In this series of three articles we look at the impact of the pandemic on the world of global mobility and question whether the global mobility function will fundamentally need to adapt to a new normal, or whether in the hope of a vaccine for COVID-19, whether mobility will bounce back and whether global mobility functions will return to their previous state.
We’ll look at external environmental, societal and government pressures and then question what the mobility policy and process of the future will look like.
In late March we conducted a client survey of over 350 organisations. At the time their top three priorities were keeping up to date with regulatory (border closure) requirements, working on internal communications and identifying where their displaced workers were.
By June, organisations had begun to fundamentally re-think their strategy. The early optimism that there might be a quick return to normal had dissipated and in its place organisations began to prepare for the long haul. Dealing with displaced workers was high on the agenda over the summer, as was dealing with the complex immigration and quarantine arrangements for people still in country and ensuring employee wellbeing.
In September, much of Europe and beyond saw a spike in cases and in the second wave many countries have entered further partial or total lockdowns.
Against this backdrop and uncertainty, what have mobility functions been working on and as they prepare business plans what does 2021 hold and what should organisations be doing now? Of course, no one can really assess what may happen in practice and how successful the competing vaccines may be post trial, but the quarterly timelines below may give the mobility function some areas to focus on over the coming months.
As vaccines begin to emerge and be deployed in many countries, the sense of optimism could be tempered by ongoing quarantine and spikes of COVID-19. In this quarter, organisations who are based in or do business with the UK will have to get used to the post Brexit environment which may impact upon travel, immigration and social security opportunities. Many organisations are using the last few days up to 31 December to finalise their Brexit strategy, including ensuring A1 social security applications have been made and renewed for key UK based staff who are likely to need to travel to Europe in the first quarter and beyond (whether or not there is a deal).
Organisations will continue to develop their remote and virtual working plans. Our PwC survey* of 300+ companies indicates that 53% of companies have already set up international and domestic remote work arrangement policies. Of those companies that do not have a policy, 50% anticipate that they will implement one by the end of 2020, leaving some companies with some catching up to do, if they are to remain competitive to attract and deploy talent. The diagram below highlights key considerations employers should address when determining their remote working strategy.
Ongoing quarantine and travel restrictions are likely to apply in the first quarter and governments roll out mass vaccination testing programmes. Over 10 years ago in a previous thought leadership piece, we prophesized the emergence of the “digital passport” enabling free movement of travel without the need for passports and visas. In 2021, this could emerge as the “Digital Medical Passport” certifying that the individual has had their COVID-19 vaccination and therefore doesn’t need to serve a quarantine period on arrival in the host country.
Depending upon the success of vaccination programmes, we may see a return to business travel over the second quarter of 2021. As airlines seek to re-establish routes and given some ongoing restrictions, costs of travel may be increased over pre-pandemic levels. Many organisations have placed significant restrictions on business travel – unwinding these and authorizing costs (which may in future include covering the cost of negative tests) may mean business travel takes some time to re-establish to near normal levels. What is likely to happen is a much sharper focus on cost management, but also employers being far more attuned to health and safety and wellbeing aspects associated with frequent business travel.
As we enter the peak summer vacation period next year, the demand for travel is likely to increase. A number of organisations are considering “long-cation” global remote working. By this, we mean the key ask is to help companies to 'enable' a small amount of working overseas remotely in 2021 - between 4 to 8 weeks - allowing workers to go on extended holidays/ see family overseas next year whilst also doing some work. This will present some tax, social security and immigration challenges, but managed carefully would enable extended families to reset and spend more time together again after the socially distanced summer of 2020.
Government and businesses should hopefully be emerging from the economic impacts of COVID-19. Pressure will be on to grow and replace lost revenues. Remote working may be embedded in the working habits of many, while at the same time many employees will return to office environments, as much for the opportunities to collaborate and socialize with work colleagues, customers and clients.
Throughout the crisis, a key area that has become apparent for a lot of global mobility functions is the need for greater use and integration of technology – the alternative being to outsource the function completely in order to reduce cost and focus on core service delivery. Clients that have struggled for many years to manage their assignee populations, identify business travelers and process global compensation have increasingly recognized the need for better technology and integration. If 2020 has been the year of disruption, 2021 could well be the year of integration.
For many in Global Mobility this has been the toughest and busiest year ever – even despite a significant slow down in new assignments. What stands out to us is the amazing resilience of our clients and their mobility teams and their continued focus on being there for their people, adapting policies and process to accommodate remote working, dealing with displaced assignees and their families. It has highlighted for some where mobility processes and technology can be better and this will be our focus for our second article – “Can we build mobility back better?”.