Can You Tell Employees How to Spend Their Plane Ride?

By Jessica Sillers

This year, Australian airline Qantas pushed limits by testing a 19-hour, nonstop flight from New York to Sydney. As part of the research, the crew on “Project Sunrise” guided passengers through a strict schedule to minimize the crushing effects of round-the-world jet lag.

Flights like Project Sunrise won’t be commercially available for at least a few years. In the meantime, this ultra long-haul flight raises some interesting questions about how much you can—or should—direct how business travelers spend their time on a flight.

Catch Me Up on Project Sunrise

Qantas’ 19-hour research flight used lighting, meals, and more to encourage the 40 passengers aboard to get on Sydney time as quickly as possible. They offered light, spicy food during “awake” stretches and a carb-rich meal before dimming the lights. Unlike most long-haul flights, they kept the lights bright for more than 6 hours after takeoff to help passengers stay awake. The crew even led a 2 a.m. Macarena dance party in the aisles!

Why go to the trouble? A 16-hour time change means brutal jet lag. Researchers want to test whether an ultra-long flight is physically and mentally feasible for travelers.

When your employees travel, you want them to be at their best to represent the company at meetings, conferences, and events. Can you take a page from Project Sunrise’s playbook and manage how business travelers use flight time?

Can You Manage Employees on a Plane?

Depending on whether employees are classified as exempt or nonexempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA), and the timing of the flight, your employee may be “on the clock” for all or part of their flying time. If you’re paying a business traveler anyway, can you require them to use the flight to get work done, rather than zone out in front of the in-flight movie?

You’re unlikely to end up in legal hot water for asking a business traveler to log a few hours on a project while they’re airborne. Before you draft up a to-do list, though, consider these possible complicating factors:

Nonexempt Employees

The first is nonexempt employees. If nonexempt travelers fly outside their usual working hours, their flight time isn’t billable. Requiring them to work some of those hours puts them back on the clock, and you might be looking at paying time-and-a-half for overtime.

Productivity

The other issue is productivity. For many of us, saying, “I’ll finish that work on the plane” is like saying, “I’ll start that new exercise routine on Monday.” That is, chances are it’s the last thing we’ll feel like doing.

Unreliable WiFi

Finally, relying on airplane WiFi not to drop at the worst moment is always a risk.

If a business trip coincides with crunch time on a project (it happens to the best of us), it may make sense to ask travelers to check in during a layover and keep up-to-date on their projects as much as they’re able. Double-check your overtime pay obligations first, and plan on reduced productivity to create realistic expectations.

Can “Sleep Well” Be an Order?

Imagine you’re sending a few employees to represent the company at an important meeting, or deliver a speech at an industry event. The only wrinkle is, they’ll have to go straight from the airport into work mode. Can you insist they power down during the flight so they’re at their sharpest when it’s time to impress?

On Project Sunrise, the passengers agreed to participate in a set of activities to reduce the impact of jet lag. Your business travelers haven’t agreed to be under the same level of scrutiny. Even a well-intended suggestion to rest up can come across as an unwanted overstep. After all, you trust these employees enough to represent the company.

If you’re concerned that an employee is yawning through a meeting in the destination time zone, you’re better off addressing the issue directly. Encourage your employee to book earlier travel so they have buffer time built in after landing. A travel management system that offers the most competitive flight and lodging rates can make it easier to stay on budget, while also choosing flights that give travelers enough time to check in and freshen up (not to mention handle unexpected delays).

Now, if employees are new to business travel and come seeking ideas to adapt to a road warrior routine, you’ve got much more room to offer advice. A few starter suggestions include:

Arriving at a far-off destination feeling refreshed is any business traveler’s ideal scenario. Experiments like Project Sunrise offer an interesting perspective on the measures that work best to stave off jet lag. As a manager, though, your best bet is to communicate work preparedness expectations, but leave the rest up to employees you trust to travel responsibly.

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