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Talent Mobility in the Post-COVID World from the Asia Pacific Perspective 05.19.2020 | Avrom Goldberg

It feels like eternity and not just under five months since COVID-19 first entered the public domain outside China. Reports of a cluster of pneumonia-like cases in China which began surfacing in November 2019 were officially reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019.

A little over a week later, on January 10, 2020, the WHO issued its first advisory to all countries on how to detect, test and manage potential cases, based on what was known about the virus at the time. Three days later, the first case of COVID outside of China was reported, in Thailand. Ten days later, Hong Kong reported its first case.

For most of January and February and into early March, COVID-19 was largely viewed as a problem specific to Asia. But then it spread through Europe and the US, where cases began to soar. On March 11, the WHO declared a global pandemic. The rest is the recent history, and an issue the world is still grappling with.

As of this week, a number of countries in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region — including China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand — can lay cautious claim to something approaching successful containment of the virus. Plans have been set for China and Hong Kong to return to office-based work, and for China to resume domestic travel, while Australia and New Zealand are actively discussing the resumption of travel between their two countries.

But at this time, not a single country’s borders are open to general travel. By most observers’ estimates the earliest this might happen will be July, and then only under demonstrable conditions of widespread and effective containment. In the meantime, the global mobility community worldwide continues to vigorously debate what’s next, and what the “New Normal” will look like in a post-COVID world.

APAC has lived with COVID longer than any other region. Given the somewhat encouraging signs of containment referenced above, we recently asked a group of APAC-based HR and corporate mobility program owners to share:

• Their overall expectations about the likely velocity with which assignments and transfers will resume once borders reopen
• What, if any, significant changes they anticipated in their company’s mobility policies and programs as result of COVID
• Whether the global mobility function within their organizations is viewed as more or less strategically vital than before the pandemic, and
• What they foresee as the single biggest change to global mobility as a result of COVID

Financial Services companies and companies headquartered in the US appear more bullish than their European or Asian-headquartered counterparts about a more rapid ramp-up and return to “normal” in their relocations before year end. However, at least one major European headquartered company with a large mobile population worldwide believes it possible that their deep COVID-induced reduction in mobility could last well through the end of 2020 at minimum.

It is important to understand that there will be no genuinely “post-COVID world” until a wholly effective vaccine has been developed and the entire planet has been vaccinated, something which even by the most optimistic projections won’t happen until the end of 2021 or in 2022. Naturally, individual countries and the global economy as a whole could never withstand lockdown until then. So the one sure thing about the New Normal is that regardless of when countries do re-open, they will be resuming business, working and living in a COVID-influenced world.

From a mobility policy and program perspective, health risk and its mitigation is going to move front and center in the New Normal, according to our corporate mobility respondents. Almost two-thirds anticipate a greater emphasis on medical coverage, the requirement of pre-assignment health/medical briefings, and the need to have sound evacuation arrangements in place.

Given the economic decimation brought to just about every industry sector worldwide, it’s safe to say that the entire global mobility community expects a huge level of scrutiny on costs once moves resume. Among our APAC respondents, almost two-thirds anticipate thorough review of their policies and programs as being “fit for purpose” while just over one-third expect that this will be driven by the need to identify cost containment opportunities.

Just over one-third expect a switch to Core-Flex policies from their current policy approaches. Perhaps most interesting of all, only 14% anticipate a material reduction in the relocation benefits they offer.

As for the greatest degree of consensus among our respondents, 100% say that global mobility within their companies has come to be viewed as more strategic as a result of COVID. While heartening to hear, it's unfortunate that it has taken a pandemic to propel the global mobility function to this level of limelight, and for it to be recognized as a key function at the nexus of corporate duty of care, immigration and tax compliance. In the post-COVID world, mobility will certainly be held in much higher regard for its support of the corporate talent agenda.

Finally, regarding the most important changes in global mobility expected as a result of the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of respondents predict changes to the way we work: more remote work options, the digitization of work and the concept of “virtual commuting” or “virtual assignments.” At the same time, several respondents raised valid notes of caution about the extent to which virtual commuting/assignments of any kind can truly become a widespread phenomenon, citing taxation and permanent establishment challenges, and the fact that many companies aren’t built to manage the corporate “charge backs” and internal accounting.

Perhaps most importantly, there is a great deal of skepticism as to whether virtual assignments can even come close to helping companies achieve the core goals of global workforce mobility — namely, developing a presence in new markets, transferring company knowledge and culture, and developing high-potentials and grooming future leaders, to name a few. The overall opinion is that the greatest return on investment comes from “being there,” in a physical sense.

When all is said and done, we are still undeniably living in a COVID-dominated world. As we continue to flatten the dreaded curve and cautiously begin to open up business and borders and attempt a return to “normal” ways of working, the uncertain future we are all trying to predict will become more certain – and embraceable.

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Written by Avrom Goldberg

A widely-recognized expert on global talent mobility, Avrom is the Senior Vice President, Global Client Services for the EMEA, APAC and LATAM regions. He has written extensively on Asia Pacific mobility trends and best practices for such publications as China Staff magazine, HRM China, Human Capital Hong Kong, Bo Le Journal for Strategic Management, Mobility magazine and HR World. Avrom was twice distinguished by The Forum for Expatriate Management, having won the EMMA award for “Outstanding Contribution to APAC Global Mobility” and “Global Mobility Professional of the Year.”

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