Authors: Kenny Ransquin – RSM Belgium, Dr Karsten Ley – RSM Germany, Brian James – RSM Netherlands, Jerome Regnier – RSM France and Augustin de La Chapelle – RSM Switzerland

The transforming mobility landscape

The pandemic has impacted us all. Businesses, society and economies all over the world have been hit hard and, as a result, countries have been forced to take extensive measures in order to combat the virus. These include closing borders, making international business travel nearly impossible.

The pandemic acted as a catalyst for businesses around the world to respond rapidly in agile and purposeful ways. As a result, the priorities of advisers shifted towards ensuring their clients were fully informed about available support measures, such as temporary unemployment relief, and the actions they needed to take to maintain the well-being and resilience of their employees and the business. In particular, with the concept of working from home full-time being new territory for many organisations, sharing strategic guidance on the adoption of effective and sustainable remote working policies became a top priority.

With border closures and travel restrictions enforced, assignments were either terminated early, postponed or simply never launched. Amidst ongoing uncertainty, many employees chose to work from their country of origin, creating a multitude of risks for businesses ranging from tax and social security, to labour law amongst others. As the pandemic progressed, it became increasingly important to innovate and find new ways of working.  

For employers and employees respectively, digital technology has provided a vital lifeline in these times, enabling business continuity and allowing companies to remain cohesive and efficient despite the disruption of employees working from various different locations. This geographical dissemination of teams brought with it new tax considerations for business, including the risk of creating a permanent establishment for the employer, as well as other tax payment and reporting obligations. As the trend for remote working is likely to continue in some form well beyond the pandemic, businesses will need to adapt their tax compliance, reporting and HR policies to meet the needs of the new environment.

Re-activation and the new normal

Strategic global mobility projects are likely to remain a priority for companies (for example, technical expertise may be needed on location, or senior executive leadership may be required to lead on key business transaction plans). However, more broadly the experience from the pandemic now provides business with a framework to assess the objectives of its global assignment policy and governance. This includes an analysis of mobility-related spending, the type of employee packages to offer (and the attached remuneration) and the extent to which global objectives can be achieved via ‘virtual assignments’ while travel restrictions are in place. This is an opportunity for global mobility teams to show that they can create further value to the business, with some even looking towards designing a more virtual and flexible global workforce — moving work to the people, rather than the people to the work.

In the post-Covid working environment, immigration, tax, and legal issues, plus ever-changing regulations mean that businesses are required to juggle a myriad of new rules, greater compliance and increasing complexity. This is likely, in the immediate term, to challenge the value of short-term secondments, with these being reserved only for key talent development or immediate resources shortages.

Our experience so far is that in these cases, business has increasingly been able to adapt and use virtual assignments with great success where travel is not easily achievable.    

The long-term impacts of the pandemic on international business travel, and employee movement remains unclear as circumstances continue to change at pace. To remain agile, global mobility teams should consider what initiatives will best attract and support the individuals that the business needs to deliver its global strategy. Progress driven businesses will need to adopt a flexible  mindset and embrace change by reimagining contemporary talent strategies and adjusting operating models accordingly. Naturally, the right approach is unique to each individual organisation, and strategies will depend on location, the nature of the business and the scope of global projects. Crucially, mobility teams should proactively prepare by way of scenario planning for further waves of the virus and, subsequently, additional enforced lockdown periods.

Despite the many challenges presented to businesses and their people over the past 16 months, it is our view that global mobility and international assignments of employees are here to stay, remaining key for companies that are looking to develop and expand globally. With this in mind, companies should continue to focus on the selection process and the managing of talent for international assignments. A successful global mobility policy will add great value by providing clarity on assignment structure, remuneration, career opportunities, and roles and responsibilities. With recent legislative and regulatory measures in the spotlight, particularly in the areas of data protection and mandatory disclosures, companies will need to develop appropriate procedures and documentation for their internationally mobile workforce. Having the right policies and procedures in place will demonstrate an organisation’s commitment to putting its greatest assets first – its employees.