeks it'll be the post-holidays gloom when the credit card bills come in and the magazines are stuffed with diet plans to regain the body which you'll inevitably lose this December.

Few of us are thinking about pandemics, natural disasters and worldwide social unrest - but the risk factors for 2020 have already been mapped out.

Global employee safekeeping organisation SOS International has assembled a team of business travel experts and sifted through the opinions of hundreds of other decision-makers to assess the risk factors in the year ahead.

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Risk is a sad fact of our globalised economy and it is vital for companies to keep on top of trends. This time last year, who among us would have foreseen popular revolts in the likes of Chile and Ecuador, the continuation of the yellow vest protests in Paris, and imagined the streets of an economic powerhouse like Hong Kong would be running with blood and tear gas fumes?

So what's in store for the new year? The number one issue identified is that risks borne from geopolitical shifts will be the "most important mobility challenge" for businesses.

Other trends include a growth in cybercrime and an increased realisation among businesses they need to be more proactive in protecting workers abroad. Ominously, infectious disease outbreaks will increase owing to factors including climate change, increased urbanisation, diminishing vaccination coverage and security instability.

Singapore-headquartered SOS International, which released the findings, has seen more awareness of the duty of care required of companies sending staff abroad. Half of the Fortune Global 500 companies, as well as governments and NGOs, as clients.

"Our goal is to drive awareness and prevention within our client base to educate them on the complex world which we inhabit. It's a case of providing intel and insights to allow companies to plan to keep their operations safe," James Bird, its security director for intelligence and operations told the Irish Independent.

With a CV straight out of a James Bond script, Bird has worked with companies and their employees in hot zones, including evacuations from Sudan, Libya and South Sudan, and worked with clients following the attempted Turkish coup of 2016 and after Cyclone Idai in east Africa this year.

The company is involved in educating companies about regions before staff embark on trips and uses local knowledge from its teams around the world, plus hi-tech "structured scanning" to keep abreast of changing situations, to issue alerts and, in a worst-case scenario, extricate those in danger.

"The last year was the highest on record for alerts published," Mr Bird said. "We have seen significant upticks this year in terms of client contact and there is definitely more interest."

But Mr Bird points out that it is difficult to pinpoint whether it was just a turbulent year, or there was more contact due to higher awareness among companies of their obligations in terms of employee safety.

Noticeably, there is a warning that SMEs, due to lack of resources, risk coming up short in this regard, while only just over a quarter of company travel policies have specific considerations for female travellers, and only one in three takes account of cyber-security issues.

So while companies - sending employees on ever-further journeys in search of new markets - are beginning to wake up to risks, the gaps in defined policies are worrying.

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