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COVID 19: Respond, review and rebound

Dinesh Jangra, Partner, Head of Global Mobility
05/05/2020
man looking out of the window
COVID-19 has presented challenges on a scale never seen before to global mobility and international HR professionals around the world. 

These are challenges the profession has both embraced and shown exceptional leadership in. Mobility professionals have been right at the forefront of the emergency. No doubt, the profession will play a leading role in the recovery of the global economy that will follow.

For now though a little reflection. This short article provides my perspectives of what we are all dealing with (in many cases have dealt with) and will be dealing with next. It’s about three phases; Respond, Review and Rebound.

Respond

This is a phase that many organisations are now coming out of. COVID-19 caused a global people emergency at a speed unknown to most of us. HR, Mobility and international HR professionals are used to monitoring global events for people risks – political and environmental volatility, warzones and even previous pandemics such as SARS and MERS. COVID-19 was different, it was global and happening everywhere at the same time.

Where are our people and where should they be?

Information about employee welfare and location was business critical. Mobility and HR were at the forefront, becoming the crucial interface between the management of the organisation and their employees. Where are our people and are they well became urgent questions. As country by country lockdowns and travel restrictions then followed the question shifted to where should those people be? Do they need to be evacuated, do they need to be repatriated? Who decides?

In many organisations there was a tension between what the employees wanted to do and what official advice indicated should happen. Where an employee wanted to be, may not have been as safe as the place that they already were in.

Crisis plans and process tested

The speed at which the emergency was unfolding made it a time of high, high uncertainty with constantly changing and at times contradictory official guidance. Which experts and governments were right? Travel capacity was severely disrupted and inconsistent quarantine guidance followed (both enforced and non-enforced versions) all had to be taken into account. Some organisations had their crisis plans, protocols to locate and advise employees and the business severely tested and came through. Other organisations realised that their plans, decision making processes and data sources (internal and external) to locate people were simply not reliable.

Global mobility teams certainly delivered at this hugely challenging time – Increased workload, long hours, high stress and uncertainty was negotiated.

Review

Most organisations are now in this phase. Globally mobile employees are accounted for and their current location is clearer. Week by week, a new interim normal has emerged.

Reflections – what did you learn?

The lockdown has stopped employees moving. At time of writing, lockdown restrictions are starting to and will be eased over time. This will happen in phases, there will be no overnight change. As a result of lockdown and probably for the first time ever, mobility professionals are not inundated with move related workload – there is a temporary pause, use this pause wisely.

The pause in movements is a good time to review how the team and function operate and make it better. The COVID emergency has robustly stress tested many aspects of the function. What worked well? What didn’t work well? Some key questions to address could be:

  1. Were you able to quickly and reliably identify where your mobile employees were? How reliable were your systems and data?
  2. How did the decision making chain work? Was it clear who makes decisions?
  3. How did policies cope? Did they help, hinder? What changes are required?
  4. Did insurances and healthcare cover areas you expected they should?
  5. How well did your suppliers support you- travel, insurance, evacuation support and many more will have been involved. What feedback do you have for them, how can they do better?
  6. What did you learn about your team and the wider stakeholders you work with? What interfaces worked well and which ones did not and why?
  7. What has changed, how has the profile and standing of your team been impacted?
  8. Which areas, process have frustrated you and your team for a while? How can you use this pause in movements to address and improve those?
  9. This has been a challenging and stressful time, how are you and your team recognising that? You support the wellbeing and welfare of your employees, what support do you and your team need?

Reverse and virtual assignments

Global mobility shifts employees or resources across borders to a particular job, role or business outcome. The last decade has resulted in more and more fluidity. We’ve seen an increase in the level of short-term assignments, commuter work arrangements and extensive business travel. Overall fluidity was also increase with uptakes in home and agile working. What we already had were cases where there was a disconnect between country of employment and payroll and the physical location of the employee.

COVID 19 has further accelerated and accentuated this fluidity. Evacuations and repatriations have resulted in employees performing roles in unplanned locations. Planned mobilisations are on hold but in a number of cases the proposed role has not changed. The employee has taken up the role in the other country but continue to do it (for now) in the country of origin. This has a number of compliance considerations that require review – payroll, social security, income tax and permanent establishments. Working from home isn’t new but right now, more than ever, it’s necessary to ask in which country is that home?

Doing more with less and handling cost reductions

As the dust has settled on the immediate emergency, the impact of the resulting economic emergency is becoming clearer. Many organisations have reduced headcount and budget. HR and Global Mobility teams have not been left out of this. The result is doing more with less resources and less budget. 

Putting together cost reduction plans, whether prompted or not, makes a lot of sense. Where does your team or function give rise to costs? Which services or supplies are you purchasing? Are you using the right the providers with the right cost base for your current situation? Can fixed prices be introduced where hourly rates have applied?

Process complexity often leads to higher internal and external costs too. How can you simplify service provision in a way that then reduces internal and external costs? Digital approaches, leveraging systems and technology can be lots of gain – process simplification doesn’t need the same infrastructure, capital spend and can bring advantages. What does thinking relating to Reflections - what did you learn as mentioned above, tell you.

Shifting compliance and state support

We have witnessed measure after measure, country by country issued by fiscal, immigration and other regulatory and public authorities around the world. Keeping up with everything that has been announced is an impossible task.

State support to subsidise and protect employees on payroll, stimulate and support businesses have come into place at break neck speed. Tax and payroll filing and payments deadlines have been and are still being extended. Technical guidance notes about employee tax residency and social security rules are being published by countries and at OECD level.

It’s key for those overseeing employee mobility to understand the impact of this on their globally mobile employee related workload. The tax filing and payment changes are key to understand so cash flow can be improved and the right work can be done at the right time. Although not designed for globally mobile employees – a number of payroll subsidies and stimuli could apply to this population. This all need to be worked through.

Rebound

As lockdowns ease and economies re-open organisations will want to be at the forefront of the global rebound. 7.5 billion people will simply not sit on their hands for very long.

Same driver but different approaches

No doubt, some areas will change. It is commonly accepted wisdom that the great work from home experiment has delivered a real choice to office based Monday to Friday. Mobility professionals will want to understand where the 'home' for cross-border workers is and how connected the compliance is with the reality of cross border work arrangements (see Shifting compliance and state support above).

Some things will not change. Before COVID, there were good business reasons why employee mobility was happening – skills transfer, growing new markets and winning new customers – these underlying drivers remain. The locations of the global talent pool has not suddenly changed. There is indeed an argument to make that those organisations that overcome and negotiate the new complexity of talent deployment faster, quicker than their rivals, will rebound faster. It can be your competitive advantage.

Complexity in this area is primarily connected to the timing, availability and effectiveness of treatments and vaccines. This remains uncertain but the collective brainpower of expertise of the world is focused on this so it can only be a matter of time.

Some key areas to consider now to ensure you are organised for the rebound.

Integrated immigration, relocation and health screening

There is no doubt that this next period will accelerate how the mobility industry integrates across the specialist providers to provide more connected solutions. For the short-term, health screening, digital health passports (showing vaccination status, antibody status etc.) even containment and isolation periods would be expected to be closely synchronised with relocation and immigration. How will relocation consultancies, immigration providers and the health screening industry work closer to provide a single support service?  This is not a new area, some countries pre-COVID insisted on health screening before granting permission to enter –the application of this type of process will no doubt now be much wider.

Duty of care

To date, when we have spoken about Duty of Care we have talked primarily about the mobile employee. What risks do they face? What can we do as employers do mitigate those risks? Risks that could include health, welfare, wellness, compensation and compliance. We are used to this.

COVID-19 fundamentally alters this. The Duty of care now also extends to employees generally - the home and host colleagues of the mobile employee. Our focus has got be around how the mobilisation process now builds protections for the mobile employee and others. Some of this will be locally set in-country. Core global approaches and policies may need to be developed by multinational organisations - health screening, employee tracking but also containment periods could be vital and key. Requirements by location will be different, so country by county process and detail is key.

Employee tracking – has the balance shifted?

Technology to trace and record the location of employees has probably existed for a decade. Business travel compliance systems have offered this functionality. The uptake of this aspect of the systems has in some organisations been a challenge, primarily because of privacy concerns. In these organisations the compliance risk was understood, the duty of care to know where the employee was also understood but the data protection and privacy concerns overrode that.

The world has now changed. As the COVID-19 emergency broke how useful would it have been to businesses to be able to instantly interrogate a system to review the location history of employees? As covered in Duty of care (above), the duty of care is clearly multi-faceted now, we owe that duty to the mobile, traveling employees but also to their home and host colleagues. Governments seem to be adopting tracking and tracing technology as part of the opening up of economies. With these changes, has the balance shifted? Can businesses carry on not tracking their employees?

Global Mobility and HR professionals, thank you for what you have negotiated and thank you in advance for being at the forefront in driving the global rebound.

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Dinesh Jangra
Dinesh Jangra
Partner, Head of Global Mobility
London