Business man travelling


Expert View on Global Mobility Management Post-Covid

14 December 2021

It is safe to say that the Covid-19 pandemic the world is currently experiencing is likely to have a long and far-reaching impact on how we work. Global workforces found themselves working from home full-time for long periods, and in many cases, with very little notice. 

We spoke to Elysia Hegarty, Associate Director and Wellness Lead at CPL’s Future of Work Institute, to understand some of the long-term repercussions on global mobility management, and how “this crisis has had a significant impact on employees being able to conduct assignments or secondments in other countries.”


With the greater advent of flexible and remote working, what might this mean to the management of the expat, foreign assignment working model? To begin, let's go back to Spring 2020 to understand the initial impact the pandemic had on expat employees. 

For expats on long-term assignments and their employers, the start of the pandemic left them with some difficult decisions to make in a short amount of time. As the world was shutting down and limiting international travel, expats and business leaders had to choose whether to:

  • Return to their home country
  • Remain on assignment 
  • Travel to an alternative third country

The level of uncertainty and instability from country to country made this a difficult call. Survey results from those on assignment at the beginning of the pandemic showed expats and international transfers experienced the highest levels of stress during this period. The largest contributors to expat stress during this period were:

  • Stay-at-home orders
  • Planning travel 
  • Restrictions on immigration


HR teams with international assignees had to try to stay on top of differing information from governments around the world as they executed duty of care in a fluid situation.


A survey by ECA International found over half of businesses repatriated long term assignees, but largely with the expectation that they would return within a year.


Covid-19 continues to be a problem in many countries around the world; the discovery and deployment of several effective vaccines is reducing serious illness and death in the West. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of access to vaccinations in developing countries and there remain issues with vaccination uptake in some locations. Although globally we are not fully out of the woods, international travel is beginning once again, and countries are lifting some restrictions. 


However, the world we are re-entering is not the world we left, where employees in knowledge-based industries work primarily from an office environment. Remote working was a positive experience for most employees and employers alike, once the most stressful days of the pandemic were behind us, and many employers are now moving to a hybrid working model, combining remote and office-based working. But what does this mean for expat employees?


We have looked at how HR can help manage expats previously, but in our post-covid world, what are the likely changes that HR may need to be aware of when it comes to managing mobility programs?

As the world begins to transition out of imposed lockdowns towards a new normal, it is not yet clear exactly how the pandemic will impact the management of expats. Some early indications include more flexibility in assignment types. More employers than before are planning to include more forms of assignment.

Virtual assignments are not an entirely new concept but there was a considerable rise in their use during the pandemic. As far back as 2001, companies were overcoming the significant cost of expat assignments by organising virtual alternatives. In a survey conducted by ECA International at the time, almost three quarters of businesses believed they would become more popular within the following 3-5 years. 


That increase did not come to pass. It took until the Covid-19 pandemic for a significant growth in virtual assignments to occur. Only 5% of companies used virtual assignments before the pandemic, with 42% introducing or planning to introduce a policy now.  

During the emergency phase of the pandemic, 70% of businesses were using virtual assignments to:

  • Facilitate assignment before relocation
  • Continue an assignment from expats home country
  • Continue assignment in host location

Once again employers believe there is likely to be an increase in virtual assignments. This should be more viable than it was back in 2001, given the advancement in technology that has occurred in the meantime. 


Virtual assignments are likely to be used to meet business needs around relocation, however, they may also be used to offer added flexibility to employees. Virtual assignments may offer a solution when employees are not able to relocate. Safety concerns, the educational needs of dependants or visa complications for same sex partners are just some of the reasons a move may not be possible. Virtual assignments have the bonus of enabling employers to choose from a wider pool of talent. From an employer's perspective there is also a significant cost saving.

Research conducted by KPMG comparing formal mobility programs between 2019 and 2020 found an increase in short term and commuter assignments. Although the more traditional form of expat assignment was still prevalent, global mobility professionals expected change in the kind of assignments offered. Almost half of those surveyed believe there will be more assignments of less than 12 months, more commuter assignments and more permanent transfers with long-term assignments on the decrease.


In line with this added flexibility, KPMG found relocation support is being tailored to the needs of the employee. Those on short-term assignments are more likely to receive pre-assignment training, host location housing and transport. Those on a commuter assignment are provided with security briefing and host location transportation. Finally, permanent transfers are most likely to receive a miscellaneous relocation allowance rather than help in a specific area. 

From a HR perspective, there are going to be differences when it comes to managing expat employees. This is in part influenced by the pandemic, but also the expectation of millennial and generation Z employees who make up the majority of the workforce in most countries around the world. Elysia Hegarty, Associate Director & Wellness Lead at Cpl’s Future of Work Institute, believes this poses important considerations for businesses when managing their expat community including:
The global crisis has resulted in a greater requirement for leadership at distance. And in many organisations, the skillsets needed to do so are maturing rapidly as they learn what works and what does not through real-world experiences. From CPL’s Future of Work World whitepaper, 67% of organisations rated evolved leadership and managerial skills as one of the top skill-sets their organisations need as it prepares for the future of work. This maturity will enable assignees greater integration into a hybrid working model. 
Businesses are already getting better at managing employees virtually and this will spread to expats. We are also seeing organisations placing a greater focus on building and maintaining a culture remotely and creating communities remotely. What was once seen as quite a secluded role will now integrate more smoothly into the organisation culture requiring much less need for pre-departure training and feeling out of the loop in business activities that typically occur in the office. 

This evolved leadership and cultural integration will remove the need for managing culture shock and instead will foster a sense of collaboration, team-building and address cultural issues with more ease. 


This will only serve to elevate the expat community, making it easier to build expat relationships internationally and stay connected with home through technology rather than trips back and forth. With the ease of travel restrictions, the feeling of remoteness will dissipate and the ability to travel to reconnect in person may only be as frequent as once a year or once a quarter, if even at all. 


One thing that will not change for your employees on expat assignment is the need for international health insurance should they become ill while on assignment. Help them receive the treatment they may need or support from an expat assistance programme while they settle into life overseas.