By Olivier Meier, Mercer
The debate about remote working that took HR by storm in 2020 remains a top priority for HR and mobility teams in 2021. At an international level, mobility managers are pondering whether “virtual assignments” will be replacing traditional expatriate assignments.
Companies are making progress on implementing new guidelines, but the debate remains confusing. The lack of clear definitions is adding to this confusion. CEOs have been making vague promises about the possibility of “working from anywhere” without providing much detail. At the same time, employees who have been working remotely for months increasingly expect more flexible working arrangements. In the face of this rapid evolution, HR professionals sometimes struggle to keep pace with the remote working debate.
Words matters when talking to business leaders and employees. While there are no universally, accepted definition for all types of remote working, understanding what stands behind the different concepts is a first step to clarify the debate.
Working from home
Obviously, this arrangement is when employees work from their private homes rather than in an office. Working from home has allowed companies to maintain business continuity during the pandemic, and some employees find that it improves their work-live balance. Some downsides are that it raises questions about maintaining company culture, building effective teams, and even creating work-life balance issues itself. When an expatriate is working from home in the assignment country, this could create additional challenges related to safety and integration in the local workforce. In a loose (and somewhat misleading) sense, it can also refer to virtual assignees who are working from their home country.
Flexible working refers to the many different scenarios in which employees are given more options about how and where they work. Well implemented, it could be the cornerstone of a good employee value proposition and increase employee satisfaction. It does, however, require clear guidelines, practical support, and a thorough review of company processes and culture to be successful. Remote working is one aspect of flexible working.
Remote working describes all situations where employees work without being in the location benefitting from their work. Remote working can be from home or from a different city or country. The spectacular success of remote working during the crisis should not eclipse the need for a detailed feasibility study to understand its impact. Not all jobs can be performed effectively from afar. Implementing remote working successfully may require changes in job descriptions, processes, practical support, and in employee and management mindsets.
Working from anywhere
This term is often used to frame remote working in a more appealing way, and it goes hand in hand with the idea of flexible working. The expression has been used by CEOs and top-level managers to demonstrate the willingness of their organizations to become more flexible, agile, and attuned to the expectations of their workers. It holds the promise of better employee experience and increased business resilience. The risk is that the promise may remain vague and difficult to implement in practice. Does it mean literally anywhere in the world, or are there restrictions? Is it applicable only within a given country due to compliance issues? Is the arrangement temporary or permanent? May employees work remotely some days or at an office on others, perhaps on a schedule they devise themselves? The risk of misunderstanding between stakeholders is significant.
Often used to describe remote working situations, this expression focuses on the technology involved. It holds the promise of bridging distance between employees rather than emphasizing how dispersed they are. A virtual team can be composed of not only remote workers but also their peers working from an office. It presupposes that employees working virtually can replicate the same tasks, level of productivity, and the same level of motivation and team spirit as colleagues working together in the same place. Not all employees are equally adept at working virtually. Some people might feel intimidated by the technology involved or lack of human contact and view themselves as perpetual outsiders. On the other hand, with proper training and processes, it can open new opportunities for some groups of employees to join projects that would normally be out of reach.
International remote working
International remote working refers to employees who work virtually from another country. International remote working is, of course, just an extension of remote working, but it may come with a host of compliance and practical complications. Companies have long been reluctant to authorize international remote working, but it became a reality for many internationally mobile workers during the pandemic. International remote working is part of the concept of managing a globally distributed workforce composed of local employees, expatriates, as well as remote workers. Going forward, many companies would like to maintain the option of allowing employees to work remotely internationally but only for well-defined scenarios. Having employees working across borders under the radar is major concern for HR. International remote working is still very much a work in progress.
Another term for international remote working, virtual assignment conveys more specifically the idea that traditional forms of long- or short-term relocations could be replaced by assignments performed remotely. The focus is having a structured assignment option with clear goals and fixed duration, as opposed to simply providing more flexibility to employees. Relying on virtual assignments could lower costs for companies and open up new opportunities to work internationally for employees who cannot relocate to another country. There are, however, many practical barriers to virtual assignments in terms of job setup and compliance, and virtual assignments are unlikely to replace all traditional assignments. They will nevertheless represent one more option for companies in their arsenal of international HR policies.
Workers who spend part of the time in an office and part of the time at home are known as hybrid workers. It is often viewed as a pragmatic compromise between working full time at home or in an office. Hybrid working could also be about combining a traditional assignment with a period of remote working. Some examples include a short period of remote working during a traditional long-term assignment or having a short-term assignment to build relationships with local peers followed by remote work. This combination may gain popularity as compliance issues may limit the duration or feasibility of virtual assignments in many situations.
Find out more about virtual assignments and other forms of remote working.