How COVID-19 Radically Altered the Expatriate Work Experience

There’s no doubt about it. As with all other industries, COVID-19 and its aftermath have significantly changed the expatriate work experience. This particular global workforce, the companies that employ them, and the communities that have hosted them are rethinking their policies, approach to work, and even their motivations for hiring and staying. 

Not surprisingly, one factor that shook all of them out from their well-entrenched comfort zones was location.  While it brought almost all sectors into a screeching halt and strangled their operations and their people under a lockdown, the pandemic literally saw the forced evacuation of expatriates from their adopted countries, sometimes painfully splitting them from their own families.

An employee under COVID-19 lockdown strained under the stress of learning new platforms just to work while keeping their younger kids away from their former bedroom-turned-home-offices. 

Compare that with the ordeal of an expatriate employee who described their forceful and excruciating separation from their spouse and children: “I’ve been unable to see my kids this year. They are stuck in China. My partner is stuck in Singapore. I’m stuck in the UK.”

According to the Thunderbird National Review, which compiled a lot of studies and conducted interviews among the expatriate communities including the one above, the announcement of the World Health Organization (WHO) that COVID-19 was a contagious and dangerous global pandemic literally threw this particular sector into turmoil. 

Expatriates were faced with the choice of either returning to their home countries or staying in their former ones; the first choice could lead to sudden and costly unemployment while the second one prevented them from reuniting with their loved ones in another country in the foreseeable future. 

Immigration policies

This dilemma was further complicated by external factors like the decision of their employer company and the new immigration and health policies that the governments of their host countries formulated as a response to the crisis.

Their individual choices led to expatriates being stranded in their host countries or still a third because they were on a long-term work trip.

The situation was further complicated among mixed families, for example, when an American expatriate manager chose to stay in his Chinese-based company during the lockdowns while his teenage children happened to be enjoying their vacation time with his divorced wife who was living in New Delhi, India. 

About 30% of expatriates who participated in a survey said that the cessation of flights and the closing of borders literally cut them off physically from their families who were based in another country or region. 

Not surprisingly, after the lifting of the lockdowns, many of these employees named their families as their paramount priorities. The enforced separations and the threat that COVID-19 posed to their health and lives made them rethink their former arrangements. 

Ironclad guarantee for those with families?

About 98% of those surveyed admitted that the global crisis did indeed impact their home lives. Post-COVID, many of them are working to ensure that they do get their annual home leave—or at least the equivalent in financial compensation should they be unable to take it. 

According to Plus Relocation, the trauma of not being able to join their families during the pandemic made many of these expatriates want an ironclad guarantee that they will be able to, at some point, should another emergency lockdown happen.

Some programs are studying options like allowing expatriate employees to use the home leave at another time, or being paid the cash equivalent. 

Another aftermath of the pandemic which has legal, tax, and other corporate obligations is the adoption of remote work by many expatriate employees. This situation became the norm for many companies all over the world, but these cases meant citizens of that country working at home still in their home countries and answering to a company which is based on the same location. 

Payment structures affected

In the case of expatriates, some of them worked in their private residences while in their host country because of the lockdowns; while this was permissible during that time, it can have far-reaching consequences if they continue to do so instead of reporting and working on site. Policies, work processes, and even payment structures can be affected. 

As described by Reuters, remote work done by expatriates becomes a bit murkier should the expat work remotely in their home country or a third location after the lockdowns have been lifted. For example, an Indian expatriate returned to his home in Mumbai during the pandemic. His California-based office continues his contract and lets him work remotely. 

This arrangement is efficient and convenient for all until COVID-19 ceases to be a work risk. At that point, if the expatriate is recalled back to the United States, then their former work arrangement is restored. 

However, if the expatriate and his employer decide to let him continue working in India, policies and contracts would have to be re-examined. Would the employee retain the same compensation package and can he justify it?  How would this new shift affect regulations in immigration, tax, anti-discrimination policies, and employer-employee contracts based in both countries?

Mental health of the expatriate and their employee also came to the forefront, says Mercer. HR managers and their CEOs had to watch out for their well-being. Anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions arising from health became frequent during the pandemic. 

This development made the companies and their leaders maintain close contact and open communications with their expatriates. Channels had to be always open especially if the dislocated and stressed-out expatriate obviously needed support.

Even though COVID-19 seems to be behind us, many companies maintain this transparency undergirded by an efficient means of providing support. While nobody wants another global crisis, everybody recognizes the value of being prepared for it, in whatever shape or form it may appear.