It is no exaggeration to suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of our lives, not least the world of global mobility. Our latest Managing Mobility Survey, examined some of the most prevalent themes and trends that have emerged over the year, including the following:
Purpose of assignment
As the pandemic continues to put many businesses under pressure to reduce costs, one of their biggest considerations is the purpose of international assignments. Why are employees sent on assignment? Should assignments reflect only the strategic needs of the business, or should they be guided by employee development and retaining talent?
In the first half of the year, as borders around the world closed and movement was restricted, the commencement of new international assignments effectively ground to a halt. Despite this, some companies fought very hard (and with great creativity) to move forward with assignments that were deemed vital strategically. Now, even as parts of the world open up again and we adapt to the ‘new normal’, by continuing to limit moves to those that are business critical or involve very senior assignees, companies can far more easily control costs while still ensuring that business objectives are met.
However, the prioritisation of strategic moves becomes an issue if assignments as a means of development are a large part of the company ethos. Moreover, where international experience is a requirement for junior employees to be able to move up the ranks, how does the company retain the best talent if this is no longer an available option? For many employees, the opportunity to go on assignment is attractive because it allows professional, cultural and personal development. To tackle this, an alternative in the form of the virtual assignment has emerged, whereby a would-be assignee takes up an assignment remotely. For employees with families, who have multiple people to consider before accepting a move that could take the whole family halfway across the world, the ability to do it virtually instead may be an ideal scenario. For others, like graduates specifically seeking international opportunities, it may understandably be less appealing.
There is little doubt that virtual assignments have been one of the hottest topics of this year and will continue to be debated well into 2021 and beyond. Virtual assignments as a response to the pandemic have taken many forms. Assignees that were repatriated because of the pandemic are still carrying on their assignments at home. With travel options still uncertain, some companies are discussing hybrid options, for example starting an assignment virtually and moving the employee to the host location when possible, or sending the employee to the host country to meet the team initially but ultimately carrying out the work in the home country. Elsewhere, companies are initiating new virtual assignments to plug talent gaps and cover maternity and parental leave, to prevent having to recruit externally and onboard new employees remotely.
Virtual assignments are of course particularly appealing as a cost-effective alternative to the traditional long-term assignment, especially as financial pressure continues to mount across many sectors. However, with new assignment types come new challenges. Very few companies had a virtual assignment policy in place prior to the pandemic, and now many GM teams find themselves tasked with implementing a concrete, competitive policy in a situation that is still very fluid. There are also compliance risks involved, particularly around tax residency and permanent establishment laws. Linked to this is the question of how far virtual assignments and remote working overlap. Are GM teams responsible for remote workers? Are employees on virtual assignments expected to work host country hours, and if so, does this conflict with the employer’s duty of care and/or should employees receive an additional allowance for the inconvenience?
Many companies have used this year to test the waters regarding virtual assignments, often because they have had no other choice. It is also worth pointing out that virtual assignments are only a practical solution for certain sectors; where physical presence is required to carry out a job – manufacturing for example – virtual assignments do little to solve the problem. It remains to be seen whether the buzz surrounding virtual assignments will convert into widespread and sustained implementation.
The implementation of new technology can take financial commitment and a great deal of time, both of which initially seem at odds with many businesses’ priorities during a pandemic. However, within global mobility generally, technology can and is being used to improve productivity, assignee experience and cost management, all of which are long-term benefits for increasingly cost-conscious companies.
As the pandemic set in and global mobility and travel teams scrambled to ensure they knew where in the world every single one of their assignees was, the ability to track assignees through technology suddenly became urgent. Furthermore, the development of assignee portals as a method to improve communications between GM teams and assignees continues to be a popular subject for discussion.
Global mobility has often been slow to adapt technologically, but after a kickstart courtesy of the pandemic it will be interesting to see how both the industry embraces advancements and businesses view their mobility function moving forward. Most signs point to an increase in the use of automation, examples of which range from auto-populated salary calculations and cost estimates to the generation and storage of assignment documentation. Automating such processes can have a direct cost impact by reducing processing time and improving team productivity, while the insights into total mobility programme costs provided by cost estimate software can identify more opportunities for cost savings.
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