The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to affect the way we live and work. Although many borders are beginning to open up, travel is still restricted making it difficult for companies to manage their overseas operations and utilise an expatriate workforce.  

But, continuing to operate effectively overseas is not impossible and there is a solution - many companies are making use of technology and virtual assignments as a way of servicing their international operations on both a short and longer-term basis.

So, what are virtual assignments and how can they help mitigate mobility restrictions?

What are virtual assignments?

The term ‘virtual assignment’ is best defined as an arrangement in which an employee is based in one country but virtually performs their role in the assignment country.  The employee might occasionally visit the assignment location on business trips for any necessary face-to-face activities if the work is business-critical and if the travel abides by the country’s COVID-19 procedures.

Although this might have seemed an alien concept a few months ago, the Mobility industry and its workforce have always been one of rapid evolution. With the recent ‘force majeure’ many employers are now seeing the benefits of remote work and considering how this can be applied to their expatriate workforce.

There’s now an active appetite from companies to explore the potential of using virtual assignees within their global mobility programme and discover how they can leverage this new-found agility now and in the future.

Will virtual assignments replace traditional international assignments?

Although virtual assignments bring with them many benefits such as cost savings for both the employee and employer, and more time with loved ones for the employee, the idea of virtual assignments is not to replace traditional international assignments. There will always be a need for mobile talent to relocate abroad! But rather, a virtual assignment should be seen as one more tool in the growing collection of options that companies can use to deploy their global operations and workforce. In addition, virtual assignments can further grow the talent pool for companies seeking to grow their international operations.

How can you be sure a virtual assignment is succeeding?

Some would think it’s difficult to evaluate the success of a virtual assignment, but the proof of success is demonstrated much like it would be if the employee was in country. Success is demonstrated if, when reviewed, the virtual assignee has performed their role and met all the assignment deliverables expected.

But, success could be hindered if a company fails to include virtual assignments in their global mobility programmes and policies – these must be in place to ensure there is both enough support for the virtual assignee but also compliance, mitigation of risk and cost-effectiveness. For example, ‘ad hoc’ virtual assignment arrangements with no support in place could result in failure of the assignment - experience shows that companies face different outcomes when implementing virtual assignments (even among those in the same industry), due to each company’s specific work practices, company culture and processes so companies should prepare for each virtual assignment as they would prepare for a traditional assignment.  

What should you consider before implementing a virtual assignment?

To ensure a successful virtual assignment, there are quite a few things a global mobility professional (as well as their companies) needs to think about. Such as:

  • Global Mobility Policy - does it need to be revised?

  • Tax Policy – does it need to be revised?

  • Assignment Contracts - do they need to be revised?

  • Immigration – does the employee have the right to work in the non-assignment country and how does it affect their family?

  • Tax and Social Security – have you reviewed any possible compliance reporting requirements and liabilities?

  • Payroll – could your company be expected to make month employee tax payments in the non-assignment country?

  • Healthcare – will the employee have access to public or private healthcare?

  • Employment Law – has the company considered labour law regulations (minimum wage, social security coverage, pension and healthcare rules)?

  • Duty of Care - can the company effectively support a virtual employee based in a location where limited support is available and where the company does not have an office?

  • Cross Cultural Differences – virtual working assignments can exacerbate cross-cultural differences, creating misunderstandings and impeding productivity. How do you equip the employee to handle this?

  • Permanent Establishment – does the employee expose the company to a permanent establishment risk?

  • Cost – which corporate entity bears the cost?

  • Technology tools – are the right tools in place to support the employee and company?

  • Time zone management – could the differences in time zones impact the employee’s work-life balance?

When prepared for correctly, a virtual assignment could be the perfect solution to managing overseas operations. Although they are unlikely to replace traditional assignments altogether, they are a useful tool to any companies Global Mobility policies, especially during uncertain times.

NES & Global Mobility

If you’re looking for support, we have a team of Global Mobility experts who can use their 20+ years of industry experience to support clients with their mobility programmes. We currently look after 12,000+ contractors and permanent staff across the globe and are well placed to support clients with their mobile workforce needs.

NES Global Talent is proud to announce the strategic alignment between ourselves and the Fircroft Group to create NES Fircroft, one of the leading human capital solutions businesses for engineering and technical talent globally.