Economics, technology, business, travel, the environment, diversity, corporate social responsibility, education, and the public sector - these are typically the top-of-mind areas where business leaders, including HR, will look to leverage in the year to come.

As such, SAP Concur has rounded up views from its global team of technology, customer engagement and business experts on 20 predictions for 2020. While these trends are no magic crystal ball that reveal the future, we hope these help you stay one step ahead as you put together your 2020 strategy.

Global economic trends​

1. Small businesses will tighten budgets to safeguard against economic and government downturns 

Small businesses will stay even tighter on budgets in 2020, holding on to more dollars to safeguard their business health from factors beyond their control, per Ben Brewer, SVP and GM of global SMB, SAP Concur. While these businesses are especially vulnerable to the unanticipated ups and downs of economies, they will fare much better by expecting, and preparing for, the unexpected.

2. Fears of a slowing economy in Asia-Pacific will bring more pressure on businesses to do more with less

As a result, more CFOs will steer their companies to calmer waters by improving visibility into corporate spend to better control budgets, per Andy Watson, SVP and GM, Asia Pacific Japan and Greater China, SAP Concur. As a region with so many countries and borders, solutions that help firms manage the complexities of business T&E – such as country-specific tax regulations, traveler tax and immigration, VAT reclaim, and cashless payments – will grow in popularity.

3. Trade tensions will create uncertainty and reshuffle global priorities

Shifting immigration and tax policies would increasingly subject MNCs to additional tax liabilities, says Chris Juneau, Senior Vice President, Business Operations. In addition, in 2020, companies should no longer expect the same levels of visa and tax flexibility that they took for granted in the earlier part of the new millennium. Add to these challenges new pressures to diversify supply chains to be less dependent on Southeast Asia and South America, where trade tensions with certain superpowers grew in 2019.

Technology advancements

4. Workers looking to save time will kick demand for AI into overdrive

While societal tensions around AI will continue, workers’ growing openness to automation will incrementally drive changes that will ultimately impact everyone, Michael Koetting, Chief Product Strategy Officer, SAP Concur. Employers will need to lean into this shift, supporting those employees who want to use automation to be more productive, helping others understand the benefits, and providing support to those who need help learning to use it.

5. Artificial intelligence and emotional intelligence converge

“Empathetic AI” is increasingly applied in advertising, customer service, and to measure how engaged a customer is in their journey. For example, are they attentively focused or just passively scrolling? Consumers are benefitting, such as through music streaming services that suggest artists, songs or playlists based on your listening history. In 2020, this trend will kick into much higher gear, with more technology companies infusing empathy into their AI, finds Michael Weingartner, CTO, SAP Concur.

6. Machine learning moves from a novelty to a routine function

According to AG Lambert, SAP Concur Senior Vice President, Spend, Data and Analytics, in 2020, machine learning (ML) will be less of a novelty, as it proliferates under the hood of technology services everywhere, especially behind everyday workflows and forms. In a way, it will fade into near invisibility, even while making a huge impact. Technology services will increasingly anticipate your needs, whether they be related to expense reports, scheduling, or other processes.

7. “Super apps” will catch fire in Southeast Asia

In 2020, the “super app” trend that dominates mobile commerce and communications in China will reach critical mass among consumers in Southeast Asia, as shared by Deepak Seth, SAP Concur Vice President of Product Strategy, Asia Pacific. True to its name, a super app is a number of apps within a single seamless experience. They tend to start as messaging or payment apps that merge and grow to include ride-hailing, dining, social media, health tracking, games, business applications, and more.

Business imperatives

8. Data moves from an analytical – to decision-making – tool

In 2020, the shift to leveraging data for real-time decision-making will accelerate for a growing number of business functions, says Mike Eberhard, President, SAP Intelligent Spend Group. For example, through intelligent platforms and network ecosystems, companies will access more and more data sets to shed light on such things as a potential supplier’s financial capability to fulfill a contract. Data can also be used to make budgetary decisions informed by the current status of a company’s spending.

9. Organisations will treat their employees as technology customers

The coming year will continue to see the “consumerisation” of workplace tech: having become used to great experiences with mobile phones or shopping websites, for example, employees expect their enterprise applications to work just as well. , per Jim Lucier, President, SAP Concur. While it can be difficult for employers, who face cost, policy, and other roadblocks, to keep up, it will be important to make the investment owing to employee satisfaction and retention being critical.

10. A move toward "co-location with a purpose" office spaces

In 2020, noticeable changes in office spaces will be made, termed as “co-location with a purpose,” by Darren Bauer Kahan, Senior Vice President of Development, SAP Concur. More office spaces will be designed to be flexible: open-space hubs to host teams for shorter-term projects, touch-down spaces for work-from-home employees or those visiting from distant home bases, conference rooms for more confidential work, and focus rooms for introverts and others who need an alternative to open spaces.

11. Paper receipts decline, smart receipts rise

According to the Mirror, in 2018, approximately 11 billion receipts were printed in Great Britain alone, with two-thirds thrown away almost immediately – the equivalent of 53,000 trees. As such, 2020 will see a significant increase in the number of digital receipts, per Hendrik Vordenbaeumen, SAP Concur Vice President, Product Strategy. For example, China is already moving toward a more cashless society. Employees will benefit, as receipt data floats more easily into expense reports, eliminating frustrations.

Shifts in travel

12. Employees will travel with purpose

People are increasingly choosing trips, activities and brands that support their values, says Christal Bemont, Chief Revenue Officer, SAP Concur. With “bleisure” trips already on the rise and customers investing in purpose-driven programmes at their companies, employees will not only extend their business trips to explore the local cultures, they will also become active in the communities they visit by volunteering for local organisations. Companies will have to factor this into their travel policies.

13. Safety will go hand in hand with employee satisfaction

Kim Albrecht, CMO, SAP shares that in 2020 and beyond, companies have an opportunity to step up and enrich their traveller safety resources for employees, from introducing flexibility within travel policies to offering access to tools that keep them safe and protect their rights on the road. Emerging features like Uber’s emergency button, TripIt’s neighborhood safety scores and the U.S. Department of State's automatic advisories for travellers will become a, hopefully common, part of the traveller experience.

14. Hotels and other travel vendors will make wellness amenities the new norm

Hotels and travel brands are catching on to the impact of frequent business travel on our health – several major hotel brands already offer healthier meals, bike-sharing programmes, and in-room exercise equipment such as yoga mats. Wellness features are also increasingly found in airports, from napping pods to therapy dogs. In 2020, business travellers will have more options, in more places, at a wider number of price-points, says Doug Anderson, Senior Vice President for Travel Strategy, SAP Concur.

Environmental stewardship

15. Environmental concerns will accelerate eco-conscious travel

A recent study by Wakefield Research found that one-third of business travellers have adjusted their form of travel due to environmental concerns, and John Dietz, VP, Concur Labs expects that number will rise. With the EU’s commitment to the Green New Deal pushing companies to reduce their carbon footprint, airlines adjusting seating options to maximise travelers per flight, and hotels rethinking the sustainability of their designs, it’s only the beginning of a shift to eco-friendly, green travel alternatives.

16. Led by executives, businesses will go green

Pierre-Emmanuel Tetaz, EMEA SVP and General Manager, SAP Concur says 2020 will see companies’ efforts to reduce their environmental impact. A major emphasis will be providing more sustainable choices for employees, especially around travel. The Global Business Traveler Association (GBTA) reveals that many travel programmes do not mandate, or even encourage, travellers to make sustainable choices. This is set to change in the coming year.

Growing emphasis on diversity and corporate social responsibility

17. Non-traditional tech recruiting will go mainstream

In 2020, we will see companies increasingly go outside traditional worker pipelines to find the people they need, says Michelle Grover, VP of Development, SAP Concur and TripIt. First, we will see more “mid-termships,” apprentice-like roles for those who, in most cases, have degrees but want to learn and grow into technology careers. Second, we will see more outreach to women who left the workforce after starting families and want to re-enter the technology workforce.

18. 2020 will be the year of the “purpose-driven workplace”

In the coming year, expect more employers to adjust their missions, while helping employees understand how they align to, and impact, those missions. Expect to see more of them demonstrate their societal, environmental, and nonprofit impact. And expect more employers to focus on finding meaningful intersections between how employees prioritise their time inside and outside of work, with an emphasis on encouraging volunteerism, notes Jenn McColly, SAP Concur Vice President, Employee Experience.

Changing public sector and education landscapes

19. New tech investments at the state and local level will chip away at old government tech debt

From a US-based context, Dave Ballard, Senior Vice President, Public Sector, SAP Concur cites that technical debt, while not a new concept, will take center stage in the year to come as state and local government agencies work to overcome the challenges – and costs – associated with legacy technology systems. As such, they will will find it unsustainable to maintain outdated, manual systems because in most cases, doing so turns out to be more expensive than investing in modern applications.

20. Colleges and universities will reach a transparency tipping point

Keeping the context towards the US, Mike Dover, Director, Public Sector, SAP Concur noted that some of the biggest questions about higher education in the year ahead will be around two things: money and transparency. In 2020, colleges and universities will start to visibly raise the bar on transparent governance, by proactively sharing financial data that demonstrate responsible and compliant spending.

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