This and other tech-driven niceties such as safer business travels with reduced paperwork, and higher tax recoveries await us in 2020.

We have just started a brand new year, exchanging customary greetings of hope and optimism with colleagues and loved ones. Given the economic uncertainly, however, some projections on the business front may not be as rosy as last year’s.

With little doubt, organizations across Asia Pacific will come under pressure to do more with less. That means business and finance leaders will need to look at streamlining operations and raising efficiency. Technology can play a big role here—artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and deep data analytics all have the potential to deliver greater productivity and intelligence to operations without growth in headcount.

Some of these technologies can also augment employee experience. That is important because happy employees do a better job, benefiting business outcomes.

AI gets empathetic

For example, AI can automate routine and often tedious tasks. Early deployments are already showing that employees are more satisfied using AI to sort and forward emails, proofread documents, schedule meetings and build custom workflows.

The next wave of AI, which I expect to start gaining traction in 2020, is empathetic AI. Here, 

emotional intelligence is injected into AI, personalizing interactions and making the subject of the interactions feel important, listened to or respected.  If your customers and employees feel heard and understood, your firm has an advantage. The powerful thing about empathetic AI is that it can deliver unique, customized experiences to a virtually unlimited number of individuals.

ML, in a similar vein, will take a step up. It will proliferate under the hood of technology services everywhere, especially behind everyday workflows and forms. That means business services will increasingly anticipate your needs quickly and accurately—be they related to expense reports, scheduling or other processes. Actual ML applications that being developed include having an employee’s preferred travel itinerary suggested and filled out based on previous trips, and automatically combined with the company’s preferred vendor commitments. Location of expenses can be predicted based on the cities that employees have visited, speeding up expense report filing and giving time back to staff for strategic or creative work.

I believe that in 2020, workplace technology will also become more adept at providing consumer-app grade experiences, and more firms will use this to their employee engagement advantage. That means more workers will have access to travel, expense, healthcare and other services via mobile apps. 

In such a scenario, enterprise travel booking tools can be as easily usable as consumer travel apps without a company forgoing the discounts, control and real time visibility it has into the choices that employees are making. This is a timely development, as APAC airline and hotel prices are expected to climb about 3% percent in 2020, according to BCD Travel’s 2020 Industry Forecast, and companies will want to have the appropriate corporate travel systems in place to secure the best deals.

A safe employee is a happy employee

Another aspect of employee experience is traveler safety—organizations need to do more to protect their staff when they are making their business trips. 

A recent study commissioned by SAP Concur found that personal safety is a top concern for APAC business travelers. Nearly two thirds (63%) of business travelers in the region have changed their accommodation specifically because they have felt unsafe, and about half (46%) have reduced travel to a certain location due to political unrest or health hazards. Business travelers from Singapore and Malaysia are the people most wary of uncertainty, with 60% curtailing travel plans, followed by Australia (53%) and India (50%).

Female travelers are particularly concerned about safety. Seventy-six percent of the APAC women surveyed have faced gender-based negative experiences while on a business trip, and some have re-planned their accommodation or skipped certain destinations as a result.

Business travel technologies today can collate data from firms’ travel management companies, employees’ location check-ins and other sources to provide valuable insights for firms to use to support their staff and manage risks. In 2020, I expect more firms to integrate their duty-of-care program with their travel and expense programs to expedite employee location and communication during crises. It’s critical for organizations to be able to identify and communicate with staff in real-time when a crisis occurs. The right technology platforms can enable that to happen, ensuring that a company does all it can to protect employees in on the road.

Taxes are a certainty, but…

… Do not let the State be the sole beneficiary! This is another thing I expect finance leaders to do in a lean 2020: put technology to work in complex processes where there is money to be retrieved. 

One area often missed out by companies is value-added tax (VAT) reclaim. VAT recovery is possible for travelers visiting more than 40 countries around the world. This can work out to be a sizeable sum for some firms. The bad news is that managing the entire reclaim process is tough, as each country has its own set of constantly changing recovery rules and practices. I expect more APAC companies to deploy technologies to help them manage this process in 2020, as the hazy economic outlook puts onus on finance leaders to improve cash flow.

Still on the subject of taxation technologies, some CFOs may take 2020 to explore cloud-based tax automation, or solutions that can make real-time assessments of business travelers’ tax and immigration obligations before they travel. These tools will help businesses ramp up efficiency, and gain visibility into potential risks before they occur—good attributes to have in an uncertain environment.

All in all, I see plenty of positive technological developments to keep business and finance leaders’ spirits up in 2020. Pick the right ones and have a rewarding new year.