Pandemic decimates Indian expat workforce

India's traditional difficulties in attracting sufficient numbers of much-needed professional expatriates to support growing, global industries has now become "a Herculean task" because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report.

Indian flag with Covid-19 image
Writing on the Fortune magazine website, Biju Balendran, managing director and CEO of Renault Nissan Automotive India, and Tojo Eapen, a partner at global executive search company Stanton Chase, say companies need to explore innovative ways to manage the situation.

Wave of repatriations among expats

The pair say the spread of Covid-19 led to a wave of repatriations among expats occupying senior positions in Indian industries such as automotive, technology, electronics and chemicals."The extended lockdown in India has vexed the expat business community whose executives and engineers are stuck in their countries of origin and are unable to join work in India because of closed aviation borders for foreigners," says the report."With an increasing number of companies in India (domestic as well as global multinationals) setting up businesses in small cities and towns, hiring and onboarding expats has become a Herculean task. And with rising global opportunities, it has become tougher and more expensive."The authors point out that the pandemic has exacerbated the problem because India has never been "among the top preferred destinations for expats", ranking only 18th out of 33 nations ranked in HSBC’s Expat 2019 Global Report, mainly because of concerns over quality of life, ease of settling in, work-life balance, safety, health services outside major cities and the environment.

Innovative approaches needed

One multinational corporation is developing an innovative approach, says the report, by getting a dedicated team of repatriated expats to support the company's functions by working from their home countries on specific assignments."These expats do so according to India time, through virtual communication tools. This approach means these expats must sacrifice their personal commitments in their home country and demonstrates their dedication to the organisation and its operations," say the authors.The downside is that while the scheme has encouraged local staff to take on more responsibilities while being guided by the distant expats, the hands-on benefits of experienced, overseas staff has been lost. "Questions remain whether the elimination of face-to-face interaction is sustainable and effective in the long run," says the report.


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"This could be challenging to expats in developing rapport with their team as face-to-face interactions help them to adapt and accept the new culture of the different countries. The impact on trust and depth of understanding of complex topics is also debatable and we are starting to see varying opinions. Questions also remain regarding the impact on teamwork and productivity."We are of the opinion that working together in an office environment, and attending face-to-face meetings and seminars are key ingredients for teamwork, motivation, confidence building and self-discipline. This shift to virtual business needs to be approached with an open and continuous improvement in mindset."

Will Indian companies look to Asia for expat talent, rather than Europe and North America?

The authors wonder if the current, coronavirus-induced shortages will lead to Indian companies looking to Asia, rather than Europe and North America, for more of its expat talent in the future. And, indeed, if the repatriation of Indians to their home country because of the pandemic, will lead to more indigenous skills being available."As organisations try to work through the current challenges with limited expat support, we are left pondering a few questions. As part of the larger digital shift, would the future of expat life involve more full-time or part-time virtual assignments? What other major changes will impact expat lives? Will work from home country become the common norm? We eagerly look forward to the answers."

Read more news and views from David Sapsted.

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