Managing international employees working from anywhere, part 2:

The different dimensions of international virtual working

By Marcel BlomOlivier Meier, and Sabine Rock-Speelman, Mercer

In the past, companies have allowed some of their international assignees who could not relocate to the host location to work remotely from their home countries or a third location. These cases constituted exceptions managed on an ad-hoc basis. The Covid-19 crisis has now turned work practices upside down, and remote working has become the temporary new normal for a large number of assignees as companies struggle to maintain business continuity. The concept of virtual assignment is here to stay, and organizations are investing time and effort to assess its feasibility over the long-term.

The virtual assignment (or international remote working) concept is describes two scenarios:

  • The first and most obvious option is to allow an employee to remain in the home country while performing tasks and being responsible for operations in a different location.
  • Virtual mobility can also mean allowing an employee to work in third country of choice that is not the home country or the location benefitting from the task performed.

However, International virtual working is best defined as a part of the wider remote working picture and cannot be discussed in isolation from the company’s general practices regarding home offices and remote working for all employees.

Integrating virtual assignments in the wider remote working framework

International virtual working can be analyzed across different dimensions:

  • The location of the virtual workers. Virtual assignees can be based in the home location, in the host location, or in a third country. These three options have very different consequences from a work set up perspective: they may imply an international relocation but not always.
  • The location of the employer is also relevant and, again, there are three possibilities. The employers might be in the home country of the employees, in the host assignment location, or in a third country. The practical management and compliance issues among these options may vary greatly.
  • Finally, we need to consider the physical workplace. Are the virtual workers working from an office, from home, and are they travelling between locations?

Chart depicts dimensions of virtual international working assignments, on three axes

The analysis of these dimensions lead to a complex matrix of possible scenarios. It may be tempting to try to turn these scenarios into a series of policies. However, the goal here is not to increase complexity and come up with a cumbersome model that would be difficult to manage.

The main objectives are to:

  • Avoid oversimplifying the virtual mobility debate. Commentators often assume that virtual mobility either is the cornerstone of the future of work or, on the contrary, cannot be a viable long-term option (usually due to perceived compliance issues.) A lack of proper definition of virtual mobility and preconceptions based on previous experiences are adding to the confusion. Organizations have to define clearly what virtual mobility means for their specific businesses.
  • Integrate virtual assignments in the wider context of remote working. The artificial boundaries between talent mobility and virtual working grow less and less relevant. Likewise, the debate should not be constrained by the current purview of the mobility teams. It is not possible to discuss international virtual assignments without taking into account how the organization manages working from home and remote working in general. Collecting and reviewing current working from home policies and various forms of flexible working arrangements for local employees is an important preliminary step.
  • Understand which virtual mobility scenarios will be relevant for the business and how HR could integrate them in their mobility decision processes.
  • Establish the feasibility of virtual working for these scenarios, taking into account a range of factors including compliance and work characteristics but also cost considerations, the company’s culture and processes, along with employee and management’s expectations
  • Set up a comprehensive implementation strategy by bringing together the relevant stakeholders and HR functions.

Avoiding implementation pitfalls

When implementing virtual assignments, organizations should not exclusively focus on compliance issues and overlook the employee value proposition and the real business case.

Looking beyond compliance. It would be a mistake to assume that international virtual working is purely a compliance issue. Ensuring full compliance is essential for the business but compliance considerations alone cannot drive the business strategy. The purpose of a comprehensive feasibility study is to establish the potential barriers beyond pure compliance issues. Many attempts to implement remote working fail because of cultural issues (management and employees) and inadequate processes.

Defining the employee value proposition. The adoption of remote working programs can affect the employee value proposition of an organization and ultimately its employer branding on the market. What does it means in terms of employee experience? Will virtual assignments open up international opportunities for employees who would normally not be mobile? Or present an opportunity to rejoin the workforce to talented workers who were forced to take a break for family reasons? Is it about lifestyle, flexibility, and work-life balance? What’s the likely impact on satisfaction and retention? Understanding the value proposition will also inform practical questions about pay, career management, and the level of support expected by employees. Employers should not make too many assumptions about what employees want. Preferences should be measured with employee surveys and regular feedback. A design thinking approach can be used to better understand the specific preferences of each group of employees.

Clarifying the business case and the organizational context. The Covid-19 crisis is forcing companies to adopt new work setup. Leveraging this experience is useful, but an international virtual working strategy should be based on the business’ long-term requirements. Similarly, any new strategy should address the resilience and productivity objectives and not just respond to purely tactical cost-saving considerations. How will international remote working fit in the global business strategy or the organization’s HR framework? Input from top management and the different stakeholders (HR and line management) is required to have a true picture of the overall context and business strategy.

Just as mobility is more than a simple international relocation, virtual assignments are a piece of a wider work reorganization puzzle. It is a step in the direction of establishing a global distributed workforce. In other words, it is another facet of managing a network of international talent across borders through a combination of traditional international moves, remote working, and rotation across functions.