Notwithstanding the significant financial and logistical setbacks suffered by multi-national enterprises, the role of international mobility in 2020 onwards remains optimistic and key to effective economic recovery for many businesses in a post-pandemic environment.
Despite initial concerns that COVID-19 could potentially lead to a fundamental rethink on international mobility, far from departing away from overseas deployments, many employers are poised to respond to changes in travel and entry restrictions. Pursuing international opportunities and realising the potential that globally-mobile workforces can bring is set to remain a critical success factor in economic recovery and future growth in a post-pandemic world.
The role of international mobility
International mobility involves the multi-faceted process of appropriate selection and relocation of employees for overseas assignments, either on a temporary or permanent basis, with the associated training, logistics and debriefings that typically take place around such assignments.
Managing international mobility can involve several complex HR processes including the pre-assignment, relocation, on-assignment and end-of-assignment phases. These typically incorporate the selection of a candidate and the planning involved in advance of an international move; the activities and events that occur throughout the assignment; as well as career management and repatriation.
An overseas assignment can be used to cover a whole host of different scenarios, including frequent business travel and commuter trips, short and long-term assignments, and even permanent relocation, depending on the business objectives that a company or organisation is looking to meet at any given time.
The use of a mobile workforce can be used to meet various operational and strategic business objectives, including the following:
- Using overseas assignees to fill a specific post where there are no local workers that are suitably qualified or experienced
- To help train domestic workers to take over roles previously occupied by overseas assignees
- Transferring technical expertise, and facilitating the sharing of knowledge and best practice between colleagues from different countries and in different parts of a company or organisation
- Providing international experience and crucial learning opportunities for key individuals in preparation for more senior roles, often with the added incentive of attractive remuneration and benefits packages
- Providing development and career progression opportunities for employees at all levels of a company or organisation as part of talent management and succession planning initiatives
- Creating or enhancing an existing international corporate culture, and encouraging promising employees to develop an international mindset.
International mobility from 2020 onwards
For many companies and organisations, migratory restrictions and the closure of borders across the globe have necessarily impacted both international assignments and overseas recruitment. Despite the ongoing disruption, international mobility projects remain a priority for many businesses, where the current pause in global activities is considered temporary.
While virtual deployments and remote working arrangements have been put in place as an immediate solution, the reality is that physical travel remains a fundamental requirement to address the operational and strategic needs of multinational businesses.
In fact, it is suggested that almost half of employers plan to resume ‘business as usual’ when it comes to global mobility, continuing with the same number of international moves as before the pandemic hit, even with the possibility that COVID-19 infection rates may rise again, with tighter travel restrictions being put back in place and borders being re-closed.
Of course, the significant impact that the pandemic and associated travel restrictions has had on the ability of mobile employees to work in their usual way cannot be ignored, but many employers do not see this as an insurmountable hurdle to moving forward in the very near future. This means that many postponed assignments, or assignments that had to be curtailed and assignees flown home, are intended to be resumed or rescheduled.
In the meantime, many businesses are using this period of ‘limbo’ to reassess how they approach international mobility, including the types of remuneration and benefit packages they can now affordably offer individuals, and what additional practical measures may need to be put in place to help safeguard the physical and mental wellbeing of their assignees whilst overseas.
However, given that the economic recovery of countries worldwide will depend, to a large extent, on international mobility, it is hoped that we can now begin to look ahead to much more promising times.
What can businesses do to optimise international mobility programmes?
Even though the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve and influence how we live, do business and the way we work, as many countries now begin to review the travel restrictions that have been put in place, it is vital that employers continue to actively reassess their international business needs – and the underlying workforce planning and management drivers – and how these can continue to be met without losing competitive position or creating operational challenges.
There are several steps that businesses can take to optimise international mobility programmes, and adapt in light of post-pandemic conditions, from reviewing their global mobility policies and identifying their priorities, to planning and preparing for when overseas business is back to normal.
Review your global mobility policies
Sending the right people to the right place in the most cost effective way requires a skilful balancing act. The starting point for this evaluation should be a well-designed international mobility policy that addresses your business objectives, assignee expectations and market opportunities, as well as linking international assignments with talent management and reward strategies.
During this limbo period, where the possibility of restriction-free travel remains unpredictable, this time can be used to review your policies on global mobility, including how you propose to approach overseas assignments moving forward.
This could include assessing the different types of overseas assignments that will best meet your business objectives, as well as the types of remuneration and benefit packages you can now affordably offer individuals depending on the duration of the assignment, the assignment objectives, and the anticipated career and business development possibilities at the end of the assignment.
Identify your global mobility priorities
For employers who want to exercise caution in the early post-pandemic stages, steps need to be taken to review your global mobility priorities as we transition from the crisis stage to the continuity stage of the pandemic.
This could include identifying all business-critical international assignments, with a view to limiting the number of overseas assignees for a temporary test period. However, as border and travel restrictions begin to relax, and assuming there are no recurring peaks in COVID-19 infection rates that require tightened rules, more and more international assignments can be given the green light.
It is therefore important, even where you plan to be initially cautious, to not miss out on the opportunities for economic growth that global mobility can bring.
Identify prospective overseas assignees
In addition to reviewing your global mobility policies and identifying your priorities in the immediate term, this transitional phase can also be used to identify willing and able overseas assignees that are prepared to undertake international assignments when this becomes more viable.
It is important to bear in mind that the opinions and priorities of previous overseas assignees may have significantly shifted in light of the pandemic. In particular, you will need to ascertain their current family and career aspirations, ensuring that they are physically and mentally able to cope with the additional pressures of moving abroad during this period of unprecedented change.
It’s also important that both employers and employees make an informed decision on whether a particular individual would be suited to an international move, taking into account their ability to adapt in the host country in light of any added pressures created by the pandemic.
Plan & prepare
For prospective overseas assignees that have given you the green light, you will need to make plans and preparations in advance of their overseas assignment. This could include intercultural training and language classes for the novice assignee, including for their families if they are being relocated long-term.
You should also ensure that your overseas assignees, even if experienced in undertaking assignments abroad, are made fully aware of any revised legal or security requirements in place in the host country, as well as any arrangements that may need to be made if they are required to be flown home at short notice due to reinstated border closures or lockdown measures.
There will undoubtedly be revised procedures and processes in place in various different countries in light of coronavirus, and it is incumbent on the employers of overseas assignees to fact find and prepare their staff prior to departure. It is also incumbent upon you to provide any additional practical measures to help safeguard the health, safety and wellbeing of your assignees whilst abroad.
Keep abreast of international restrictions
For employers who are keen to quickly resume postponed strategic global projects, especially those that require assignees to be physically mobile overseas, knowing how borders will be managed over the coming weeks and months is critical to be able to plan ahead and execute the right moves at the right time, while remaining compliant with local regulations.
It will be especially important to keep abreast of any revised immigration controls, such as additional legal and documentation requirements, where you may be required to adapt to more extensive and rigorous immigration processes. Revised immigration processes will most likely include verification of health coverage abroad, so reviews will need to be made of health policies and appropriate cover for COVID-19 and any associated health conditions.
It is also essential to establish whether any medical testing will be required prior to the departure of an overseas assignee, where proof of a negative coronavirus test result on arrival in a host country is becoming increasingly widespread so as to minimise the impact of re-entry of foreigners on local healthcare systems.
Utilise international remote working arrangements
Many multi-national enterprises have been forced to adopt remote working arrangements, at the very least in the immediate term. For those companies and organisations that have already embraced this type of working, they are now likely to tap into a broader global talent pool, possibly at much lower costs, with the ability to move work more fluidly across international borders long-term.
By facilitating remote working arrangements at this transitional stage, this can then be used effectively in conjunction with short and long-term physical overseas assignments, providing international assignees with greater flexibility. You could even look at designing a more virtual global workforce, moving your work to your people, rather than your people to the work. While this may evade issues around visas and travel, employers will need to understand the full implications in areas such as right to work and remote onboarding.
Checklist of steps to facilitate international mobility
To facilitate a successful overseas assignment in a post-pandemic world, employers will need to focus on various different aspects of international mobility, not least in making the right selection with the right processes in place.
The effective management of international mobility in the current environment should include, at the very least, the following checklist steps:
- Have in place a well-designed international mobility policy that addresses your post-pandemic business objectives, assignee expectations and market opportunities, ensuring that compensation and benefit packages remain aligned with your immediate and future business needs.
- Having identified your global mobility priorities, exercise caution where needs be, but always consider alternative options to physical overseas assignments, such as remote working, so as not miss out on the opportunities for economic growth that international assignments can bring to your business.
- Identify willing and able overseas assignees well in advance of any planned assignment, allowing them ample opportunity to assess their suitability for travelling to, working and/or living in the host country.
- Provide prospective overseas assignees with as much information as possible about the host country, allowing them to make an informed decision based on their family and career aspirations, as well as their general health, safety and wellbeing.
- Put in place plans and preparations in advance of any planned overseas assignments, such as intercultural training and language classes, as well as training on any revised procedures and processes in place in the host country in light of coronavirus.
- Implement any additional practical measures to help safeguard the health, safety and wellbeing of your assignees whilst abroad, including appropriate health care cover for COVID-19, and arrangements for assignees and their families to be flown home at short notice.
- Keep abreast of international restrictions and any revised immigration controls, such as additional legal and documentation requirements, as well as the need for assignees to be carrying a negative coronavirus test result on arrival in the host country.
DavidsonMorris are employer solutions lawyers with specialist experience in global mobility and supporting businesses with their international workforce needs. For advice and guidance with adapting mobility programmes and practices to meet the new and emerging needs of the post-pandemic environment, speak to us.
International mobility FAQs
What is international mobility?
International mobility refers to the overseas relocation, either in the short or long-term, of employees of multi-national enterprises, usually for the purposes of filling operational roles overseas, transferring technical expertise, knowledge sharing between colleagues from different countries and gaining international experience for career progression or learning development opportunities.
What is a global mobility programme?
A global mobility programme is a number of multi-faceted human resource functions designed to effectively move workers to offices in different countries. This can include pre-assignment planning, the logistics of relocation, on-assignment support and end-of-assignment repatriation and reintegration.
Last updated: 31 July 2020