By Olivier Meier, Mercer

From zero to hero: in six months, the concept of virtual assignment has moved from being described as an unrealistic option and a mere fad to the top of the mobility professionals’ priority list. However, the multiplicity of possible international remote working scenarios and lack of clear principles have confused the debate.

This debate about virtual assignments could redefine the role of talent mobility professionals in global workforce management for the better or, on the contrary, accelerate their relegation to purely administrative tasks.

The pace of change is accelerating for HR and mobility professionals, who need to play a role in framing the discussion.

Major disconnect between stakeholders

Over the past few months, the different stakeholders did not react at the same pace to the virtual assignment question, and their viewpoints diverged:

  • Employees have been forced to work from home because of the crisis, and for them the remote issue is a tangible one rather than purely philosophical speculation. They have developed new expectations: working remotely to improve their lifestyle or better respond to family imperatives. Some of them might consider remote working as the new normal. They may be tempted to fly under the radar and work in another country stealthily or request a virtual assignment in good faith without realizing all the compliance complexities.
  • Top management has, in many organizations, sent positive messages about virtual working but remained very vague about the implementation of their promises. In several high profile organizations, the buzz, often triggered by the CEO, has been that employees can work from wherever they want. These CEOs did not have international virtual assignments and their related complexities in mind when making this kind of statements. Yet, while the message from top management has to be clarified, there is an expectation that somethinghas to be done even if it is bound to be more limited in scope than originally announced.
  • Finally, HR – specifically global mobility professionals – have, from the beginning, been pointing at the compliance challenges. In some cases, they dismissed a bit too quickly the whole virtual assignment concept as nonsense. Ironically, the most qualified people who should be driving the response to the remote working debate process have been rather slow and reluctant to respond.

Reconciling these different points of views is important. Nobody wants to deal with the consequences of employees crossing borders because they are oblivious of the compliance risks. Top management might be sending confusing messages, but it would not be wise for HR teams to ignore the expectations of the other stakeholders and not detail what is really feasible and offer alternatives.

Have far do you want to go?

Not all companies face the same remote working challenges. Each organization needs to decide how far it can go with international virtual assignments:

  • At the minimum, companies need to deal with the impact of temporary remote working. Some assignees where forced to work remotely because of the circumstances. How do they return to normal if a virtual assignment will not remain an option going forward? Some assignees may still be relocating to their host location but forced to work from home rather than an office. What does it mean for the expectations of the assignees and their experience in the host location?
  • The next point to consider is that the virtual assignment debate is an extension of the more general question of working from home. As companies establish policies for working from home, the question of doing so across borders will invariably be triggered by management or employees. Guidelines will be required to detail what is allowed and structure the decision process. Mobility professionals will need to contribute to the design of remote working policies and processes even if it doesn’t involve traditional global mobility issues.
  • Finally, organizations will need to decide if they want to offer virtual assignments as an alternative to some traditional long-term and short-term international assignments. It would be difficult to replace all international assignments, but in some specific scenarios could a virtual assignment be an alternative to international moves? Answering this question requires a deep dive into potential scenarios and an assessment of the feasibility of virtual moves.

Virtual assignments or international remote working during a traditional assignment?

There are many possible definitions of virtual assignments – ranging from temporary remote working measures to visions of fully fledged new forms of assignments. The fact that periods of international remote working can take place during traditional assignments is adding to the complexity – i.e. employees may want or be forced to spend part of their traditional international assignment working remotely from their home country or a third country. We are also seeing commuters who want to change their commuting patterns and spend more time at home. Companies are also exploring how to combine a short-term assignments and periods of international remote working.

Initiated by employees, these mixed approaches increase the risk of compliance breaches and make tracking more complex. When more thoroughly planned within the guidelines provided by the companies, they might help solve some of the limits of international remote working.

Clarifying the original intention

Is the concept of virtual assignment supporting clear objectives for the employee and the company, or is just a reaction to an unexpected crisis situation? Clarifying the intention means different things: Why do we use virtual assignments? Is it in the interest of the business or of the employee or both? The answer to the latter question can help determine who should bear potential additional costs. Companies provide a more limited budget for self-requested moves than for business-essential international assignments. The same logic could be applied to virtual assignments.

Clarifying the intention is also about the long-term objectives and the duration of the assignments. International remote working can trigger additional tax liabilities and compliance issues based on their duration of the assignment. There is also the question of the next move and career plans after a virtual assignment. Many global mobility professionals have experienced scenarios where employees have been localized in host locations only for management to realize one or two years later that the employees in question are required to move again. Sometimes the problems are related to career management: an ill-planned ad-hoc assignment does not bring tangible benefit for the employee and the company over the long-term. Misreading or simply not checking the long-term intentions could trigger additional costs and problems down the line. The same questions about planned duration and next career steps are applicable for virtual assignments. Mobility professionals normally include sets of principles – e.g. the equalization principle, the existence or absence of a link with the home country, and an analysis of mobility drivers – and more generally a consistent logic in mobility policies. They need to leverage these principles to help structure the virtual mobility debate.

Taking a first step

When dealing with international remote working, the list of potential issues is overwhelming. These five points can help you get started:

  1. Clarify and prioritize scenarios. What are the most likely remote working scenarios in the short-term?
  2. State clearly the intention. Why do we allow (or not allow) international remote working for the listed scenarios? What does it bring to the business, the risks, the duration, etc.?
  3. Confirm the scope of international remote working and limitations. Virtual assignments cannot be universally applied, so what limitations and safeguards should be in place? Are they allowed within specific regions or between given locations for a limited duration? Is there a need to add clauses in non-mobility policies (e.g. working from home policies) to clarify what happens if an employee asks to work across borders?
  4. Address potential gaps. Is there a risk of having virtual assignees fly under the radar and trigger the same problems that companies experienced (and are still experiencing) with business travelers and commuters? Avoiding gaps could also be about anticipating the side effects of international remote working such as the marginalization of specific employees groups who either struggle with virtual work or, on the contrary, would be offered only virtual assignments instead of traditional international assignments that would be more beneficial for their careers.
  5. Reflect on a possible alternative. If a virtual assignment is not feasible for a given scenario, what are the other options? The business is looking for solutions and not a yes or no answer to virtual assignments as such. The topic of virtual assignments should be discussed within the wider issue of managing a globally distributed workforce. Rather than just focus on their traditional global mobility perspective, HR professionals should take part in a global talent-brokering role to assist with employee re-deployment globally. This redeployment could sometimes imply physical relocations of employee and sometimes not. In any cases, mobility professionals should make a positive contribution to the decision process.