Years ago, when I worked at Holt, Rhinehart & Winston Educational and Professional Publishing, my female superior and I attended a national teacher's conference in San Antonio, and were forced to share a hotel room because of a late booking. What could have been a profoundly awkward experience — my boss! in her pajamas! — turned out to be one that strengthened our relationship, allowing us to get to know each other in a way that can rarely be found in the frenzy of daily work. The kind of bonding that I inadvertently experienced may be more frequent these days as the byproduct of a corporate mindset reshaped by Great Recession-driven austerity practices — among them requiring employees to share rooms. Major corporations such as Pfiizer, Bristol Meyers-Squibb and Microsoft have experimented with the practice. Nimbleness and frugality, after all, remain critical to growth, and it's been interesting to see that even as the economy slowly recovers, plenty of business travelers voluntarily and even eagerly share hotel rooms with colleagues. An Embassy Suites survey of 700 business travelers discovered that "17 percent said they try to share a room with a colleague."
Fostering an Entrepreneurial Mindset
Seth Goldman, the co-founder and CEO of Coca-Cola-acquired Honest Tea, thinks a policy of sharing rooms during business travel helps preserve the entrepreneurial mindset that infused the founding of his company. "Every manager has a P&L that he or she is responsible for," he says, "and while we don't make sharing rooms a hard and fast rule, it's our sense that when people have their own budgets and ownership for their profits, they'll continue to operate that way."
It Can Be Good for Business
In addition to furthering a sense of entrepreneurialism, Goldman notes that "we spend half as much on hotel rooms as we would if we didn't share rooms on the road. It makes people think twice about how we spend our money." But in particular, Goldman says that sharing rooms "allows Honest Tea to save money everywhere that the consumer doesn't see it, allowing us to invest more in the business." Rita McGrath, an associate professor at Columbia Business School, echoes Goldman's findings and estimates that companies "can save as much as 50% in reduced overhead and administrative costs through a room-sharing policy."
Danica Kombol, founder of the Atlanta-based social media agency, Everywhere, has even shared hotel rooms at conferences with complete strangers. Before a recent conference, Kombol, who spends at least two weeks every month on the road, had tweeted that she was looking for a "roomie" and another conference attendee named Christine Young responded. For Young, "the best thing about attending conferences is connecting with other like-minded women." She says the friendships that have been forged have been nothing short of business- and life-changing. "Some of my greatest business contacts," says Young, "have come from these shared experiences." Kombol, who once roomed at a conference with a Wal-mart employee she'd never met before, recalls that particular roommate saying that she chose to bunk with a stranger because it "reminded her to be a good steward of the company's dollars."
Kombol and her Everywhere team also often share rooms when the client is paying. It just makes business sense to her, and her clients reward her company for its attention to value. "I would never have dreamed of suggesting that Danica and the Everywhere team bunk up," says Francis Heid, the Vice President of Media Operations for Advanstar Communications, "but the truth is they do a lot of traveling for us and have visited every Advanstar office around the country, multiple times. The money we've saved on hotels is money we can devote to her social media agency, which frankly gets us more bang for both our bucks."
Companies Need to Have Across-the-Board Consistent and Transparent Policies
Like so many programs, how a room-sharing policy is managed will make the difference between success and resentment. Adelma Stanford, a social media engagement manager, responded poorly to a room-sharing policy her former employer, Promethean (a global education company), instituted for junior employees during the recession. Stanford said that the majority of the employees resented the tiered policy and thought, "'I don't know these people and shouldn't have to room with them.' Many employees chose to pay the difference out of their own pocket so they wouldn't have to share a room."
A former senior associate at Price Waterhouse Coopers, who insisted on anonymity, was okay with bunking with someone, particularly when the economy was in the dumps, but it irked her that more senior management wasn't asked to make a similar sacrifice. As the associate put it, "at PwC the turnover is high. It's a demanding job where you regularly feel undervalued and a lot of senior associates were not very happy with this decision because if it was about cutting costs, then every level should have had to bunk."
Rita McGrath confirms that a practice of sharing rooms will backfire for management if not uniformly executed. "Where it is particularly demoralizing," she says, "is when executives insist on penny pinching for their employees but exempt themselves from cost-cutting measures, whether that be sharing hotel spaces or air allowances or whatever. Then people just feel they are being pushed around."
When senior management walks the talk, a room-sharing policy is more palatable. McGrath described how for "one of my clients, for instance, the emphasis is on keeping costs low, but the tradeoff is a very generous bonus program so that people feel that when the company saves money they get to share in the benefits. Also, everybody does it, from the "C-suite on down." Goldman, from Honest Tea, says at his company secretaries and SVPs share rooms, and laughed recalling the time, the night before a big presentation that he shared a room with a VP of sales who "had to sleep with the TV on." Rather than forcing his employee to turn off the television, Goldman erred on the side of being a good roommate and made do with three hours of sleep. (Granted, many experts — such as HBR blogger Tony Schwartz — would argue that you simply can't do your job if you don't sleep.)
Companies Need To Be Sensitive
While there are no laws against employees sharing hotel rooms, companies could minimize the potential for unhappiness — or worse — by making the arrangements elective and giving employees a choice over their roommates. A male and female manager at Honest Tea once shared a suite, but "it was sufficiently uncomfortable," says Goldman, "that we only did that once." And it's important for management to know what they are asking of their employees and to acknowledge the sacrifice. Many of those I interviewed said they need private time on the road to "reflect and recharge" and felt the cost of losing precious down time would be greater than the corporate benefit. And Goldman admits that as his business has grown and people from more established companies have joined the company, it's become more difficult to maintain a culture where "five guys would share a suite." In fact, he's made a pledge to the staff that if they meet their profitability goals this year, "everyone will get their own room."
Companies need to carefully calibrate their travel policies according to their organization's culture. Bunking up policies can make employees feel both uncomfortable and undervalued if handled the wrong way. But for many, room-sharing — if respectfully and equitably administered — has the potential to foster not just major cost savings, but also deeper, unanticipated connections that can change the course of a business or a career.