Balancing Duty of Care and ­Workforce Remobilization during COVID-19

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From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of founders and executives of companies ranging from pre-seed to late-stage growth have implemented plans to weather this storm. For most organizations, the pandemic has been the most significant crisis ever to impact their business. Key talent could not be sent to critical business projects abroad; relocations and transfers were no longer available. Organizations first started monitoring ‚mobile readiness‘ in their global operating locations, particularly in locations considered crucial for their success. ‚Mobile ready‘ is a term used by multinational businesses who need mobile employees who are ‚ready to go‘ at a moment’s notice. Organizations’ mobile ready population means employees who are ‘ready to go’ so the needed talent can quickly travel to the right place, both domestically and across borders. The border closures due to COVID-19 restrictions resulted in major talent shortages of highly skilled workers, an inability to meet business needs and priorities, and the cancellation of work assignments and transfers.
The pandemic has had significant implications on how multinational firms respond to artificial constraints on resources and how they globally re-distribute those resources. During this unprecedented event, many firms found that they had no plan for their mobile workforce when borders close and travel is barred. New safety regulations and the complexity of immigration complicated the understanding of mobility. Who covers the costs for assignments on hold or for those barred from entering their home country? How much will the organization pay to ensure their mobile ready population is able to travel? Mobility became an enormous hurdle, focus, and cost for many businesses.
On top of the mobility crisis, the duties of care and protection of employers in connection with COVID-19 went far beyond the usual set of duties. Employers must now ensure the introduction, implementation and, above all, the observance of the necessary measures to prevent COVID-19 in employees. This new scope of care could now effect work assignments to countries listed as ‘red’ or ‘high alert’.
In the first phase of the pandemic, companies gave absolute priority to the protection of health and the containment of the risk of infection. Employers organized the operational facilities and work in such a way that the employees were protected against risks to life and health to the extent that the nature of the work allowed. This priority on employees’ protections also meant a pause and halt to international and domestic travel. The mobile ready population was no longer ‘ready’ or ‘mobile’.
Some organizations’ business focus is on the Chinese market. Crucial projects needed to be completed, factories needed to be staffed by outside talent, and critical movement of employees needed to be supported. With China marked as a ‘high alert’ country, organizations had to balance sending their mobile ready employees to ‘high-risk’ countries where occupational safety and health may be at risk in order to keep core global operations and business functions running.
Throughout the pandemic, organizations learned to better prepare for changing conditions. To do so successfully, they needed to stay in close contact with impacted employees and prepare contingency plans for travel scenarios. Decisions regarding employees‘ remobilization are generally made by the global mobility team, the business, the service provider/law firm, and the employee, depending on their needs and preferences.
For relocations or repatriations when the balance between protection and maintaining crucial business functions were in play, organizations have the 4 ‘T’ choices:

  • Tolerate – Proceed as planned.
  • Treat – Proceed with modifications.
    For example, the employees will work remotely for the host/destination location, but they will remain in (or move back to) the home location (e.g., parking assignees).
  • Transfer – Substitute with another move type
    To accomplish the business needs long-term vs. short-term assignments reviewed in light of new scenarios.
  • Terminate – Cancel the assignment/business travel

For some employees, termination decisions were made on a case-by-case basis with the factors specific to the host locations in question.
With the 4 ‘Ts’ in mind, remobilization of crucial talent influenced, either directly or indirectly, almost every department within organizations. To help determine the balance between duty of care and business-critical functions, businesses can use the below categories and questions to support in their decisions:

Employee Support

  • How safe is impacted employees in their current/destination location?
  • Is additional support requested?
  • What is the effect and cost of the support?

Mobility Programs

  • Has the business need shifted priorities? (e.g., reducing staff levels, travel bans, company cost-saving requirements)
  • Have mobility programs been audited recently? If so, how does the review impact relocation services and the support provided to the organizations‘ employees?

Immigration Implications

  • Are all visa/ work permits and employee location data up to datet?
  • Has any immigration status changed for any employees?
  • Have travel restrictions impacted employees’ work permit and visa statuses?
  • Has the government’s immigration process changed? (e.g., COVID-19 test, delays in appointments, or right-to-work checks)
  • Has the organization spoken with its government affairs team to review their options to expedite business-critical visa applications?
  • Are company restrictions influencing hiring decisions?

Relocation Services

  • Have mobility, the changed policies and processes been communicated to impacted employees and stakeholders?
  • Will these changes affect employees‘ decision to relocate?
  • What is the threshold for company policies and processes if the crisis should escalate?
  • Who will manage updated exceptions and how will those expectations be communicated?

Cost Projections

  • Do the changes to remobilization strategies and policies allow for adjustments to cost projection templates and already approved budgets?
  • Will the assignment and relocation delays, travel restrictions, and quarantines impact costs and contractual start dates?
  • Are there any savings or cost cutting measures that can be taken (e.g., “parking” assignees or remote working options for smaller facilities/less overheads)?
  • Are there any surcharges, availability shortages, and any cost increases that will be incurred due to the time of making the bookings? (e.g., hotels, flights, car rentals)
  • Have costs associated with sanitizing requirements throughout the relocation process and provisions for medical supplies been considered?
  • Have costs for visa and work permit renewals been totaled?
  • Have stakeholders set the prioritization of business-critical relocations?
  • Where can the organization increase efficiency? (e.g., automation or digitization of processes)
  • Who is managing the additional mobility costs?

Mobility Issues and Delays

Mobility teams and stakeholders will need to understand the challenges that affect assignments and relocations and mobility costs.

  • How much of the relocation process can be completed? Areas to review with remobilization stakeholders are: recruiting talent, sourcing talent, relocation package review, cost projections, authorizing new moves, immigration and tax review, and updated timelines.
  • What restrictions are in place for travel and relocation? Will these restrictions impact the organizations‘ decision on when to send and relocate their workforce? (e.g., quarantine upon arrival)
  • Will the delays on timelines impact service delivery?
  • What are changes to the service delivery approach for destination-specific area tours (school tours, housing, look & see trips)?
  • Does the new timeline, and updated process encompass approvals of relocation support packages?

Healthcare and Insurance

  • Has the company reviewed updated insurance coverage for employees? What does the older plan cover, and what does it exclude? Does a new plan need to be taken out? If so, what are the costs?
  • Do employees have oversight of their coverage and scope?

Technology and Employee

  • Will remobilization processes be automated to create capacity for mobility stakeholders?
  • After review, can any processes be digitized?
  • Have areas of improvement been identified to support communication?
  • Can technology be used to enhance employees’ remobilization experience?
  • Are there any minimal cost options to enhance the employee experience? (e.g., better communication with employees)

Data collection

  • What data has the company collected?
  • Consider: Employees deployed (who, where, when, and at what stage they are currently in)
  • The intended duration of the relocation
  • Deployment driver (to gain professional development, achieve company growth, address an urgent global need)
  • Any barriers to deployment that the employee perceives/perceived (uprooting the accompanying family, medical care available)
  • Historical data should also be considered, including the retention rate for employees following the end of their relocation terms.

Take aways

In view of the novelty of the risk posed by COVID-19, the definition of the specific duties of care and protection of an employer is fraught with difficulties. These obligations are comprehensively specified for regular business operations by the provisions of (public law) occupational health and safety law.
During the pandemic, organizations attempted to reduce and counteract the likelihood of the risk occurring or the severity of its consequences if it does occur when relocating their employees. Since the operational framework conditions and the work management to be provided by the employees is different within the organization’s sectors and divisions, the employer’s obligations to provide care and protection must also be precisely defined for each situation. Employees may require varying degrees of attention during a crisis, based on where they fall within the relocation timeline and their work site location.
Most organizations and firms outsource their mobility work to various service providers and law firms, adding to mobility’s complexity during a crisis. Organizations’ alignment with their mobility providers will be crucial to their success in navigating and balancing their duty of care during these troubled times.

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