The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we work. Across the globe, remote working was imposed under local lockdown rules. But as we emerge from the initial pandemic response, will we see a long-term adoption of remote working? As travel restrictions continue to impact business operations and global mobility programmes, could international remote working continue to offer a workforce solution for employers?
What exactly do we mean by ‘remote working’?
Remote working can refer to a number of different working arrangements:
This is the over-arching term for situations in which employees are given flexibility as to their working arrangements, on pre-agreed terms, which can relate to the location of work and/or working hours. Implemented well, a flexible working policy can be the cornerstone of delivering employee value and increasing employee satisfaction.
Working from home
This is where employees carry out their work from their private home rather than business premises, such as a company office. While the pandemic precipitated widespread adoption of home working and swift action to ensure employees were able and supported in operating effectively from home, this arrangement continues to carry specific risks in areas such as employee health, safety and wellbeing and IT and cyber security.
There is currently discussion in the UK about introducing a right to work from home. While certain employees are able to make an annual statutory request for flexible working, the employer is not obliged to agree to this, and only has to consider the request within a reasonable timeframe. A change in the law could see home working become a permanent feature of the modern working environment.
International remote working
This refers to employees who carry out their work remotely, while based in another country. International remote working brings additional practical and compliance risks when compared with ‘domestic’ remote working, as well as HR concerns such as measuring employee performance and supporting team integration and morale, as we discuss in detail below.
Working from anywhere
This term is used to refer to an arrangement which offers further location flexibility for the worker, who is permitted to work from literally anywhere. While this may appeal to certain workers who seek the freedom to travel, for employers, the risks of international working in areas such as immigration, tax, payroll may make this arrangement disproportionate to manage. As such, this approach typically suits freelance workers more so than employees.
This term refers to the way a team engages and operates. A virtual team connects and operates through online means, and can comprise team members working from different locations, be that from home in the UK, based in an office, or overseas. While this arrangement can help to bring together talent and skills without barriers such as the cost of travel, it will be important to ensure that if some team members are based in the same location while others are remote, people are not excluded from ‘offline’ discussions or developments.
These are employees who divide their working time between locations, such as part of their working week in the office, and part working from home. This type of arrangement is expected to grow in popularity as economies emerge from the pandemic and the mandatory hoe working arrangements, as employees seek to retain some degree of flexibility and reduced commute time.
Hybrid working can also be about combining traditional overseas assignments with periods of remote working. This combination may gain in popularity as compliance issues and travel restrictions may limit the feasibility or duration of overseas assignments in some situations.
A virtual assignment has emerged as an alternative to traditional forms of long or short-term overseas relocation, whereby the assignment is agreed to be performed remotely, if appropriate.
Why international remote working works
The recent period of enforced remote working has demonstrated that remote workers can be more productive than those working in offices.
Research has shown remote working helps with staff retention, by providing additional flexibility for the employee, and it has been proven to lead to a decrease in staff turnover. Improving staff retention rates can save a business significantly on recruitment costs. When employees have greater choice and autonomy when and how they conduct their work, they are more likely to remain in position – happy people stay. In addition, if the employee has to move to a new city or country for personal reasons, they can do so without leaving their job or the business.
It can also make attracting top talent easier, particularly if the candidate has a wish to work remotely on a full-time basis. Businesses that are not bound by geography have a global pool of talent from which to choose from. Potential employees can be anywhere in the world, they don’t have to be in the same country, or even the same time zone. So, it’s easy to see why so many are making the shift.
However, common disadvantages of remote working include employee isolation and potential for increased difficulties in communication between teams and managers. Missing out on important information and lack of personal development have been cited as the downside to International remote working. Limited face-to-face contact can take its toll on an employee’s mental health. Concerns have been raised around issues such as data privacy and potential security risks and breaches of relying too heavily on virtual communication and cloud-based technology. Employee’s working from home may also struggle to achieve a work/life balance, and feel the need to be available 24/7, putting staff at a high risk of burnout.
These continue to be challenges for employers to manage if remote working is to become a long term feature in their organisation.
Remote working in support of a global workforce
As physical borders reopen, businesses will need to consider whether they want to support employees asking to maintain their remote working arrangement, and deal with any new requests going forward.
Implementation of international remote working is likely to provide two challenges for businesses. First surrounds how the business is going to attract and retain talent against a new expectation of a more flexible remote working system while ensuring business continuity. Second, there is likely to be challenges at corporate level – in managing the many mobility risks associated with international remote working arrangements across employment taxes, immigration, corporate taxes, posted workers, and employment law as well as wider issues on duty of care and performance management.
Issues facing employers regarding international remote working include:
Employees may need to seek permission to enter and live in the country they want to reside in to work and live. Their family may also not have any rights to live or attend school, all of which must be addressed prior to the employee starting work.
The potential impact on any permanent residence or citizenship applications if an employee decides to live in a country temporarily.
There can be implications for individuals in the post-Brexit immigration shake-up on remote working arrangements.
Employment tax and social security
If an employee spends some or all of their time working in a location outside of their country of employment, they may become subject to both income tax and social security in their work location.
The rules differ between countries surrounding when such obligations may be triggered. Tracking working time will be crucial in understanding what the exposure is likely to be.
For international employees, there is a documented and understood process for managing payroll requirements, but this is not likely to be in place for remote workers who have no formal secondment arrangements when they remain under the management and control of their “home” employer.
The following areas will require consideration when implementing and managing international remote working within your organisation:
- Clarify and prioritise scenarios – determine the most likely international remote working short-term scenarios.
- Clearly state the intention – why the business does (or does not allow) international remote working for the listed scenarios. Consider what it brings to the business – its risks, benefits, duration, etc.
- Confirm the scope of international remote working and its limitations – virtual assignments cannot be universally applied, so decide what limitations and safeguards should be put into place. Are assignments allowed within specific regions or countries; will they be of limited duration? Is it necessary to add precautionary clauses in non-mobility policies (e.g., working from home policies) to clarify what happens if any employee requests to work across borders?
- Address any potential gaps – is there a risk of having virtual employees ‘fly under the radar’ and trigger the same problems that businesses experience with business travellers and commuters? Anticipate any side-effects of international remote working such as the potential marginalisation of specific employee groups who either struggle with virtual working assignments, or those who are only offered such assignments instead of the more traditional international assignments which would be more beneficial for their careers.
- Consider viable alternatives – if a virtual assignment is not feasible for a given scenario, consider alternative options. The subject of virtual assignments should be discussed within the wider context of managing a globally distributed workforce, as opposed to merely focussing on the business’s traditional global mobility perspective. Encourage HR to take part in a global-talent brokering role to assist employees with relocation.
Employers must deal with multiple considerations when implementing remote working; not all jobs can be performed effectively on a remote basis, and where it is possible, terms will need to be agreed with the worker which may require changes to the employment contract, job descriptions, processes, workforce support, and management mindsets. Communication with your workforce and compliance with your legal obligations will be critical.
DavidsonMorris advises employers on all aspects of international remote working. With expertise in immigration, HR, employment and global mobility, our specialists provide a comprehensive solution encompassing the legal and practical challenges of adopting and adapting virtual working arrangements to optimise workforce performance and morale. For specialist advice for your organisation’s specific needs, contact us.
International remote working FAQs
Can you work remotely from another country?
There are many jobs that can be done remotely, and that means it does not have to be based within the UK. Although an employer would need to consider the type of work performed, immigration, compliance and health and safety issues surrounding remote work.
Can I work remotely in Europe?
There are few countries in Europe that allow remote working (without visas etc) or freelancing if you are not a citizen, and many bureaucratic hoops to jump through to make it happen. There is one EU country, Estonia, that recently added a digital nomad/freelancer visa so people can live and work there for up to a year.
Can you work from anywhere in the world?
Whether you can work from anywhere in the world largely depends on if you want to freelance or work for a company on a remote working basis. With many more companies open to international remote working, the possibility is becoming more accessible to a wider range of people.
How do I enable remote work?
Mastering remote work is all about finding the right tools and procedures to allow employees to stay productive and connected to each other and to the business. Having robust technology and international remote working policies will guide your business moving forward.
Last updated: 23 February 2021