The Growth of Virtual International Assignments

31 May 2022

As the business world reflects on the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be difficult to pick out the silver linings. But even this most challenging time brought about some changes that have the potential to improve how organisations work in the long-term. 

Employee mobility has been increasingly important for international business as we become more globalised. Research from Deloitte in 2019 showed 68% of organisations believed a mobile workforce is an enabler of business and talent strategies

Although few predicted the extent of the disruption the pandemic would cause, it has not impacted the continued need for global mobility. It has just changed how a percentage of it may be delivered. Virtual assignments were already part of the evolving mobility types that businesses were employing. They continue to grow in popularity due to the increase in hybrid working, cost of traditional expat assignments and the risk of expat failure.       

  1. The most common kind of virtual international assignment is to allow an employee to remain in their home country while being responsible for operations in a different location. A minority of virtual assignments may allow an employee to work in a third location of their choosing. Similar in some ways to being a digital nomad.  
  3. A virtual assignee is doing the same work from their home country as they would if they had relocated. This is different to a business traveller or manager who may oversee a region. A virtual assignee becomes immersed in the day to day work in another region to achieve a specific business goal. 

For all their benefits, in person expat assignments also raise a host of potential difficulties. They are associated with high costs, significant disruption to the private lives of assignees and challenges for spouses who may have their own careers. 

A virtual assignment helps businesses:

1. Limit assignment costs

While not completely void of additional costs, if managed carefully, virtual assignments can be a more economic option. They allow employers to limit some of the traditional assignment costs including relocation packages, day to day expenses and fees to support travelling family members.

2. Complete short-term projects or fill staffing needs

Time zone differences may make virtual assignments challenging in the long-term. They may be a good option for short-term assignments or to fulfil short-term staffing needs in another region. They may be more effective in the longer term between countries located geographically closer together. 


3. Prevent dual career and family issues

A virtual assignment does not impact an assignees wider family in the way relocating overseas would. Their spouse can remain on their own career trajectory and children do not have to move schools. This is a significant benefit as family issues are a common reason for expat failure.


4. Lowers need for risk management

If employees are required in areas that suffer from political and civil unrest or natural disasters, virtual assignments may be an effective way to reduce exposure to risk. Having an agile workforce including virtual assignees increases organisation resilience and helps maintain business continuity.

1. Intercultural issues

A virtual assignee has the potential to face the exact same challenges when it comes to cultural adaptation. Not being present in the country is likely to make understanding and adapting to a different organisational culture even more difficult. Working virtually may also make an employee feel isolated. Pre-assignment training is even more important for virtual assignees as it provides the candidate with an understanding of what to expect. 

2. Immigration laws

Virtual assignments may not eliminate immigration risk entirely. If an employee needs to travel at any stage during the assignment, immigration regulations are going to have to be considered. Especially as they will be travelling for work rather than leisure.


3. Tax compliance

Deploying virtual assignees can also create tax compliance issues that you may need to be cognisant of.

4. Employment laws

Virtual assignees may have to abide by the employment laws of the country in which they are physically located. This may cause discrepancies between them and their colleagues in benefits, social protections, working hours and leave requirements. 

It is unlikely that virtual assignments will replace the need for traditional expat deployment or even commuter assignments. They are more likely to be in addition to an overarching global mobility strategy for use when the situations make sense. As such it is a good idea for your business to develop clear, well-defined virtual assignment policies to outline when they should be used. 


The policy may include: 

  • Business threshold for using a virtual assignment over other options
  • Process for candidate selection and preparation
  • Regulations around funding
  • Payroll modelling
  • Fees for anti-social hours
  • Process for cross cultural or candidate training 
  • Tracking assignment goals 
  • Reporting on KPIs
  • Reintegration post assignment


There is a lot to consider when it comes to establishing virtual assignments, but they can be a useful tool when it comes to global mobility if used in the right situations.

In situations where you choose to send employees on a more traditional expat assignment do not forget to factor in international health insurance to ensure they can access health care should they need it.