Will working-from-anywhere models disrupt global mobility policies?
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John van der Luit-Drummond is editor of International Employment Lawyer

A PwC survey from June 2020 found that 27% of employers believed covid-19 would fundamentally impact workforce mobility policies. The results were surprising considering the results of an April 2020 survey found just 12% of companies expected the pandemic to affect the movement of their workers in the long term. Equally of note, only 24% of respondents to the June survey predicted international moves would return to pre-covid levels, compared with 44% who answered the same question just three months earlier.

The apparent rethink of immigration by multinational companies is multifaceted, but the relative success of home working throughout the coronavirus crisis should not be understated. Boston Consulting Group’s recent “Workplace of the Future” survey found that companies expect 40% of their employees to follow a remote-working model in the future, and an Ius Laboris survey found 69% of companies expect greater flexibility of remote working over the next 12-18 months.

Meanwhile, every day more and more employers, from oil giant BP to tech behemoths Spotify and Salesforce, and the magic circle’s Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters, allow for ongoing home working even after lockdown restrictions are eased. So, when it comes to global mobility, are PwC’s survey results just a blip or are multinationals preparing to radically rethink the movement of their labour?

Kunle Obebe, a partner at Bloomfield Law Practice in Nigeria, believes international companies will more carefully consider whether their business operations require the presence of expatriate employees in the future. “In instances where the value provided by expatriate employees is so crucial to the business that a physical team needs to be assembled to carry out a particular project, global mobility of employees cannot be avoided,” he says. “We expect a slight, albeit insignificant reduction in global mobility largely because the number [of] instances where employee mobility is vital to the success of a particular project or operation supersedes those that are otherwise.”  

“Businesses will, as they always have done, look at how important a move is,” agrees Rajiv Naik, a director of Fragomen in London. “Travel restrictions as a result of covid have been immensely challenging for international business, but what is interesting is that where the need for someone to travel is both urgent and business-critical, it still has to happen. While, historically, a move can be facilitated fairly quickly, based on geographic location, an additional level of strategy is now needed. Taking this into account, we are still seeing people move and negotiating the relevant quarantine provisions, etc.”

Despite predictions that either a full remote or hybrid model will become the dominant force in the future of work, perhaps negating the need for employee relocation, Naik expects to see a resumption of inbound business immigration into the UK once covid travel restrictions are eased.

“Remote working is interesting, and it may change how much time we spend in the office, but many will argue that some physical presence in the office is needed. I have heard people across a range of industries say you can’t fully replace face-to-face interaction with video conferencing – there are great tools available, but the in-person maintenance of a client or coworker relationship, particularly on sensitive matters, is still cherished and we continue to see a lot of movement as a result.

“There are also other additional factors to consider when looking at remote working – for example, you also have to think about the training of staff. The professional acumen you gain when you are sitting listening to others is both valuable and incredibly important.”

Whether full-time remote working becomes the norm will be a question for each industry. The needs of manufacturers can be different to those in the hospitality sector or professional services, but changes to global mobility are most likely to occur in the technology and digital marketing sectors, according to Obebe. “The ability of companies in this sector to thrive with remote teams, as well as a reduction in overhead costs, makes it a desirable option for companies in this sector. The oil and gas sector is also likely to see a rise in relocation for short-term work – usually between one to three months,” he says.

“As employers in the oil and gas industry begin to rethink some of their operational structures, more emphasis may be placed on cost-cutting and skill transfer to local employees as employees may be relocated temporarily to handle only critical issues or provide expertise on a particular project.”

BDO’s “Combatting the Crisis with Business Resilience” survey, found that driving down costs (21%) and adopting new digital solutions (15%) are the key priorities for businesses across Europe. “A lot of businesses will be looking to save costs in the long term by reducing travel and having smaller office space,” believes Laura Farnsworth, head of Lewis Silkin’s rockhopper service. “They’ll be reassessing their normal ways of working. There is a lot of talk about it, but whether it happens is another thing.”

“Businesses have always tried to operate in a lean fashion so efficiency, particularly with the increased use of data analytics, is something employers will increasingly look at,” offers Naik. “However, when you are building teams, across a range of industries, having people on the ground to service your clients is incredibly important.”

Will the seniority of employees be seen as an increasingly important factor in the decision-making process? Not so much, according to Naik. “Employees of all levels and positions can be important to a business and have that element of business criticality attached to their roles,” he says. “If you look at many of the developing countries, particularly across Europe – Poland and Hungary, for example – there is a lot of data and financial analysis taking place in those jurisdictions which is critical to business, so workers are having to move into those countries at all levels.”

A recent report from global employment website Monster found that 46% of large companies are now more open to hiring workers who don’t live in a city where the organisation has a physical office. If the prevalence of remote working does render the geographic location of a prospective employee as no longer a prerequisite or deciding factor for employment, will we see a new war for talent globally? 

“I do not envisage an unprecedented rise in talent acquisition as a result of global mobility policies,” says Obebe. “Employers will still relocate staff to new jurisdictions where employees’ presence are vital to the success of an operation or project. However, for sectors where employees can work on projects wherever they are in the world, talent acquisition in new jurisdictions may not be necessary as employers can have their best in-house talent work in other jurisdictions from the comfort of their homes.”

“There are a lot of employees who are saying, ‘Well, I can work anywhere so I’d quite like to be based for part of the year in Spain and part of the year in London’,” adds Farnsworth. “Then employers realise there are all sorts of tax and social security implications, as well as other employment rights in that country where the employee is based – issues that the employee and employer had no idea about. We’ve given quite a lot of advice over recent months to employers that didn’t even know their employees were now based in another country.”

“I do think certain countries and cities carry a great weight,” remarks Naik. “London is still a highly desirable city for people to move to. The educational facilities available, the job prospects, and general city lifestyle are still incredibly desirable.

“It is interesting to note that, in some foreign countries, there are strict rules governing remote working, meaning an employee couldn’t work from there without considering their immigration position, for example. Now, because of covid, workers are stranded overseas with companies having to facilitate that from a compliance standpoint and asking themselves questions they would never have asked before.”