Why employee benefits need to adapt to reflect a new type of expat

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of remote working which had already started to gain momentum prior to 2020. As a result, more employees want to continue working remotely, and some are even considering relocating abroad.

Earlier this month, Ocado announced that staff who worked from home during the pandemic will be able to work remotely from almost anywhere in the world for one month each year, after saying that requests to work abroad had been a ‘top question’ during the pandemic.Also, a recent survey by PagoFX, an international payments platform showed that one in 16 people employed in the UK (1.9m workers) intend to work from abroad for at least part of this year; with almost half saying they could do their job just as well from another country.The pandemic has given rise to a largely successful experiment in home and remote working, which is set to continue for some employees.  Research by Howden in July 2021 suggested that as many as 88% of employers expect to facilitate home working post-pandemic, with 39% expecting partial home working to be available to all workers, and a further 46% intending to introduce this for some employees. 
Now, as many countries start to open up after Covid-19 restrictions, technology is enabling people to work when and where they want. No longer tied to a physical workplace, more employees are choosing to move in with family and friends, relocate to holiday homes or change their ‘working from home’ location to a different country altogether.These ‘self-chosen’ expats are changing the benefits landscape and bringing new challenges for employers. They are not traditional expats, as they have chosen to relocate rather than the organisation sending them on an assignment, and often the organisation may not even have a need for an employee to be in that country.However, having a global mobile workforce is something more employers need to consider, especially since the war on talent is likely to get tougher as the world continues to recover from the pandemic. Companies will have to re-think their benefits to attract people into the business and accommodate their desire to choose where they live and work.Increasingly there is going to be a need for more flexible options for benefits and rewards for expats. This, coupled with more complicated regulation, taxation, and visa requirements depending on the country, is going to change the way “expats” are placed on assignment in the future.

Considerations for a global workforce

When it comes to relocating, traditionally companies provide housing and schooling for any children for expats. However, while employers may still support expats to find these services, it is now often the responsibility of the employee to fund them.The reason for this is that many expat assignments today are a personal choice, as opposed to being a company relocation. Also, more companies are raising the salaries for expats so they can fund these elements themselves and be flexible on the living choices they make whilst overseas.Before choice became a factor, employees sent on assignment often remained on their home location contract with expat provision. However, a common challenge was employees not being able to access certain benefits, such as pensions, which can be complicated to administer globally, or having pension payments paid in their home country, which may not be appropriate if they did not plan to return. 
An alternative option for companies would be to pay an expat a higher salary to invest in benefits of their choice.  The drawback is that employees might choose to save the premiums rather than invest in healthcare for example, which presents problems if they get ill, such as delays in accessing treatment and resulting in them potentially having to take longer time off work.To overcome these challenges, more companies are localising expat or secondment benefits to their local office. This can ensure consistency in benefits provision in that location and ensure that benefits are aligned with the local market.The main exception to this approach is with international private medical insurance, as expats often want or need higher benefits than are provided locally and have family with them or are globally mobile across multiple jurisdictions.Several organisations are also trying to tackle the topic of benefits provision by trying to maintain consistency wherever possible between different countries. This could be by aligning benefits wherever possible globally such as Global Employee Assistance Programmes, Global Virtual GPs, Pooling of Life or Health policies if an option to dovetail local provision with an element of top-up provision. Having consistency can help with inter-company moves between locations offering employees familiarity in benefits, leading to fewer concerns and issues when trying to understand the benefits provided in a new location, which can increase their loyalty and engagement.

Attracting top talent

To ensure they are recruiting and retaining the best people, companies are increasingly recognising that flexibility and consistency are key when it comes to benefits.Packages are being negotiated and discussed with employees to determine the options (localisation or expat) and to discuss the pitfalls of the different options. This way a decision can be reached that works for all parties. However, there is a word of caution with this approach. Employers need to be mindful of the impact of any disparity in contracts/benefits in one country on workers in that location. They also need to be careful of committing to providing a benefit that is not possible in another location and maintaining consistency wherever possible.For example, committing to providing healthcare for an employee is fine whilst they work in the UK and the premiums are affordable. However, should that employee relocate to the USA it may be prohibitively expensive to offer this.As the world of work changes and global mobility becomes more commonplace it’s important that companies establish a clear strategy and process for how they handle their global benefits to ensure these meet the needs of today’s expat. Having a consistent global policy which everyone understands is vital.

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