International Workforce Management in the Era of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the international workplace and international employer-employee relations in profound ways. As employees now work from home in significant numbers around the globe, multinational employers suddenly have been confronted with managing issues that they may not have previously prioritized. This is especially challenging for multinational employers that might wish to implement uniform global policies and practices — if not for varying local protocols and guidance.

While some countries remain locked down, at least to some degree, many others have initiated progressive measures to reopen businesses and return employees to the workplace. Although there are no one-size-fits-all policies or practices when managing an international workforce, multinational employers that are preparing for employees to return to the workplace should be prepared to:

  • Implement new practices and protocols to maintain a safe work environment 
  • Consider remote work options and business travel restrictions
  • Manage employee-relations issues when individuals refuse to return to the workplace

Health and Safety Compliance 

Certain countries also require that employers prepare safety plans that detail specifically what and how COVID-19-specific health and safety measures will be implemented. Ireland, Luxembourg, Spain, and the United Kingdom, for example, each require companies to prepare such a document. Yet even in other jurisdictions, like France and Germany, that do not require a safety plan, it’s a good idea to have such a plan. Although different nations require different measures and protocols as part of a safety plan, it should generally include the following:

  • Safety preventive measures, including social distancing, sanitary gel stations, and recommending (or requiring) the use of face coverings
  • Seating to observe social distancing requirements 
  • Entrance and exit routes specific to each office
  • Capacity limits for elevators, stairs, restrooms, and other public areas (meeting rooms, etc.)
  • Procedures to disinfect the workplace
  • Protocol for handling employees who develop COVID-19 symptoms

Note that safety plans may refer to office buildings’ general COVID-19 guidelines, should such a document exist. It is likely that newer office buildings may be more progressive in preparing such guidelines and more active in communicating measures. 

Importantly, safety plans are not a “check the box” exercise. Developing such plans should be a meaningful initiative to educate and protect both employees and the company.

Travel Considerations

While numerous countries’ reopening plans include loosening restrictions on local travel, many employees, particularly those who commute via mass transit, may be wary of returning to the office. Where employees are hesitant to return to the office, multinational employers must be mindful of local regulations and guidance before requiring or recommending employees to come back to the workplace. 

Some countries, such as New Zealand, have been more successful in reducing the transmission of COVID-19, such that employers may require employees to return to the office. Similarly, in South Korea, where except in very limited circumstances, there have not been any legally mandated shutdowns, employees have continued working in the office. Even in countries, such as Brazil and India, that generally allow employers to require people to return to the workplace, regional and/or city-specific quarantine or lockdown rules may nonetheless restrict or limit the number of employees who may work in the office. 

Further complicating matters, Mexico determines the COVID-19 level of alert on a weekly basis, which affects whether employees may come to work. In such cases, as a practical matter, where workable, it may be best for employers to accommodate employees’ desire to work remotely.

In addition, several jurisdictions are prohibiting international visitors and may require immediate COVID-19 testing or quarantine upon arrival. Hence, it may be worth limiting employees’ non-essential business travels. Although generally there is no clear definition of “essential travel,” employers may consider restricting travel to countries that have been deemed “high-risk” by in-country foreign affairs or health authorities. 

Refusal to Return to Work

As a best practice, companies should evaluate instances when employees refuse to come back to the workplace on a case-by-case basis. They should consider whether an employee’s desire is based upon personal preferences, government recommendations, and/or information from healthcare providers. Companies should also assess whether employees’ essential job functions require working onsite.

As a best practice in most jurisdictions, if employees’ jobs allow them to work remotely, employers should accommodate (and/or continue to accommodate) requests. Governments in countries like South Korea, where shutdowns have not been made mandatory, already encourage this.

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In some countries, like Mexico, although accommodating remote work may be preferable, there is no legal obligation requiring employers to accommodate a desire to work remotely. There certainly are exceptions to this general rule, like in New Zealand, where employers only must accommodate remote work requests that are fair and reasonable. Or take Germany, where employers make decisions on a case-by-case basis because there is no entitlement allowing employees to work remotely. 

A final consideration is that many countries, again like Germany, are limiting the number of people present at the same time in the office, rotating workers in and out.

Meanwhile, employers in all countries should consider disciplinary procedures if employees refuse to return to work. Depending on local law, as well as specific company culture, immediate termination is likely too harsh a response. Absent a medical condition or disability that may prevent people from returning to the office, progressive discipline, where employees first receive warnings followed by suspensions prior to dismissal, may be more suitable. Even in countries where governments have been more effective in containing the spread of COVID-19, such as New Zealand and South Korea, employment termination should be a last resort. 

Also, certain countries may require or recommend different practices and procedures depending upon where people live. In India, for example, workers who live in a containment zone (i.e., where individuals’ movements are restricted and employers may not take disciplinary action against employees) must be treated differently than those outside that zone.

Employee Buy-In

Finally, it will behoove multinational employers to lay the groundwork for employee buy-in before implementing changes. Around the world, employers must be transparent regarding the risks that employees may encounter upon returning to the workplace. Employers should train and educate employees accordingly. Straightforward, empathetic and honest communications with employees can ease employee relations concerns. Continual communication with employees, employee representatives, and works councils will be paramount to help ensure:

  • Successful implementation of measures and ultimate safety of employees
  • Reduced risk of legal action 
  • Employee morale is not negatively impacted

The pandemic will continue to ignore international borders and create a worldwide health and financial crisis. Managing a global problem, however, depends heavily on local actions.

Erika Collins is a member of Epstein Becker Green’s Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice in the firm’s New York office, where she co-heads the firm’s international employment law practice. She works with multinational public and private companies on complex international employment and human resources matters, with a focus on navigating cross-border legal and cultural differences.

Ryan Hutzler is an associate in Epstein Becker Green’s Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice in the firm’s Washington D.C., office. Ryan works with multinational public and private companies from across a wide scope of industries on international employment and human resources matters.

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