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What is the Future of Global Mobility in a World of Travel Restrictions and Remote Work?

In previous years, sending employees to international locations for both long and short assignments was a common experience for global companies. This allowed organizations to fill skills gaps, share knowledge across international teams and provide development opportunities for employees. 

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and travel restrictions, border closures, and immigration difficulties became the norm, global mobility was quickly put on hold.

What followed was over a year (and counting) of working from home, offices operating at reduced capacity or closing altogether, and subsequently, the acceleration of remote work.

With this uptake in work from anywhere (WFA), many wonder whether the need for talent mobility will be permanently altered.

In fact, KPMG’s Global Mobility Forecast: Trends in risk, talent and digital 2021 report states, “there is an expectation that the new normal will result in a reduction of traditional mobile employees.”

But what does this mean for global mobility as an industry? And, does a reduction have to translate to negative consequences? 

How did the pandemic affect global mobility?

“Some parts of the global mobility industry have managed well while others have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Anna Michielsen, General Manager at ECA International, a company providing data, software, and global mobility expertise to multinational companies.  

“In Australia and New Zealand, for example, border closures have significantly impacted providers working in the areas of immigration, destination services, and serviced apartments. Corporate global mobility professionals have needed to manage in a highly volatile environment with new barriers and rules.”

These changes have given way to new processes, policies, and solutions as companies had to scramble to care for their employees. 

“There was sort of three phases,” says Tim Burgess, co-founder of Shield GEO. “The first was the compassionate phase, where all bets are off, forget all the rules, for now, we’re just going to relax everything. We just want to look after people.”

While this was a necessary first response to the pandemic, it could only last so long when practical compliance issues arose.

“Towards the end of last year, that came back into more of a compliance focus, where companies were like, ‘Oh, it’s been six months, your visa might be the wrong visa now, or we’re worried about tax,'” Tim says. 

“And now the third phase is like, well what next?”

What does the rise in remote work mean for global mobility?

“I’m sure a lot of our clients have reevaluated and are saying, ‘Hey, should we just hire somebody who’s already from that country?'” says Asia Hundley, one of Shield’s Customer Success Managers.

“They’re saying, ‘COVID has made us realize that we can hire people from all over the world and expand our talent pool,’ especially if they’re in a country where it’s difficult for them to find talent for what they need.”

While initially, a company may have wanted to send someone internationally to run a project, manage a new team, or simply provide an HQ presence, having to continue business without that option may have opened them up to possibilities they’ve never considered before.

“[Companies] kind of like to enter the market and have somebody on foot,” Asia says. “Usually, it’s somebody who already knows a little bit more about the market, maybe they lived there before, or they have some type of connection to the country. Alternatively, we also see a lot of them hire just one local manager to see how it goes in the market, and then that local person will expand their team from there.”

While the pandemic has certainly increased discussion around WFA, Anna argues that remote work and mobility have existed together for years. 

“Although the COVID-19 pandemic has led to renewed discussion of virtual assignments among companies, they are not a new concept and have been discussed as a potential replacement for physically relocating employees for as long as technology has made it viable for people to communicate instantly in different parts of the globe,” she says.

“According to ECA’s 2021 Managing Mobility Survey, 27% of companies currently use virtual assignments.”

And many of those assignments are COVID-19 related.

“Many of these have been unintentional or temporary with employees caught overseas by border closures or needing to commence an assignment before they were physically able to travel,” Anna says. 

While this increase in remote work is likely to remain post-pandemic, Anna argues that there are a number of factors that need addressing before incorporating WFA into your policy. 

“There are a range of challenges to be considered including permanent establishment risk, tax and social security compliance, immigration and right-to-work, employment law, healthcare, and data security.”

Managing compliance when hiring internationally 

Regardless of your method, compliance is essential for all international employment. Organizations that are only now beginning to hire from other countries (whether in addition to their mobile employees or instead of) may find this a more complicated process. 

When hiring internationally, employers must contend with foreign employment laws that have vastly different tax, PTO, benefits, and termination requirements. You’ll also need to determine whether you’ll establish in the country or employ an employer of record service like Shield GEO. 

“It is somewhat paradoxical that despite the absence of a physical relocation from virtual assignments, the breadth and complexity of the issues involved can be much greater,” KPMG shares in their report.

The future of global mobility 

It’s clear that WFA and remote work is here to stay, but talent mobility will likely always have a place in our work structures too. 

“Even with the best technology, there will always be roles with face-to-face or hands-on elements which need an employee on the ground,” Anna argues. 

Tim agrees, arguing that it may even become a company’s selling point. 

“The world is still getting smaller, we still see companies want to engage internationally, that’s all going to continue, and there is still a desire for people to [relocate],” he says. 

“People want to work internationally. They want to gain that experience. It’s now a matter of employer value proposition.”

He argues that the skills required to run global mobility operations could mean companies are in an excellent position to create exciting opportunities for their employees. 

“Because they have the expertise, they can actually create opportunities for their organizations to engage and retain talented people in ways that maybe their competitors can’t, or even in ways that their company hadn’t been open to before,” he says.

“Mobility could offer a digital nomad program, or a remote year moving between your offices in three different countries to grads, or whatever it may be.”  

Mobility has already used their skill sets across various needs throughout the pandemic, proving that they needn’t be boxed into relocation. 

“[In the past, leadership] would only come to [mobility] when they wanted to move a person from A to B,” Tim says, “But last year, businesses were in this situation where they were like, ‘Oh, we’ve got this person stuck in Spain, we don’t know what to do,’ or, ‘We want to hire this person in this country,’ or, ‘We’ve got this employee in this scenario, and we don’t know how to handle it,’ and in that scenario, you need someone who understands immigration, understands employment, understands tax, and nobody has that experience except for mobility.”

No matter what’s next, it’s clear that global mobility teams will be invaluable in creating solutions for the future. 


— Bree Caggiati

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