In 2021, many of us began the year with the hope that the COVID-19 vaccines would bring us back to a certain level of normalcy. While the vaccine rollout did allow greater mobility than at the peak of the pandemic, travel restrictions remained erratic and unpredictable as countries fought to mitigate the spread of new variants. Coupled with rising inflation, and the added challenges in navigating the world of remote working, organisations have had to rethink their mobility strategies and policies for hiring and retaining talent.
Moving into the new year, here are the top three predictions around employee mobility that we expect to encounter, and what employers should anticipate as the pandemic continues to unfold.
1. Enhancing mobility policies to retain expatriate talent will be a major challenge for companies.
Companies are no longer able to command the same loyalty that they did pre-pandemic, and this has been exacerbated in remote and hybrid environments. Working outside of the office has also made it easier for employees to explore new job opportunities.
In places like Hong Kong and Singapore, the prolonged impact of COVID-19 may lead to a higher turnover rate among expatriates, including those who aren’t necessarily hired on assignment conditions in those locations. Places like Dubai, which have fewer COVID-19 restrictions, are thus emerging as enticing destinations against Singapore for expatriate talent.
According to our 2021 Global Mobility and COVID-19 Spot Survey, one out of two assignees who were repatriated at the start of the pandemic have not returned - one of the reasons being that they can perform well even while working remotely. At the same time, continued restrictions may make expatriates question their decisions to return abroad, especially if the labour market in their home countries is more competitive – offering enticing career opportunities that also allow them to stay with their families.
Moreover, tighter border restrictions have made short-term assignments and those with regular commuting arrangements less viable. More companies are asking expatriates to take on longer-term assignments abroad and to bring their families with them. But for some assignees, concerns around the health and well-being of their family, and educational prospects of their children, have ultimately affected their decision to go abroad.
As companies evaluate their strategies for retaining expatriate talent, we are seeing an increased focus on employee wellbeing, and a shift to a more empathetic and holistic approach to the management of the mobile workforce.
The conversation is also moving well beyond the merits of home vs. host-based salary approaches, into the tailoring of packages around the individual, making the whole experience more personal and thus enhancing engagement levels.
2. Business travel will remain erratic and unpredictable.
Business travel will continue to be very stop-start. While countries are starting to open up, COVID-19 is by no means beaten. Recent responses to the Omicron variant show that countries will reimpose travel restrictions when spikes occur, as seen from the temporary suspension of Singapore's Vaccinated Travel Lanes back in December. In particular, China’s pursuit of zero-COVID policy and closed borders will have a significant impact on any recovery in global employee mobility, as it is the most common destination for international assignments and a major destination for international business travel.
Despite the fact that some countries are at the forefront of vaccination rates, others are not seeing fast enough uptake, which continues to hamper widespread re-opening. Furthermore, travelling during the pandemic involves too many processes such as testing and quarantines, which makes international commuting for expatriates costly, time-consuming, and no longer practical.
Even when employees do engage in business travel, hybrid work arrangements and imposed restrictions may also limit how readily available clients and the people they are travelling to see are on-site for meetings. As such, short-term assignment types are unlikely to recommence significantly in 2022, and those who do undertake business travel in 2022 may stay for a longer period to account for these changes.
3. Remote work is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Our recent policy survey shows a jump in companies expecting to see an increase in international remote work assignments, as some are using this approach as a contingency move to be put in place until employees are able to physically relocate.
However, its effectiveness will remain limited according to the extent to which a person can perform their job efficiently in a remote setting.
Many expatriates sent on assignment are there to conduct business development and expansion, but this is very hard to do on a remote basis and being unable to meet clients physically can put them at a disadvantage.
Certain industries such as manufacturing, oil and gas, and services may not be inherently suited for remote work as workers are often required to be physically present at the location or the facility for testing or to oversee operations.
Time difference is another factor that may also limit remote workers’ ability to interact with colleagues or clients located in other far apart time zones.
Considering the above challenges, we may begin to see companies sending their employees to regional hub locations such as Singapore or Hong Kong. This would enable employees to leverage regional support and resources, and manage multiple markets from a single location with little to no time difference with non-hub markets in the same region.
The emergence and rise of new COVID-19 variants such as Omicron may continue to curtail the recovery in employee mobility in 2022. However, despite the pandemic, the world continues to move - albeit at a slower, disrupted pace.
In the longer term, we expect to see trends such as the regionalisation of mobility and tailoring of relocation packages gain momentum in the post-pandemic world. But before we get there, mobility professionals will need to navigate the immediate challenge of balancing the need to retain expatriate employees and manage operational costs while juggling, among their many other responsibilities, immigration compliance, tax planning, administration, and retirement benefits arrangements - all of which have become more complex in many countries as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this means that there will be plenty of challenges associated with cross-border mobility to keep employers on their toes in the years to come.