23/06/2020 Covid-19 has made one thing very clear: international travel should not be taken for granted. In the global economy as we used to know it, businesses and individuals mastered the ability to ignore borders when doing business. International travel had become a normal part of our daily lives. The upside of being able to work in any location, meet clients face-to-face, would weigh up against the downside of travel time and costs. With Covid-19 closing borders, there became an immediate need to adapt our cross-border work perception. How does this impact companies with a global workforce? Is this the end of international business travel and assignments? What does the future of global mobility look like?
Less physical cross-border activity, more virtual activity
We have, logically, seen a dramatic trend of decreasing international travel between March and May 2020. New assignments have been put on hold or delayed, while existing assignments are being reviewed for possible early termination. Business travel has been cancelled and commuting patterns are frozen. Projects where physical presence is required will have suffered delays, but on the other hand, work that does not require travel has been carried out as normal, but virtually.
Remote working will become more normal, where business allows. For employees who used to travel often but who are not under an assignment policy, this could lead to a simplification. They will (often, not always!) be under local employment benefits and subject to tax and social security of the country of residence. Their inability to travel will reduce the risk of non-compliance in other jurisdictions. For employees who used to travel often, who are under an assignment or commuting policy, this could lead to a more complex situation, as their inability to travel may lead to a mismatch in benefits, tax and social security situation.
The current action for HR and Global Mobility teams will be to assess if they have sufficient oversight:
- To distinguish formal assignments versus actual assignments, understanding the scope of global workforce; and
- To assess the tax and compliance impact of Covid-19 on these assignments, for both employer and employee.
The ‘new’ global workforce: remote working or not?
New ‘assignment’ types, which will likely increase would include a set-up where the employee can perform his/her role remotely. The question that will come up is: “Is travel or a relocation required for this role?” Besides the HR considerations, this leads to a couple of concerns from a tax and compliance perspective, which relate to the fact that the employee can work from any location but the host company office. This will lead to the foreign employer having to manage tax and social security compliance, and payroll in both the country of residence of the employee and the country of work (if not the same). This situation is quite comparable to situations already familiar to us, for example:
- A multinational enterprise wishes to expand its business into a new country and hires a local resident who manages the regional sales.
- A company hires a software developer for a project, which developer will handle the project remotely from his home country.
The main questions that will arise are whether it is possible to do the job without travel; or whether the role can be brought to the employee.
When finding the right person for a role in a host company, companies have several options. Some relevant questions to consider are:
- Do we have the resources available in the host company? (Internal move)
- Do we have the resources available in the group? (Internal hire: working remotely, long term assignment, local-to-local move)
- We have no internal resources; do we hire in the host location? (Local hire, local contract)
- We have no internal resources, do we hire in a location where group is present? (Hire-to-assign: working remotely, long term assignment, local-to-local move)
- We have no internal resources, do we hire in a location where group is not present? (Direct hire: relocation to host state, working remotely)
There will be greater flexibility for international roles that would typically require a lot of travel, for example, in roles with regional or global responsibility; whereas roles that require management of local teams or projects will be more challenging. Roles involving work that can be executed in any location, which are often project based, will be easiest to adapt.
HR & Global Mobility teams will need to:
- Start preparing for new types of hiring; make an inventory of the expertise required in the organization; work on a hiring strategy.
- Create an overview of tax, legal and compliance requirements in any location where an employee may work or reside; work together with tax vendors.
Identifying actions: where to start?
You will have seen many articles and blogs that encourage you as a global mobility or tax specialist to adapt to the new situation. This involves extensive review of past, current and future assignments, for tax, social security, immigration, labour law, payroll, compensation and benefits, etc. Where to start? Here’s our suggested top 3 priority actions:
- Identify commuters: Commuters and frequent business travelers are likely the group most affected by travel restrictions. With PAYE schemes based on an assumed travel pattern, their tax liability may considerably increase in either the home or host state. Towards Q4 of 2020, an estimation of the overall tax liability will help prepare planning personal income tax return filing in each location. Determine case-by-case if a country’s tax legislation offer relief.
- Identify individuals overstaying (voluntarily) in host location: A high risk from a small group of people who are ‘stuck’ in the host location. This would involve employees who normally work in their home country, with travel to various locations, while the international travel and stay does not lead to a separate tax liability. These employees would be able to work remotely and choose to do so from a property they own or rent in the host location. This may lead to a tax liability in the host location due to surpassing a tax threshold (>183 days), filing requirements for employee and employer, and a shift in residency.
- Prepare for new hires, who are/are not able to travel to their host location: Besides the fact that these employees will be taxable in their home location for the time being, their social security position may be impacted. This is especially relevant in non-EU situations. Employers may be required to organise payroll withholding in the home location. An interim benefit package may have to be agreed upon, and immigration and practical issues will need to be addressed.
Global mobility has been transformed by Covid-19. By taking action now, you will be able to adapt to the new challenges and prepare your business for the future.