July 21, 2020

Key Mobility Trends Post-COVID-19

Managing requests for remote work and increasingly demanding roles are top of mind for global talent mobility professionals.

We may not be able to gather in person right now, but that certainly hasn’t kept us from staying in close touch with our clients, industry partners and peer groups to share information and learning. What are we hearing? Across all industry sectors and sizes, there are two major recurring themes:

Managing Cross-Border Remote Working

During the pandemic, many organizations were suddenly challenged by employees who were displaced: either because they were literally ‘stuck’ in a location where cross-border travel was impossible, or because they opted to travel to or remain in a country other than the one in which their contract of employment is held. Both scenarios pose risk of non-compliance with employment, immigration, corporate and personal tax laws.

For those employees who were on formalized international assignments, it was much easier to establish their exact whereabouts, work status and exposure to risk. The more complex challenge has been determining the locations and individual circumstances of employees who were not in that category – such as business travelers or individuals on personal leave at the height of the pandemic.

Large numbers of employees have not only discovered that they can perform their role perfectly well in a remote environment, but also prefer it to their pre-pandemic solution.

Many are finding improved productivity and work-life balance with a remote setup. Employees are increasingly making requests to work from a location other than the one in which they are employed, either on a permanent, infrequent, or ad-hoc basis.

Employer Responses

Many of the global mobility professionals we’ve been speaking to have pointed out that this is not a new problem, but one that has been both highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic.

Organizations are adopting different positions in response. Some are taking the view that the pandemic has caused a seismic shift in employees’ expectations and have embraced remote work as part of the employee value proposition (EVP) to retain and attract top talent. Others maintain that the complexities and resource requirements of making individual assessments exceed the value of fulfilling these requests to the organization. Still others are not convinced that it mandates permanent policy changes, but are looking at it on an individual level. That approach appears to be the most common one at the moment, validated by a June 2020 RES Forum survey in which 64% of respondents reported considering requests on a case-by-case basis, but were generally not in favor of supporting them. The full survey results are available to RES Forum members in their Learning Library.

A panel presentation during a recent virtual event highlighted the distinct positions within three organizations:

  1. A strict, “by-exception-only” approach
  2. A very limited risk tolerance of a just a few days or weeks, and
  3. A willingness to run individual assessments

An organization’s industry sector is one of the determining factors that shapes the decisions around these requests. Some highly regulated professions have strict limitations on where employees can practice, so the business needs to pay close attention to each individual risk profile, or as one individual put it, “nip the ‘no’ conversations in the bud.” Other corporate cultures place high value on consistent application of approaches, and for some, the priority is on the individual employee experience, so they are willing to consider certain scenarios, following a full assessment of compliance requirements and costs.

Regardless of the approach, the most important factor for employers is to have a robust and clear request, assessment, and approval process in place. Many organizations have set up a COVID-19 communications hub and have updated and publicized their flexible working policy. Global mobility teams are working especially hard at partnering with global HR teams and HR business partners to ensure that there is a consistency in messaging throughout the organization. This has been particularly important as both global mobility and HR face an increasing misconception that employees can work from anywhere and everywhere.

Of course, adopting a "future requests" approach with the luxury of a bit of time is only one side of the equation for global mobility professionals. Dealing with the immediate issue of displaced employees has been a much more complex and draining process. Global mobility teams, often with curtailed resources, have partnered with corporate tax teams and external vendors to make individual assessments. In some cases, those assessments have resulted in employees being asked to stop work and take either paid or unpaid leave.

For those employees who still remain in a country other than their country of employment or even in a third country, talent mobility professionals are keeping a close eye on government timetables for ending any tax and immigration concessions which were implemented at the height of the pandemic.

Throughout 2019, we saw a significant trend to shift the responsibility for business traveler tracking to the global mobility function – a practice that is gaining even greater traction now. With all this in mind, global mobility teams aren’t likely to see a reduction in their workloads in the near future, as they continue to ensure that employees are in the right place and compliant.

Wearing Many Hats Creates Greater Visibility

As we recently shared in “Business Critical: What Does It Mean for Global Mobility?” global mobility professionals have adopted even greater levels of complex and multifaceted roles over the course of the pandemic. Professionals we have spoken with have reported that their participation in COVID-19 / emergency response teams has led to increased levels of appreciation, visibility and more frequent dialogue with the business. One individual we spoke with shared that “there is much more pressure to be an expert in multiple disciplines – specifically tax and immigration. We’re providing a lot of information to the business on whether borders are open, who they are open to and whether there is a quarantine requirement.” There are ample signs that global mobility’s role in formulating the ongoing policy response to the crisis will continue to strengthen the function as a strategic business partner and talent management enabler as the "next normal" continues to unfold.


Stuart Jackson

Stuart Jackson

As Account Director at Sterling Lexicon, Stuart focuses on working with clients to optimize their global mobility solutions. Stuart has worked in global mobility for 24 years. His broad experience of working with different program sizes across a variety of industry sectors helps to bring success to clients' programs and wider business strategies. If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article or learn more about Sterling Lexicon, please do not hesitate to contact Stuart Jackson at stuart.jackson@sterlinglexicon.com.

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