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Jun 18, 2020

The world of talent mobility radically changed over the past few months as COVID-19 spread. As organizations around the world moved from the workplace to work from home, talent mobility ground to a halt. Many employee relocations stopped. Summer internship programs were canceled or went virtual. The world moved to shelter in place.

Now, employers everywhere are establishing policies to guide “back to the office” decision-making. Much of this focus is on getting employees back to the offices they left a few months ago, and relocation is often getting less attention.

However, the need to put the right talent in the right place didn’t go away because of the pandemic. For example, a manufacturer might need to put an engineer in a facility immediately simply to continue operations. For many positions and circumstances, relocating an employee is unavoidable and business-critical.

Deploying talent in the current pandemic requires a symphony of actions. As an employer, here are five “musts” to ensure your talent mobility efforts assure employee safety, logistical effectiveness, supportive assistance, and cost-efficient results.

1. Ensure the safety and well-being of relocating employees

What responsibility does the employer have for the safety and well-being of an employee who is relocating during a global pandemic? Relocation has always surfaced issues related to the “duty of care.” However, under the conditions of a global pandemic, this term takes on an entirely different meaning.

An employee relocation is a unique business activity in that the employer is asking an employee to make personal and family decisions on behalf of the employer and is paying the costs related to those decisions. No other business activity requires the employer to be as involved in the personal life of the employee.

Under normal circumstances, the risks and exposures are low. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the old rules don’t apply. If you’re using a relocation management company, you need to ask questions about the health and safety practices that are followed by service providers throughout the relocation process. Are masks and gloves used by household goods movers? What types of pre-move sanitization are available for a new home or temporary housing? Are additional services offered to ensure the well-being of the relocating employee and family, such as virtual services for rental assistance, spousal support, or language training?

2. Improve communication to increase relocation support

It’s not an exaggeration during this time of uncertainty to say that employee communication is everything. This is especially true for a relocating employee and their family.

Multiple people are involved in a relocation. On the employer side, stakeholders include the hiring manager, HR staff, and payroll. There also may be the involvement of a relocation management company and a variety of suppliers of relocation services, such as household goods shipping and temporary housing.

Who is going to coordinate employee communication? All of these participants have important communication needs at many points throughout the relocation event. During this time of crisis, it is extremely important to focus on how all of these participants can be connected so that each can do their part to complete a successful move.

To avoid communication breakdowns, define who is responsible for what among the key participants. What is the role of the hiring manager? The HR relocation manager? The relocation company? This is especially critical when it comes to health- and safety-related communications that can mitigate risks.

3. Implement new protections for mobile employees

An employee relocation involves a variety of interactions with people and businesses that are assisting in the process, many of whom need direct contact with the employee. Right now, there is a great deal of innovation going on within employee relocation supplier networks.

In short, it’s possible today, as the economy opens up, to perform all of the steps necessary for successful employee relocation. Some activities may take longer or require a different process, but they can be done.

There are a number of new policies in place for how to conduct specific services safely, especially with consideration to social distancing guidelines. If you are working with a relocation company, ask about how they are minimizing personal exposure during the provision of basic services, such as a home sale or purchase, temporary accommodations, destination assistance, and moving household goods.

4. Understand global impacts

Recent events have resulted in country immigration authorities updating migration regulations, and in many cases, increasing restrictions on entry. Changes in requirements and eligibility are regularly occurring and with increasing frequency. This impacts business travelers, international assignees, and one-way moves between countries. It is essential to stay connected to the most current updates affecting your employees, either through your internal legal teams, your consulting relationships, or your relocation partner.

The measures taken in response to the pandemic may have generated a number of unexpected tax consequences. A few of the more obvious include unintended tax liabilities resulting from business travelers or short-term assignees being forced to shelter in a country other than their home. Less obvious impacts may include the ability to treat disaster relief payments as non-taxable events (U.S.) or U.S. domestic transferees not receiving a stimulus payment due to prior year relocation inflating their 2019 income. Again, you should check in with your internal legal and finance teams, your consulting relationships, or your relocation service partner.

Initially, you will need to evaluate these situations on a case-by-case basis. You will also find that new solutions will be needed for unanticipated issues. Considerations include implications of setting precedents, cost, alignment with other company policies for tax, and the opportunity for consistent treatment across the employee population.

Providing communication and support enables a greater connection with relocating families during a time of difficulty, and the tangible demonstration of care for the family builds trust. This is an area where you can (and should) expect service providers to deliver an additional level of connection and communication, as well as creative solutions for each relocating employee.

5. Provide additional support to relocating employees

In the past few years, there has been a trend for employers to become less involved in their employees’ relocations. Relocating employees have access to online tools and resources that are more robust than just a few years ago. Employers provide the funds (lump sums), and employees manage their own moves and retain any funds not spent.

Although it may be expedient to offer lump-sum payments, it’s important to carefully evaluate and determine if that’s the best solution right now. As an employer, you want to know exactly what’s going on with your employees’ relocations and that safe practices are being exercised.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are encountering unpredictable and complicated situations. The solutions are not always simple or obvious. Many relocation situations require flexibility, direct intervention, or scheduling changes. Professional guidance and vetted suppliers can help right now, even if a lump sum is your preferred course of action when business goes back to normal.

In Conclusion

I hope these best practice strategies for employee relocation will help you make the best decisions to reduce the risk for your business and your employees while safeguarding everyone’s health and well-being. This may not be the ideal time for relocation, but certain talent deployments can be essential to sustain competitiveness and execute your company’s business objectives.

Overall, successfully conducting employee relocations during this pandemic and in the post-pandemic economy will require a greater level of involvement from you as an employer, as well as the support of your relocation service suppliers. It also requires everyone’s willingness to be flexible and to consider new and different solutions. Now is the time for innovative thinking and leveraging expertise from multiple sources. We are all in this together.

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