Virtual international assignments are likely to continue, in line with continued border restrictions in many locations. At the same time, rates of salary increases are expected to rebound  in the year ahead.

With brighter spots potentially ahead in 2021, HR can expect a few shifts in workplace and employee priorities to focus on. On that note, ECA International has identified five key predictions relating to both employee mobility and employee salaries for the year ahead. These are summarised below.

Trend #1 Virtual international assignments will continue to be commonplace in the absence of employee mobility

Virtual international assignments are likely to continue in 2021, in line with continued border restrictions in many locations. The upside is, not only is it more cost-effective than the traditional long-term assignment, it also allows a company to place a person with the requisite talent and skills in the host location, even though it's not physically.

"However, HR teams must be prepared to implement a concrete and competitive policy amid an uncertain environment in 2021, alongside understanding potential costs (e.g. tax liability in two locations) and compliance issues, shares Lee Quane, Regional Director - Asia, ECA International. HR teams must also be able to empathise with employees who may be reluctant to undertake virtual assignments due to the complexities involved.

Trend #2 Junior and mid-level employees may no longer be needed in their host countries

The ability of many repatriated employees to work from home during the pandemic has led companies to re-evaluate how they deploy and engage such employees in the future.

For companies operating in multiple locations within a region, this means that employees may remain at headquarters, whereas companies that operate globally may send their employees to regional hubs instead of in-market locations.

Trend #3 Oversight of the safety of corporate travel will increase greatly

While travel is expected to gradually open up in 2021, significant oversight is needed from HR teams to ensure that overseas assignees are certified to travel. HR teams will need to carefully select a list of trusted partners such as airlines and hotels for business travellers, and review the applicability and efficacy of crisis response policies. They will also need to compile valuable advice for employees whilst present in host locations, such as whether masks are required when out in public.

Trend #4 Housing costs will continue to fall as employee mobility declines

With employee mobility expected to remain low this year, housing rental costs for expatriates will likely to continue to fall in the coming months.

While Singapore experienced a small increase in rental prices after five consecutive years of falling rent, the ECA research predicts that it is likely to be counteracted by tighter restrictions on work permits and COVID-19, which has tempered the demand for housing by overseas workers.

Trend #5 Rates of salary increases will rebound in 2021

According to a survey done in late 2020, a majority of employers surveyed have expressed confidence in economic recovery in 2021, and thus expect to increase the salaries of their employees. This can be attributed to the fact that the number of companies implementing pay freezes in 2021 is expected to drop.

However, as major economic recessions can cause significant long-term impact on salary growth rates, employees may not see the rates of annual salary grow to return to pre-COVID-19 levels despite the expected rebound next year.


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