Follow the money: Employee expense data details pandemic outings, office overhauls and business travel uptick

Companies are using a number of covid-friendly team outings like mini-golf, amusement parks and even ax-throwing, according to TripActions. But what'll happen as temperatures drop?

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The onset of COVID-19 transformed business operations virtually overnight, and while some semblance of normalcy has since returned in recent months, the standard workday remains anything but business as usual. Last week, TripActions published findings highlighting quarterly expenditure trends related to company outings, business travel, remote work expenditures and office remodeling efforts. According to the data, organizations are investing in some office overhauls and COVID-friendly company outings are in, but what could team off-sites look like in the colder months amid the delta variant?

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Business travel on the uptick

During the coronavirus pandemic, virtual collaboration a la Zoom has largely replaced in-person business travel for many companies. The TripActions findings, based on the data from the company's online payment and expense tracking solution system, TripActions Liquid, illustrate an uptick in business travel. In the second quarter, airfare spending ranked as the fifth-largest expense category, jumping nine spots quarter over quarter. In order, accommodations, car rental agencies, restaurant and gas stations were the top four expense categories in both the first and second quarters.

"There is pent up demand for travel, particularly from sales departments, which make up the plurality share of recent bookings on TripActions (as in pre-pandemic times)," said Michael Sindicich, general manager at TripActions Liquid. "Software, business services and some manufacturing are among the top industries to return."

After travel booking plateaued in August, Sindicich said September travel bookings have surged; increasing 57% in the last three weeks.

"The U.S.-origin flight cancellation rate for the month of August was 15.06% but has since dropped to 9%," he said. "Delta variant fears aren't the only cause for cancellations, however. Multiple factors play a part in cancellations, such as weather and airline staffing."

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Over the last year, many people tinkered with hobbies and crafts amid lockdowns and social distancing recommendations. An April LendingTree report found reading, baking/cooking and gardening were some of the popular pandemic hobbies. According to TripActions findings, traditional on-trip expenses also transformed during the coronavirus pandemic. Sindicich made note of an "increase in unusual, hobby-based expenses being approved" in March, including "sewing and gardening supplies as well as dry goods," citing previous TripActions Liquid expense data.

"More than a year later, we're seeing fewer miscellaneous expenses — or expenses employees' didn't know how to categorize," he said.

New office renovations?

In recent months, a number of companies started bringing employees back to the traditional office, but the delta variant has complicated these return to work timelines. A portion of TripActions' findings focus on "office improvements and cosmetic upgrades," with "electrical parts/equipment" surging 742% in the second quarter; other top expenses included electronic repair stores, furniture and welding repair. So, are companies restarting the office reentry plans or investing in these upgrades ahead of office reentry down the road?

"While it's unclear in the data as to when a given company's employees will return to the office, what we do know is that employers are trying to ensure they're ready for when they do," Sindicich said. "These changes may also reflect a change to a hybrid work model as they look to support a transient workforce."

Although workplace reentry may be on hold in the interim, the TripActions Liquid data pulls back the curtain a bit on the types of office upgrades and potential onsite investments. In general, Sindicich said the data indicates "larger projects" are underway citing an increased transaction size of hardware store purchases, adding that such upgrades could include expanded office floor plans or "creating more divided areas for video conferencing."

Home office expenditure trends

During the switch to remote work, employees were left to design functional home workspaces with varying degrees of success. As these temporary workspaces became at least near-term solutions, some companies provided stipends to help employees festoon their home workspaces. A portion of the TripActions report highlights evolving company home office expenditures. Overall, telecommunication services, telecommunication equipment and home furnishings all saw marked decreases in the second quarter.

"Miscellaneous expenses decreased in Q2, as have smaller, one-off transactions for furniture — which could reflect personal office equipment rather than a corporate purchase," Sindicich said.

The data seems to show "office furniture purchases that appear larger in cost," Sindicich explained, and this indicates companies are "purchasing new furnishings rather than continuing to cover WFH equipment, which most employees purchased last year."

Team outings make a COVID-19 "comeback"

In the past, companies have used employee outings as team-building opportunities. Amid a modern plague and social distancing guidelines, companies took a creative approach to outdoor activities, based on TripActions' findings.

In the second quarter, recreational service spending, which the post says includes miniature golf and table tennis, increased 107% and spending on movie theaters and "drinking places" increased 89% and 75%, respectively. Amusement park spending increased 1,178% in the second quarter, a figure that Sindicich said made sense seeing as "the vast majority of parks remained closed" in the first quarter.

"It's clear that employees were craving in-person, activity-based facetime," Sindicich said. "Mini-golf seems to be a top team bonding activity, with group bike rentals and axe-throwing also of note."

Additionally, Sindicich said sporting event tickets, an expenditure he described as a "common corporate purchase pre-pandemic," decreased in the first quarter but started to make a "comeback" in the second quarter "as more fields and stadiums reopen." Gains and comebacks aside, these expenditures could change in the months ahead. As temperatures drop, Sindicich anticipates snow sports or indoor activities will replace activities such as golf, "with proof of vaccination requirements and on-site testing.

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By R. Dallon Adams

R. Dallon Adams is a journalist originally from Louisville, Kentucky. His previous work includes a wide spectrum of beats and formats ranging from tech-savvy urban planning initiatives to hands-on gadget reviews.