April 2, 2020

A Relocation Roundtable About COVID-19

global-pandemicIn the first edition of planned, web-based roundtables hosted by both Sterling Lexicon and Suddath, a panel of industry experts convened to answer some of the tough questions regarding how COVID-19 is impacting the relocation industry. Panelists shared insights on how the crisis has impacted every part of the relocation process, including real estate, transferee welfare, household goods moving, and expatriated workers, and emphasized the need for flexibility in planning for the future and pausing to assess each situation individually.

Panelists included May Caffi, senior director of relocation services for a large hotel company; Dr. Amit Arwindekar, chief medical officer of North American UnitedHealthcare; Benjamin Holley, national vice president of UnitedHealthcare; and Amanda Brown, global mobility senior program manager for Snowflake.

Q: How are you adjusting your policies to accommodate the needs of your transferees and your assignees?

CAFFI: We are being a lot more flexible than we have ever been before. For example, we let them drive if they want to drive and we try to help them get there in a way that wouldn't stress them out. Some new hires have stayed in our empty rooms and are just waiting it out to be able to start their job. Some have said, “Okay, put my stuff into storage, I’m going home to be with my family right now,” and we have sent them home if we are able to.

Q: Are companies, for example Snowflake, stopping relocations?

BROWN: We have a pretty small population so it was decided, based on both international and domestic moves, that we would pause. Because we are in the U.S. where so many states have shelter-in-place requirements, we decided that pausing would be the best course of action. With everything changing on a day-to-day basis, we are looking at every move we have individually to see what makes most sense. To us, our employees’ health and safety come first, and then we focus on what makes sense for the business.

Q: What are you seeing at other companies as they experience disruptions in relocations?

CAFFI: As far as moving, we haven't had any issues with the Van Lines. Some areas in which we have seen a lot of disruption is in the sale of real estate. Owners do not want buyers to walk in their house if they have their house listed. Buyers also do not want to go into the houses. So real estate is almost at a stalemate at this point. I think that a lot of companies are going to start to say, “Let's try to not move anyone or anything for right now.”

Q: Are you seeing early repatriations?

HOLLEY: So far, we're seeing about 40% of flights being canceled because there are not enough people on flights. Even if someone purchases a ticket, there's a high likelihood that their flights would be canceled because there's not enough demand. We are not seeing a lot of new movements or companies bringing their people back. A lot of people are stuck in whatever location they are in for now due to travel restrictions. They are slated to go back at some point, but we don't exactly know when that will be. So, they're essentially just allowing them to do as much of their job as they can from wherever they are, if that's possible. Otherwise, they're essentially just sort of hanging tight right now.

Q: How are you handling requests from employees who want to stay with their families during this time while they may be set up in another country?

BROWN: We have had a small population of employees who have wanted to return to their home country, primarily out of the U.S. to return to China. We are trying to take into consideration not only their requests to return home from a personal standpoint, but from a business standpoint. We have to understand the legalities around that request and whether or not they can work there. What are the tax implications? In a time like this, we'd love to say, “Yes, go,” because their mental frame of mind is important to us, as well as making sure that they're healthy on that level both physically and mentally. But we really have to look at each request individually at a granular level.

Q: What is the approach on evacuation of expats and employees?

HOLLEY: Generally speaking, given the current level of travel restrictions, it's incredibly difficult to get someone out of certain countries. We are having to take into account the fact that some of the typical locations where we would normally evacuate someone to their health care systems are becoming incredibly burdened by COVID-19 patients, and are not necessarily in a position to be able to accept patients. With the current measures that were set in place to restrict movement of particular conditions and the spread of the virus, it has had a profound impact on our ability to be able to coordinate an evacuation. I would say there's a very limited ability for people to be evacuated for really any reason right now.

Q: Seeing how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected businesses, what changes in programs do you think employers would benefit from?

HOLLEY: If they're having challenges communicating, then creating an answering service would be a great program to implement. For example, it could be a phone line that goes directly to an answering box that allows employees to actually call into that line. They can leave any information with their employers, regardless of time zones. Also, being able to get up-to-date information to employees has been a challenge with everything changing so quickly. Finding a way that employers can get information or push alerts to them in real time has been something that we've seen a lot of interest in. Companies are starting to take a look at putting that into their programs going forward.

Q: When do you foresee the volume of relocations starting up again and then returning to a sense of normalcy? What's your prediction?

DR. ARWINDEKAR: From an economic standpoint, we want this to end as quickly as possible, because there's some devastating effects to a lot of industries and the overall economy. From a medical standpoint, we want to flatten the curve a bit so that the health care sector doesn't get overwhelmed. I think we're probably looking at about a year and a half until we can at least get a vaccine. But that does not mean that will be the duration of the current restrictions which we're seeing in place.

Q: Do you believe you’ll be looking to your suppliers for service offerings to help out during this challenging time?

BROWN: Right now, we're in that reactive mode and we are figuring everything out as we go along. If this were to happen again, we could be focused on offerings maybe that we don't currently have, things we should be thinking about in the future. To your point, what could end up being the new norm? I don't know exactly what those offerings would be. But I absolutely want to be able to partner with my relocation management company to get a better visual on what they experienced with all of their clients.

As everyone continues looking to the future, the best piece of advice emerging from the panel discussion is the importance of maintaining flexibility and pausing to evaluate and navigate each situation individually and with care. Sterling Lexicon will continue to share essential information so that other companies have it in their arsenal through this unprecedented time.

To listen to the roundtable discussion in full, please click here.


Liz Portalla

Liz Portalla

For over 30 years, Liz has focused on developing, implementing and measuring the effectiveness of global mobility programs by leveraging her experience in relocation, international transfers and assignments, global compensation and immigration. In addition to managing in-house mobility programs for AIG and Merrill Lynch, Liz has held frontline positions such as home sale counselor, director of client services, vice president of client services and vice president of client management and business development.

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