Employee mobility post-lockdown – what do companies need to be aware of?
Ema Boccagni, September 09, 2020
As many countries have begun relaxing the restrictions imposed due to COVID-19, there’s been an increase in business activity and a tentative opening of borders which has allowed people to enter countries again.
However, in the event these countries and regions reimpose restrictions there are a number of factors that companies should keep in mind when managing employee mobility during this period of recovery and uncertainty.
Companies anticipate another year of grounded assignees
In a recent survey, ECA asked hundreds of global mobility teams about their responses to the unfolding pandemic and sentiment for the future. Over 370 companies took part, representing a variety of industry sectors and 38 different countries.
The survey revealed that over half of respondents offered their staff repatriation on account of the pandemic, with some variations depending on the headquarters’ location.
Although most expect their staff to return to their locations of work at some point, many were pessimistic about how long it would take before assignee numbers returned to pre-outbreak levels, expecting it to take up to 12 months before all of their staff would be able to return.
More positively though, only a small minority of companies felt their number of mobile employees would never return to pre-pandemic levels.
Even if risks in the host location abate and business leaders want employees to return, consideration needs to be given to whether host countries have imposed restrictions to the point that it is currently impossible for employees to return.
China for example presently prohibits foreigners, including holders of valid work permits, from entering. Similarly, some countries where restrictions are less strict still require people to quarantine or self-isolate for a time upon entry.
Further reading on employee mobility in a pandemic:
Popular for encouraging employee mobility as alternatives to long-term international assignments, commuter and short-term assignments saw a surge in uptake on the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Our data showed approximately 40% of companies had experienced an increase in short-term assignments while 25% had seen more commuter assignments in the last three years.
Immigration restrictions put in place in response to COVID-19 have reduced the viability of these assignment types.
Yet to many these remain essential. Under pressure from business leaders, Hong Kong has now moved to relax business travel between the SAR and Guangdong, while the UK government has been lobbied intensively to exempt technical specialists, who need to ‘fly-in, fly-out’ on a commuter basis, from recently imposed quarantine restrictions.
In what is already a fast-moving regulatory world, mobility teams will need to closely monitor relevant procedures, not least to ensure assignees can obtain permissions to travel.
Given that many employees on short-term assignments have been stranded during a COVID-19 lockdown, employers should review policies to ensure they cover the costs associated with accommodation, any necessary medical treatment, and other relevant costs for an employee whose return home has been made impossible by circumstances beyond their control.
Medical and travel insurance policies
As we’ve seen in parts of the UK with ‘local lockdowns’ triggered by surges in infection rates, fears of further waves of transmission or a re-emergence of the virus during the winter 2020-21 flu season remain present in the absence of a vaccine.
While it is extremely likely that countries and companies will be much better prepared for a re-emergence of the virus, the absence of a vaccine means that companies have a duty of care to ensure that their mobile employees receive support if they become infected whilst working overseas at the request of their employer.
This will likely require them to revisit medical insurance policies or request that providers update policies to ensure that coverage associated with COVID-19 (or any other future pandemic) is included.
Coverage may include treatment as well as precautionary evacuation. Likewise, corporate travel insurance policies should be reviewed to see whether costs associated with precautionary repatriation are covered.
Support will be crucial
The tentative process of resuming cross-border mobility of employees is likely to be long and requires considerable attention to a lot more detail than was necessary six months ago.
As we step into what will undoubtedly be a changed world, it is important to bear in mind that there will be new challenges associated with managing expatriate staff on top of those we have become used to over the years. Whether to do with healthcare, family and financial concerns or something else entirely, support from HR and global mobility teams will be crucial.
Ema Boccagni is commercial director EMEA at ECA International.