Is your conference policy equitable?


In the Drupal world, I've been on the conference circuit for a long, long time. I've been to multiple camps and Drupalcon's around the US and around the world since 2014. Prior to that, I traveled for business, providing on-site consulting and training on highly technical and complex products. Over the last decade, I've come to some conclusions about business travel. Not only what works and what to avoid, but what's fair.

Every company I've traveled for had a different set of policies, expectations, and rules. Some of this is expected -- traveling as a consultant is different than giving a talk at a conference -- but there's an astounding lack of consistency between companies. In the Drupal world, there's much less on-site work and a lot more conference attendance. Since the travel is seen (from the company's perspective) as supplementary to tangential to its business, many web agencies have nebulous travel policies to a complete lack of one.

So, let's talk equitable travel policies for conference attendance.

No policy = Avenue for abuse

The first and most important thing I can say, both to employees and employers is you need a travel policy. Even if your company only sends one person a year to a conference, you need a travel policy. The primary reason is that if the rules of the situation are undefined, they are rife for abuse. An employee will not know the limitations and expense ranges if your entire policy is "be reasonable and humble". On the other hand, you cannot create a policy that is so restrictive and detailed it requires a three-ring binder to convey it in physical form.

For employees, having no travel policy should be considered an immediate red flag. Often, I've found that nebulous rules result in me making compromises that sacrifice my unpaid time or even my safety for the sake of keeping expenses low. This affects Under-Represented Minorities (URMs) more than their white, cis-male counterparts. Women, people of color, gender and sexual minorities make less money in the US. If the company has a higher restriction on travel costs, this will affect URM employees more, and create a selection effect by which URM employees will not want to represent the company abroad due to the higher personal expenses. Furthermore, there's an inherent unequal power dynamic between the company and the employee (particularly in the US). Lacking a clear policy allows an implicit threat of unemployment or denial of advancement to be the policy. This happens a lot more than people think it does, many of those same companies have severance policies that require your contractually enforced silence.

You need a travel policy. It's needs to be clear, but it also needs to be flexible.

Conference attendance is never an award

Some web agencies have historically treated attending a tech conference as an "award". This is by far, the most cynical and damaging attitude a company can have toward conferences. Under this mindset, the company "giving away" free travel and expenses for no gain whatsoever. There's just one catch: You need to wear the company T-shirt at all times while at the conference, and participate in staffing the company booth. At first blush, it sounds like a small ask for such a large gain, but it colors the entire way both the employer and employees approach conference attendance.

Approaching a tech conference solely as a marketing opportunity is a waste. Developers are more than just billboards with legs. We're people. If all a company wants out of a conference is to have their logo shown in the keynote, that can be accomplished easily with a sponsorship alone. Today it's more and more difficult to get people in the same room as remote connectivity is so pervasive and many countries are tightening their boarders maliciously. There's a lot that can be done while a large group of people are in the same physical area that makes it special.

First in my mind is that conference attendance is an opportunity for professional development. Employees can use this time to focus on gaining new skills, learning about new technologies, or questioning existing practices through exposure to other experiences. This is a net win for both the employee and the employer, as it can reap long term benefits, such as opening new business opportunities or improving existing ones. If you want employees to be focused on that, they need to be paid as if they are on the clock. Because they are on the clock.

Companies should also see their employees submitting talks as an opportunity for leadership. It's easy to get your logo in the keynote, but what you want is that keynote to be about your company's work. That takes much more effort, but it makes a deeper and lasting impact. Potential clients will see it as a reason to contract you for future projects, especially if those projects are complex. A client may see a talk by one of your employees, and become a cheerleader for you when vendors need to be decided. Furthermore, future clients may be more flexible as trust as been pre-established through conference representation. This leadership also attracts potential employees, saving you effort in locating potential candidates.

If, as a company, you only want your logo shown and the company name mentioned, do yourself and everyone a favor: Don't go. Buy a sponsorship instead. It's cheaper for you, and fairer for your employees.

Talk topics and talk creation

Once we see conference attendance as more than just marketing, we can start striving for leadership. It's actually rare in Drupal circles for a keynote to be only about a particular company's work. Keynotes are more often used for bigger issues which help to set the tone for the entire conference. As such, a company should set it's eyes toward what it can do within regular talks or trainings.

While this can be driven from the top-down, I often feel this can be forced and result in less than interesting talks. My preference is for employees to put forward talk ideas themselves. This can be done at the beginning of the year when travel budgets are fresh, or in the months leading up to particular conference for which the company wants representation. Months, not weeks. Why months? The creation of a talk takes time, lots of it:

  • For a 45-60 minute talk, expect 40 to 60 hours of development time.
  • For a keynote of the same length, expect 80-120 hours.

Really. Good talks take time, but good talks are also an investment. A good talk can be given more often at more venues over a longer period of time than one that took a day to produce and is full of glitchy, live demo rambling. As such, the cost of developing a talk should always fall on the sponsor of the speaker's attendance. If you or me wants to attend a conference irrespective of company support, that's our decision and should be on our own time and budget. As speakers, however, we should refrain from giving our employer's free advertising. If we're talking about something we worked on outside of work hours, it is our work. That being said, life often have shades of gray. Sometimes, you may find you're passionate about something you did at or beyond work to attend on your own time. That's okay! Just keep in mind this also is subject to the selection effect I mentioned earlier.

A bitter lesson I've learned is that if work is sponsoring your attendance, your talk should be about work. The best talks I've given have ben related to internal work I've done at a company, rather than anything specific to a client. These topics are some of the best for companies to sponsor, as they show the company in the light of leadership. Talk topics sponsored by your workplace should always be approved beforehand. Some companies are particularly secretive, and prefer not to expose what they may consider trade secrets at a tech conference. This is easier at a company with an existing open source commitment, as internal work would already be developed "in the open". Always, always, always seek approval for client case studies and any work that is client specific. This often requires company will to convince the client to be open about their project; a developer alone should not shoulder this burden.

Travel, lodging, expenses

So far, I've talked about a lot about preparing for and approving conference attendance. I haven't discussed much of any details about travel, lodging, and expenses in practical terms. While these are important, I often feel they are details after the fact. All of the above sets the tone and spirit and acts as a justification for the practical expenses which follow. Many of the below are personal guidelines that have served me very, very well over the last 15 years.

Favor direct flights, avoid connections

This is my more prime rule for traveling any long distance. Direct flights are more costly than indirect ones which multiple connections, but they have key advantages:

  • The minimize travel time for the employee
  • They are more robust to disruption, delays
  • They are more easily transferred to other flights

Direct flights essentially front-load the potential cost for difficult or disrupted travel. If a direct flight is delayed, the traveler doesn't need to worry that much, they're already where they need to be and will just arrive later. Multiple connections have an impact, and are more exhausting than direct flights, so minimizing them means I'm more productive, and sooner when I return from the event.

Avoid trip aggregators

Trip aggregators like Hipmunk or Kayak are great tools for getting a ballpark figure for a flight's expense, but for the love of the Universe, never buy through them. Trip aggregators often buy leftover seats from multiple airlines. This makes the trip more "brittle", and it's much more subject to disruption. Often, one airline will assume you're at fault for missing a connection if another airline delayed your arrival. This adds expense, stress, and recovery time. Worse, due to how the flights are purchased from the airline, you may not be entitled to transfers to another flight on the same airline if yours is canceled. The supposed money they save is simply not worth it.

Avoid sharing hotel rooms

Some companies will mandate employees to share a hotel room for an event. Sometimes this is necessary, but these should be the exception, rather than the rule. Why?

Employees. Are. Not. Family.

Yes, we work together, we may even share an office together, but requiring employees to share personal, off-the-clock space with each other is both unethical and costly. People need a break from being "at work", and I consider conference attendance to be "at work". I need time to disconnect and recover from my day. Without this, I take longer to recover from an event, costing productivity. It's also potentially dangerous and a vector for assault. Sharing hotel rooms can be particularly difficult for gender or sexual minorities as they may be the only such person on your team.

Stick with major hotel chains, not hostels or room-rentals

Employees should be encouraged to stay at major hotel chains, a positive reputation, and near the event. Hostels and room-rental services such as AirBNB should never be the encouraged company standard. AirBNBs in particular are less subject to discrimination protection and code adherence. Many rooms-for-rent also have concealed surveillance equipment, and often used against URMs maliciously. Major hotel chains are subject to more legal requirements, protecting employee and employer alike.

Nevertheless, employees should also be empowered to make their own choices about which lodging to stay at within cost. People will have difference preferences and needs from their lodging which can be highly personal and private. The expected cost of a hotel room is also highly contextual. A reservation made months ahead of time will likely be less than one for a elite-tier room made at the last minute.

Your points are yours, my points are mine

Whomever handles the immediate burden of expense -- even if reimbursed later -- owns the points. I have been fortunate that this hasn't happened to me, but I've had friends who've had this happen to them. A company mandated that any points acquired for business trips were company property, even if the card used was a personal card. This made scheduling travel even more brittle and stressful for employees. In the end, this likely did not save the company any money, but made the non-monetary costs of travel are the more burdensome for the employee. This kind of micromanaging engenders ill will, and ends up treating employees more like property than partners.

Company credit cards are best

My best travel experiences are when the trip is funded by a company credit card. There's no need to worry about who's points are who's, reimbursing, and sometimes, ever detailed receipts. Having an employee use a company card shows you trust the employee, and in return, many will also choose to be practical with their travel, lodging, and expenses. Often, this trust is actually more administratively effective than trying to use a reimbursement process. This also neatly manages several other things:

  • Travel points can be baked into the company card plan.
  • Travel insurance can be included transparently.
  • Car rental insurance often can be included transparently.
  • Even a lost receipt isn't "lost", just the itemized expenses.

Company cards are also much better for URMs who have additional financial hardships. It eliminates concerns about spending limits are predatory interest rates that could effect a business trip. Having a company card allows me to clearly separate expenses between work and my private life.

But most importantly it shows one thing: Trust. And that goes a long, long way.

Travel time is work time

This last point is a particular stickler for me, and one that I end up having the most difficult time with. Travel is tiring. Even an hour long flight requires two hours of lead time to get through security, and another hour after to acquire local transport and arrive at the hotel. I should never be expected to be writing code on a plane. When traveling, my job is to deliver my physical body, capable of giving a conference talk to the best of my abilities, to a destination. Travel, when done under a company's direction, should always be considered paid time. It is not time off. It is the cost of doing business.

While I prefer to travel during work hours for this reason, it isn't always the choice available. For Drupal conferences, I will often need to return on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning. That time would have otherwise been time off, away from work, but instead I am representing a company. In my mind, that means I'm still on the clock. Most of my professional life has been salaried, rather than hourly. Instead of financial compensation, then, time should be compensated. Now, I'm a workaholic, and I'm terrible at taking my comp time. Still, it is best to immediately recover any time taken for conference attendance and travel upon returning from an event.

So is your policy equitable?

Building an equitable travel policy for conference attendance is possible, but it requires a lot of work and reflection. For employees, it's essential to maintain a solid separation between your personal and private life, as too often it can be compromised without much consideration. For employers, creating a policy that is reasonable and clear also involves demonstrating trust in your employees. Throughout the entire policy process, it is best to think of it as extending a promise of fair compensation in exchange for promoting the company has a leader in the field.

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