Slowly Moving

Relocation and business travel are still feeling the strain of the pandemic.

By Simon Kent

The global pandemic grounded employees all over the world. Video calls replaced business class and virtual working platforms took the place of in-person collaboration. With restrictions slowly easing, the return to global travel can begin. Whilst the pace of return maybe compromised by tests and checks, there seems to be some appetite for travel among employees. In fact, Topia’s 2021 Adapt Survey found an increase in the number of employees seeking an international assignment. Jacky Cohen, VP of people and culture for the organization said that 68% of respondents were looking for an opportunity last year compared to 79% this year.

Indeed, Cohen believes the increased workplace flexibility, driven in part by technology, is pushing the trend forward. “We know the expectation to ‘work from anywhere’ has grown exponentially over the past 18 months so we see a future where there will be more mobility, not less,” she says.

Anthony Horton, CRI, says that outside forces like COVID variants and regulations are causing a bit of an unpredictable mobility market. “From a mobility perspective, domestic business travel had definitely picked up progressively from about April of this year in the U.S.,” he says. “International travel has continued to be constrained. Whilst there has been limited consumer travel, corporate relocations have picked up slightly from 2020 (around 5%), but that has been slow to recover based on different entry rules and protocols in place in different countries and regions.”

Others in the sector are more circumspect on the return to travel. “Even as restrictions ease, the future of business travel still hangs under a huge question mark,” says Chris Underwood, MD at executive search and leadership development specialists Adastrum Consulting. Underwood notes that there are still few events on the business calendar which demand travel and in each of these cases, the importance of meeting in person has to outweigh the need to stay safe. Indeed Underwood is not forecasting a return to pre-pandemic travel levels for at least three or four years. “Companies have had to adapt hugely over the past 18 months and proved that technology can replace certain aspects of business or at least reduce the need for regular physical meetings,” he says. “Yet there are still benefits to actual face time that are hard to replace, particularly when it comes to mentoring and professional development so an element of travel will remain.

“Undoubtedly, the accelerated adoption of digital technology and experience of working at home has affected what employees want and expect from roles,” he continues. “Flexibility will certainly help organisations attract and retain talent. Recruiting and developing leaders and teams ready to adapt to new environments and requirements will also help businesses to maintain a competitive edge, whatever the future.”

However, Underwood feels HR’s agenda will still need to be tipped towards mitigating feelings of isolation and ensuring employee mental health and well-being is supported.

Caroline Walmsley, AXA Global Healthcare‘s global head of HR argues that a return to travel is to be welcomed from the point of view of enhancing employee performance and generating ideas. “Whilst the adoption of virtual ways of working has accelerated as a result of the pandemic, the technologies were there before and businesses and employees still chose to travel, for the value of human connection, personal development, and the ability to spark innovation and creativity,” she points out. “Our research shows over a third of international workers view potential career progression as a key driver for going on an international assignment.”

Just like many things in human capital management, Walmsley says the approach to travel will have to pivot due to new circumstances. “Going forward, business travel may become more purposeful and will require more planning and consideration,” she says. In her experience, she says the value of travel does outweigh new challenges and that HR decision-makers are predicting an increase in all types of assignments over the next five years, particularly short-term ones.

“Business travel is gradually increasing, but we’re far from returning to normal,” agrees Dee Coakley, CEO of international employee platform Boundless, adding that the pandemic may have eliminated the occurrence of unnecessary face-to-face meetings.

“We’ll see employers adapt their policy around business travel, in which employees will only travel if a face-to-face meeting is necessary and a meeting can’t be replicated online,” she believes. “Not only will this result in huge cost savings for the business and be good for our planet, it also means the time employees usually spend on waiting for a train or checking into a flight will be dedicated elsewhere.”

For Croakley, the requirement to work from home and the subsequent realisation that work can be done from anywhere has dulled the excitement of business trips and the ‘perk’ value associated with them. “Now that we are not necessarily stuck in offices, it’s the prospect of choosing where home is, and where work is done, that is far more exciting,” she says. “People could work from anywhere, whether that be a month or a year.”

Storyblok, a company that delivers a content management system for use among developers and marketers, is one company that already uses digital nomads: employees who are stationed all over the world. Lydia Kothmeier, vice president of operations says that for too long, travelling has been viewed as something that should be done on weekends and during annual leave. This equates to long-haul getaways and global expeditions only being possible during gap years, sabbaticals, or saved for retirement.

Kothmeier notes research in Harvard Business Review has charted the rise of digital nomads in professions where talent shortages are common. “From our experience too, the types of digitally savvy and highly professional individuals we tend to attract at Storyblok thrive on the freedom and flexibility afforded by remote working. For some, we know it was one of the key factors which originally attracted them to the job,” she says.

This style of work may also provide a natural extension to contract workers. “I believe we will move to a place where gig work and digital nomad workers will merge into the same structure,” says Horton. “I do think organizations are more open to this concept [digital nomands] than many were before COVID and the mass move to remote and virtual working, but it will be through gig workers. From a taxation and immigration perspective, the complexities associated with a full-time employee moving from region to region or country to country could be challenging if not nearly impossible to figure out.”

Clearly not every role can be carried out remotely, but a swift browse through social media highlights the attraction of living and working out of a camper van, cruising around the world whilst fulfilling the needs of one or more employer. However, tapping into this talent successfully does require more than being able to offer the right kind of work.

“To begin with, it’s important to have a holistic strategy in place which includes communication, documentation, collaboration, onboarding, synchronised work, and cyber security,” says Kothmeier. “Businesses should also consider how the company culture can be retained on a remote basis, whether it’s through more internal communications, company meetings, buddy catch ups, weekly team calls, and the like.”

As travel returns, HR has an opportunity now to act more strategically with regard to employee mobility, incorporating it into their talent management strategies. “If we can find the intersection of our business goals with the ambitions and asks of our employees, it creates a “win-win” and ultimately catapults our company forward,” says Topia’s Cohen.

Whilst this is one aspect of business travel in the new world, the other challenge facing HR will be dealing with the administrative challenge of having employees operating in different jurisdictions. The rules could be complicated, and understanding the implications of managing employment and tax law all over the world should not be underestimated. If companies want to take advantage of mobile-skilled workers around the world, they’ll need to do so without opening themselves up to penalties for both themselves and those they employ.

Tags: EMEA September October 2021, Relocation

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