Globally, it’s estimated that some 2.7 billion people, or more than 4 out of 5 workers, have been affected by restrictions and lockdown orders caused by the coronavirus pandemic. While large parts of Europe and the United States are imposing new shut down-orders because of rapidly rising cases of Covid-19, Asia Pacific has largely managed to avoid a second wave and is moving forward with the recovery and reopening of society.
The situation in Asia Pacific offers a good opportunity to assess what a sustained recovery process might look like, and what some of the issues and bright spots are that are likely to impact how we move forward in the rest of the world, with regards to cross-border collaboration and global mobility.
The Three Stages of Crisis Response
A Deloitte study on Covid-19 and the resilience of global mobility in Asia Pacific looks at the process from the point of view of a typical crisis response, which plays out in three stages:
In Asia Pacific, companies are moving out of the crisis-response stage and into the recovery phase, and with that comes a renewed look at the return of cross-border mobility.
The study notes that the transition from the response phase to the recovery phase is not linear and will have setbacks followed by progress. Progress will vary between regions and industries. What is clear is that there is a whole set of logistical challenges to overcome when going from crisis response mode to recovery mode, and beyond.
From a mobility perspective, the Deloitte study concludes that the main practical challenges once the workforce is back to work, include how to manage travel restrictions and immigration requirements, as well as how to take care of stranded employees.
In addition, companies are likely to place an even sharper focus on purpose, cost, and ROI of each assignment. As is often the case when talking about cross-border assignments, duty of care and employee well-being programs, are being studied in order to better understand what is needed going forward.
The recovery phase has also brought a discussion around how to handle policies that have to do with privacy concerns such as the disclosure of personal information by employees to employers for purposes of contact tracing, for example.
Globiana’s COO, Steffen Henkel, echoes the Deloitte study when he points out some of the logistical problems companies are grappling with. He notes that the difficulties start at a very basic level, with transfer days being postponed because of travel concerns and visa restrictions, for example. “What is perhaps the most frustrating is that there is no real pattern for who is let into a country. Sometimes, it appears to have more to do with the position the employee holds than set visa rules. Companies may have more leverage than they believe in these cases.”
Steffen can tell that many clients are in a state of uncertainty regarding cross-border assignments but at the same time, he has noticed that there appears to be a difference between the turmoil many feel and perceive and what is actually happening on the ground. He says: “When I talk to clients, it’s clear that people are still being sent abroad. And at Globiana for example, we have large projects in both Malaysia and South Korea where we are holding cross-cultural trainings and are providing relocation support. The scale is smaller, and our delivery format has been different. But the need for support is still strong, which is an indicator that cross-cultural collaboration continues to be an important part of business development.”
Technology-Enabled Virtual Work — The New Measuring Stick
To some degree, many of the issues that have surfaced in the recovery phase can be measured against the emergence of virtual work and virtual cross-border collaboration as the replacement for in-person work and cross-border mobility. The technology aspect can’t be ignored when looking at what global mobility/global collaboration will look like in a post-pandemic world.
Many companies have pivoted to virtual work and virtual cross-border collaboration, and as technology keeps improving, and organizations build better structures for collaborating virtually, it’s reasonable to assume that this form of employment will become a more permanent arrangement for a greater part of the population — the question is to what degree? One survey quoted by the Deloitte study found that 74% of CFOs are considering moving previous on-site employees to remote work post-pandemic.
Another trend that is emerging is the introduction of flexible cross-border arrangements where employees are able to “work on a team abroad” without physically having to be in the country, as well as blended assignments where there is a mix of face-to-face and remote work.
In general, workforce mobility strategy is likely to become more purpose-driven, as not only are the needs being measured against the possibility of the work being done remotely but also because the overall desire by employees to take on international assignments may not be as great in the future.
When looking to the future, Steffen sees that the pandemic, as hard and disruptive as it has been and still is, also offers opportunities for growth and innovation. He mentions the cross-cultural trainings as an example of that.
The adjustment from in-person to virtual trainings was difficult and many rejected the idea at first. But, says Steffen, by seeking and analyzing customer feedback, and by being willing to try new technology and delivery formats, Globiana ended up developing better, more flexible programs, that not only serve as a bridge in difficult times, but that can actually be seen as an overall improvement in product offering. “We learned that we can do more virtually than we thought and that gives us tremendous flexibility in the future when we can combine the two formats — virtual and in-person — freely.”
And when speaking of providing intercultural support, Steffen notes that one of the surprising things to come out of these past few months is that clients are not questioning the need for this kind of service, even in the face of uncertainty and hardship. There appears to be a basic need that remains intact and that says something about the importance of cross-border collaboration.
What About the Thrive Stage?
We don’t know yet what the Thrive stage will look like, but the Deloitte study points out that global mobility teams will have to rethink and redesign their global mobility models to be more agile in a more uncertain future. They write: “It will be important to identify and capture lessons learned to identify organisational improvement opportunities. Often, many lessons learnt are forgotten in the aftermath of a crisis because all energies are devoted to recover operations as soon as possible.”
Sir Winston Churchill said at the end of WW II: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. With the pandemic upending life as we know it, and with much still unknown, at least one thing seems clear — it has forced us to think hard about how we do business. Aiming for meaningful change in the Thrive phase, such as technology improvement, greater scrutiny on the need for physical relocation, more cross-border/intercultural collaboration enabled by technology, etc., can help serve us all for a long time to come.
By: Felicia Shermis