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By Lee Quane, regional director – Asia at ECA International

Many countries have begun the process of relaxing the restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 with an increase in business activity in many locations. With businesses being eager to recover, what should companies be considering when managing employee mobility during this period?

Can and should your repatriated assignees return?
According to recent research by ECA, approximately 20-30% of respondents had repatriated some staff on account of the pandemic, with most of these expecting staff to return to their locations of work at some point. However, many of them were pessimistic about how long they expected it would take before their assignee numbers returned to pre-outbreak levels.

Most companies expect that it might take 3 to 12 months before all of their staff would be able to return. More positively, though, fewer than 5% of companies felt that Covid-19 had caused an overall structural decline in employee mobility and that their numbers of mobile employees would never return to pre-pandemic levels.

Nonetheless, even if risks in the host location have abated and business leaders would like their employees to return, consideration always needs to be given in mind, whether or not host countries have imposed restrictions to the point that it is currently impossible for employees to return.

Similarly, countries where restrictions are less strict, it may still be advisable in order to prevent an asymptomatic employee returning to the office and passing the virus on to local colleagues. 

Medical and travel insurance policies
Fears of further waves of transmission or a re-emergence of the virus during the winter 2020-21 influenza season remain present in the absence of a coronavirus vaccine. While it’s extremely likely that countries and companies will be much better prepared for a re-emergence of the virus, the absence of a vaccine means that companies have a duty of care to ensure that their mobile employees receive support if they become infected while working overseas at the request of their employer.

This will likely require business leaders to revisit medical insurance policies or request that providers update policies to ensure that coverage associated with Covid-19 (or any other future pandemic) is included. Likewise, corporate travel insurance policies should be reviewed to see whether costs associated with precautionary repatriation are covered. 

Meanwhile, given that many companies have had employees on short-term assignments (including business travel or commuter assignments) being stranded in an assignment location during a Covid-19 lockdown, companies should also review policies to ensure they cover the costs associated with accommodation, any necessary medical treatment, and other relevant costs for an employee whose return home has been made impossible by circumstances beyond their control. 

Home leave: Delay, cash out or something else?
ECA’s Benefits for International Assignments policy survey showed that over 90% of organisations provide some form of assistance associated with long-term assignees returning to their home location periodically throughout their international assignment. However, during the current pandemic, many employees have been unable to use this benefit and may be unable to do so for the immediate future on account of either health concerns, quarantine restrictions or the inability to travel back to their home location.

Some companies have accepted the fact that the employee has not or may not be able to use it during the time in which the benefit is applicable. Others have simply allowed the employee to roll it over to the next year.

Managing commuter and short-term assignments
Two of the most popular methods of encouraging employee mobility in recent years, as alternatives to long-term international assignments, are commuter and short-term assignments. ECA’s Global Mobility Now Survey showed that approximately 40% of companies had experienced an increase in short-term assignments, while 25% had seen more commuter assignments, in the last three years.

Immigration restrictions put in place in response to Covid-19 have reduced the viability of these assignment types. In what is already a fast-moving regulatory world, mobility teams will need to closely monitor relevant procedures, not least to ensure assignees can obtain permissions to travel.

As economies begin to emerge from lockdowns and other restrictions that were put in place to combat the spread of Covid-19, companies are initiating their own recoveries, including the tentative resumption of cross-border mobility of employees.

It is important to bear in mind that there will be new challenges associated with managing expatriate staff, on top of those we have become used to over the years. Whether they are to do with family or financial concerns, or something else entirely, support from HR and global mobility teams will be crucial.