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Can Virtual Assignments Truly Support Your Strategy? 08.20.2020 | Jennifer Connell

virtual assignments

In this three-part series, we’ll look at the concept of virtual assignments from three key perspectives: those managing compliance and Duty of Care, those managing corporate mobility, and, in today’s part one post, those managing Talent and Business Strategy.

Pre-pandemic, some of the biggest concerns surrounding global assignments were tax and immigration requirements. Even as these became more complex, international travel remained fairly seamless, facilitating career-building opportunities in nearly any location.

COVID rewrote the script. Companies temporarily closed offices and dusted off emergency plans while employees sheltered in place. Remote work became the new normal as knowledge workers and many assignees were forced to work from home while on assignment. These “accidental” virtual assignments have some companies wondering if the virtual model could apply to a broader group of assignee populations.

Now, nearly six months after quarantine-mandated remote work began (give or take, depending on your country), many borders remain closed. International travel is limited and in some regions prohibited. A vaccine still seems distant future. While virtual assignments remain a hot topic of conversation, many companies have at least acknowledged that they offer a pale substitute for the real thing.

To understand the full picture, consider the primary drivers of global mobility:

o Transferring knowledge/technical expertise

o Opening/developing new markets

o Special projects

o Talent/leadership development

o Employee-initiated (“Volunteer” moves)

As you might imagine, companies simply cannot replicate these drivers on a purely virtual basis. Even eliminating employee-initiated assignments could run the risk of alienating engaged “hand raisers” who are highly motivated.

How do winning competencies in the physical workplace translate into the virtual workplace? Who will define and measure them? Sure, many aspects of a job can be performed remotely, but great ideas are often sparked by conversations at the office water cooler, side discussions during a meeting, or casually asking for feedback on a project from a nearby colleague.

Managers will be impacted, too. As my colleague, Avrom Goldberg, Weichert’s Senior Vice President, Global Client Services, EMEA, APAC & LATAM points out, identifying qualified candidates for a global assignment often involves on-site collaboration with other colleagues. Virtual assignments could complicate the process of assessing high-potential employees who are critical to fueling a company’s leadership succession plan.

Reporting on “work from home fatigue,” the Wall Street Journal recently noted that as pandemic-related home office work drags on, “some employers say their workers appear less connected and bosses fear that younger professionals aren’t developing at the same rate as they would in offices, sitting next to colleagues and absorbing how they do their jobs.” These same concerns could apply to virtual assignments.

Mobile talent is essential for business growth and sustained success. The majority of leaders agree that in the long-term, they will rely on a mobile workforce as a way to increase bench strength and develop leadership. According to the Harvard Business Review, those who have worked overseas “are better problem solvers and display more creativity” and are “more likely to create new businesses and products and to be promoted.”

Companies are advised to consider the long term impact of endorsing virtual assignments. Although they may provide flexibility, will these assignments support their talent strategy, leadership development and long-term organizational growth? There is little evidence that companies will reap even a fraction of the aforementioned benefits by embracing them.

In the next blog in this series, we’ll examine the compliance issues related to remote work and the notion of a hybrid assignment.

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Written by Jennifer Connell

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Jennifer Connell, SCRP, SGMS-T, is Vice President of Weichert’s Advisory Services group. She has over 25 years of experience in the workforce mobility and employee benefits industries and is a recipient of Worldwide ERC’s Distinguished Service Award. She has spoken on workforce mobility topics at industry conferences throughout North America and written for mobility- and HR-themed blogs and magazines worldwide.

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