Q: I’m going to be traveling for business with my manager in a few weeks, and I’m not sure what the “rules” are in this situation. Do we have to spend non-working time together? What about meals? Is it weird staying at the same hotel? I don’t want to be aloof but I also don’t necessarily want to spend every waking hour for a week with my boss.
A: Traveling for work can be exciting as well as a bit worrisome, particularly based on how long you’ve known the people you are traveling with—in this case, your manager—and how closely you work together. The most critical thing is to recognize and prioritize the fact that this is business travel. The primary reason is to accomplish business, so get a good understanding from your manager ahead of time about what the business plans and objectives are for the week and what the expectations will be for you.
Before you leave, set up a meeting to ask general questions and get a broad sense of the week’s agenda. How does your manager envision each day being spent? What does she want to see accomplished? What meetings are already scheduled during the trip? Give your manager the opportunity to work out a basic schedule with you—which will also give her the opportunity to give you some clues about when you might have some free time. As a rule, you can expect standard business hours to be spent with your manager and any other colleagues or clients you’re in town to see. This might include daily breakfast meetings to plan the day or dinner to meet with a client or debrief the day’s work. Your role is to make sure that you’re available when needed and that everything you may possibly need to be prepared is ready to go. Do you have enough business cards? Are you ready to pack appropriate attire? Who is responsible for any documents or presentation materials? Who is scheduling the transportation to and from the airport? Gain alignment and understanding of your role before you leave so you are as prepared as possible.
You say that you don’t want to spend all waking hours with your boss—which is good, because neither does she. How you convey this is key. It shouldn’t be about what you want; it’s about your availability to the manager. You don’t want to say “I’m meeting some friends on Tuesday night, so I won’t be available after 6pm.” Instead, you should frame it as offering your assistance, if needed: “Do we have plans for the evenings? Is there anything you need from me on any of the nights?” If there are no work activities scheduled, let your manager know the plans you’d like to make and if she is okay with you being off the clock. You can broach the topic of down time more subtly by offering suggestions of things to see. For example, if your manager is an art fan and you know of a great museum, you might say “I know you haven’t been here before, and there’s a fabulous museum you might like.” This brings up the topic of what else besides business might be part of the trip.
Staying at the same hotel does not mean you are joined at the hip; it is just the most efficient and cost-effective option in service of the business. All meetings can be scheduled there, pre- and post-meeting planning is easier to coordinate, and meal costs can all be charged on one bill (excluding the mini-bar!). If you were traveling with peers instead of your manager, and depending on the nature of the event, there’s a chance you would be asked to share a hotel room, which can be a significant challenge for adults. This should not be the case between a manager and direct report, but peers can be asked to share a room for financial reasons, especially for conferences. If you’re ever in that situation, you can absolutely ask for an alternative, though you may be asked to pay the cost difference.
As you prepare for your first business trip, remember that business comes first. And while you don’t want to be aloof, you don’t want to glom onto your manager, either. Be available for the business needs, understand the objectives, document your expenses, and make sure you’re aligned on roles and logistics.