Relocating employees to a new country is tough enough at the best of times. What extra complexities do businesses need to consider during a pandemic?
As COVID-19 swept the globe, many countries adopted a shelter-in-place approach, hoping to contain the pandemic through local, regional or national lockdowns. Borders have closed, and the idea of immigration – let alone an overseas vacation – has been shelved indefinitely.
Or has it? Life and business go on, and while remote working remains the default for some organisations, others are unable to wait for ‘normal’ travel patterns to fully return before relocating groups or individual employees.
Relocation and immigration, which are high-stress but low-risk activities under normal circumstances, take on an added layer of complexity during a pandemic. This places added pressure on employers, whose duty of care to employees extends to their health and safety when relocating for work purposes, forcing HR specialists to consider rapidly changing regulations on top of existing transborder legislation. Non compliance of the rules could inevitably have a serious impact on the company as well as the individual.
For example, when it comes to speed of deployment, companies may be forced to initially send someone into a new country with a business visa rather than a work permit for the sake of expediency, without realising the implications that a pandemic has imposed on travellers such as mandatory quarantine and negative Covid tests before they are permitted to enter. In such circumstances it would be the employer’s responsibility to ensure their assignee is briefed in advance without having to deal with the stress of added border checks being introduced globally.
Regulations around immigration requirements as well as eligibility are changing rapidly, with entry restrictions often announced without notice. Individuals cannot be expected to keep track of the changes; instead, businesses should work closely with their internal legal teams, or external suppliers and develop internal policies and introduce regular communications keeping all stakeholders up to date.
As vaccine rollouts began in early 2021 there was widespread concern about ‘vaccine passports’, which would either facilitate entry or enable immigrants to skip quarantine protocols when arriving in a new country. Several governments (and even some airlines) now require digital travel passes to help passengers manage their travel plans.
None of that will be new to frequent travellers, who for years have had to provide ‘yellow cards’ as proof of vaccination against diseases like yellow fever and cholera. However, the rules will vary depending on the immigrant’s destination or country of origin, on their potential exposure to specific strains of the COVID-19 virus, and on the exact vaccine they have received. Again, it’s essential that those bases are covered to ensure a smooth process and business continuity.
Many national governments have demonstrated a level of leniency and flexibility when dealing with the pandemic, but as the world heads towards a new normal it has become critical for companies to review their internal practices and introduce new measures that tackle the requirements for the future of international assignments. Given the significant overhaul of the requirements for travel, it would be prudent to review insurance and medical policies and introduce contingency planning to tackle the unforeseeable, thereby equipping your employees with the information and support they need for safer assignments.
In addition to the safety requirements, employers will also be dealing with remote working locations and tax liability for both the individual and business. The earlier a company prepares and considers all the moving parts of a future assignment and factors in the cost implications to the business for Covid testing, health insurance and emergency measures, the more rewarding the experience for the employee in question.
In short, HR departments need to undertake more strategic decision making with the buy in from senior management to ensure their assignment programs can run smoothly in the future. It will be interesting to see how assignments will be structured going forward with more options for employees to choose their desired location for remote working anywhere in the world.