Looking for some stories about how COVID-19 has impacted the expatriate experience? Check out the Expatriate Archive Centre that collects and preserves the life stories of expatriates worldwide. Their collection includes letters, diaries, blogs, photos, videos and other documents, which together give a complete picture of everyday life abroad, from the late 19th century to the present day, including since COVID-19 made it's presence felt on the expatriate experience.

Speaking of the expatriate experience, in one our previous posts, "Expat life shaken up by COVID-19," we highlighted the results from our recent survey of employees moving in the midst of the pandemic. In the survey, we learned that it was active international transfers and expatriates who felt the highest levels of stress and impact. While many factors contributed to the high stress and impact levels, the three biggest reasons cited were:

  • the impact of stay-at-home, shelter-in-place and lockdown orders 
  • trying to plan and coordinate travel 
  • immigration restrictions

While that is what is happening at the employee experience level, on the management side of things, global mobility teams are having to manage through this crisis and work to guide employees in their specific situations and provide strategic direction within their companies

In considering whether to advise expatriates to sit tight in their host country location, return home early or head to a nearby safer third country, mobility managers and teams have had to evaluate a lot of information in a short period of time as things continually, and sometimes quickly, develop and change. At times, the constantly changing details and murkiness of situations has made it challenging from a "duty of care" perspective to know how to advise expatriates in moving forward in the safest fashion.

Then, in mid-June, ECA International shared that 95% of companies felt that COVID-19 had NOT caused an overall structural decline in employee mobility and that their numbers of mobile employees would return to pre-pandemic levels, even if it takes up to 12 months to get back to those previous volume levels. Within their Asia client base, approximately 20 to 30% of respondents had repatriated some of their staff, with most expecting to return back to assignment locations at some point. Once each situation was addressed, mobility teams guided companies toward meeting business initiatives via global mobility or helped pivot to adequately address the continually changing surges in infections and the ensuing restrictions and challenges of navigating talent mobility.

One benefit that over 90% of organizations provide to the long-term expatriate and family is the "annual home leave." During this pandemic, many expats have been unable to use this benefit, and the reality is that they may not be able to for the immediate future on account of either health concerns, quarantine restrictions or the inability to travel back to their home location. For those expatriates who have remained on assignment, programs have had to determine whether a home leave is possible, and take a stance on whether that becomes a lost benefit for an expat or consider allowing the expat to bank it and use it next year. Another option that some programs have considered is "cashing out" the benefit by providing a cash payment to the employee to be able to use down the road. Program managers have needed to determine whether there would be any tax ramifications for their ultimate solution, as exchanging a benefit for cash could disallow the benefit from being exempt from income, while carrying it over to the following year may make it a taxable benefit next year. 

Other elements of the assignment experience that mobility programs are working hard to support as the pandemic carries on are:

  • the challenges related to spousal or significant other work opportunities
  • disruption to normal dependent education programming
  • ongoing work permit and visa changes and restrictions
  • ensuring that medical insurance and evacuation programming is in place and well communicated in case of infection to the expat and/or family
  • potential challenges to home country situations that may have developed due to the pandemic

Looking for more insights? Try checking out our "9 strategies for addressing relocating employee concerns amid a pandemic." This pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to mobility professionals, and staying on top of the latest developments requires near-constant attention. Following these nine strategies can help you set a course through turbulent times.