In part two of this three-part series on virtual assignments, we examine the tax and immigration issues that need to be considered, as well as the impact on employee safety and well-being.
Consider the following situation: An employee from the UK accepts an assignment in the U.S. while his family stays behind, waiting for COVID rates to decline and schools to reopen. He ends up working remotely in the US as his local office has been closed as a safety measure. As a second wave of the pandemic hits, his family decides against travelling and to remain in the UK. Now the employee wants to go back to his family and continue his assignment “virtually” from his home until conditions improve.
This scenario presents a number of issues. From an immigration perspective, if the employee returns home, is he expected to resume his assignment in the U.S. at a later point in time? If so, what immigration timeframes need to be considered? Visa processing in most countries has been halted or slowed, and will likely become stricter as borders re-open. How a government prioritizes who gets processed first will also impact an assignee’s timeline; in Australia, for example, applications for exemptions to arrival restrictions are being addressed first, which will significantly delay applications for business.
There are also tax compliance concerns when repatriating an employee or transferring them to another location, including permanent establishment, shadow payroll reporting, hypo tax withholding and state residency tax (for repatriating U.S. citizens).
One option companies might be willing to consider is a hybrid approach in which an employee works virtually for a set period of time, with the expectation that they he or she will eventually go on assignment. In the scenario above, the employee would begin onboarding to the new position remotely in the UK, with virtual meetings, training and introductions to colleagues in the host location. Language and cultural training takes place online, and the destination service provider helps him remotely identify ideal communities. At a later date, when his work offices open in the U.S., the employee may begin the assignment on an unaccompanied basis. Eventually, the family would accompany the assignee for the rest of the assignment.
Why hybrid? Because once the tax and immigration risks have been addressed, it is critical for an assignee to actually be in the destination location to ensure success and the highest return on investment. Being on assignment via Teams/Zoom/Skype is never going to replace the value of physically being in country, where the most valuable relationships are built. This is particularly important in the manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries.
Another possible option could be “hub-and-spoke” models, where assignees (and families) are located in the less population-dense outskirts of major metropolitan hubs, yet remain proximate to the host assignment location or region.
This brings us to duty of care.
Here is another example to consider: At the onset of COVID-19, a high-tech company reached out to its assignees in countries with shelter-in-place guidelines. Almost immediately, a request was received from an employee in Hong Kong on an unaccompanied assignment. Anticipating that she would be working virtually for at least several weeks, she wanted to stay at a family residence. Upon further discussion, the mobility director found that it was outside her home or host country.
In this situation, the mobility manager needed to develop a perspective on whether this type of arrangement is considered a personal choice. If so, any mobility assistance is at the discretion of the employer. I’ve spoken with companies that have temporarily allowed employees to work remotely from their home or assignment location through the pandemic until offices open. As we expect this type of request to increase as remote work normalizes, guidelines will need to be established.
Central to this approach will be the safety and security of the employee. Should the company approve a remote work scenario outside the assignment location, the organization will need to consider its duty of care throughout the move or assignment and whether the employee’s mobility benefits will be provided in the new location.
Next week, in the third and final blog in this series, we’ll examine Global Mobility’s role in virtual assignments.