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Mobility Leadership Forum: Leading an Organization During COVID-19 and the Future State of Global Mobility



The following is a transcription of the webinar, “Mobility Leadership Forum: Leading an Organization During COVID-19 and the Future State of Global Mobility” which was held on June 18, 2020. This webinar showcased a panel of various industry leaders discussing their experiences leading organizations during the pandemic.

This webinar was sponsored by Corporate Living, International AutoSource, Ruoff Mortgage, and GTN. Speakers included Steve Hoffman, Director, Business Development for GTN; Dr. Amit Arwindekar of UnitedHealthcare Global; Peggy Smith, Chief Strategy Officer at CapRelo; Dick Burke, CEO of Envoy Global; Dave Kolb, President and founder of GTN; and Susan Benevides, CEO of Plus Relocation.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Table of Contents:


The Return to Offices and Travel for the Global Mobility Industry

Dr. Amit Arwindekar, UnitedHealthcare Global: I am Dr. Amit Arwindekar from UnitedHealthcare Global. We're going to talk about our path forward in these uncertain times, particularly as it relates to, “How do we return to working in offices and returning to travel for the global mobility industry?”

 I am the North American Medical Director for UnitedHealthcare’s global solutions. We service globally mobile populations helping them with their health, security, and insurance needs.

When it comes to COVID-19, we've all been dealing with this now for, it seems like forever, but really, it's been less than six months. And by and large, most of the world has weathered the first hump of this. Looking forward, we view the world and the time to come in basically two large phases. There's our current phase, which I'm going to call “Phase One,” which is really about disease control and prevention. What we're all really looking forward to is Phase Two. Phase Two is what we're calling “effective immunity.” That would be closer to the “normal” that we all knew last December.

For Phase One, for where we are currently, a couple of the things really are hallmarks of where we are right now: We have a disease, we have no immunity in the general population, and we have no vaccine. There is not a really great, effective treatment which does anything to shorten the course of the disease. We have a number of treatments, which sort of decrease the intensity and help people feel better, but really, we don't have anything that effectively says, "Here, take this; it will make this go away."

What we're seeing around the world is various stages of the outbreak. In some cases, those outbreaks are relatively small right now; in other places, it's much more pervasive and out of control. We're seeing widespread outbreaks as opposed to localized, isolated outbreaks around the world. We're seeing that healthcare systems can become overwhelmed very quickly, even in places where they've already weathered the first wave of this. There is a constant presence and an understanding that if the next wave comes and it's significant, it could very quickly throw us back to where we were a couple of months ago, and that health systems can become overwhelmed.

The key tools that we will use during this phase to protect ourselves, to protect our employees, to protect our families, and to protect our members is:

  • Social distancing—maintaining six feet as much as possible from anyone else whom we do not live with
  • Contact tracing— identifying people who are ill as well as those who may have come into contact with them, notifying them, and then helping them isolate themselves to prevent further spread of the disease
  • Hand hygiene—which we've talked about extensively
  • Masks
  • Selective quarantining—[identifying] people who are at risk, people who may have been exposed, and isolating them from the general population as much as possible
  • Work-from-home

We really expect [this phase] to last for the next 12-24 months. And when I say this, I don't mean I expect that we're going to have our societies locked down completely for the next 12-24 months. We’re seeing a lot of, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, opening back up to business, to travel, to leisure, all of these things. And I expect that will continue to potentially progress. But we should be aware that we're going to have to be vigilant over the next 12-24 months to maintain our social distancing, hand hygiene, use of masks, and quarantining. And we're probably going to see a lot more work-from-home because the threat of this virus remains in our communities.

Phase Two, which is really where we want to get to, is going to be characterized by [either] having a vaccine or reaching the point where 60-70% of the population has active immunity, either from an infection or some other means. We may still see the virus pop up, but it'll be in controlled pockets, and we won't expect to hear that whole countries are becoming overwhelmed. We'll expect to see, "Oh, there's a pocket of outbreak in this neighborhood, or this county, or this city." But not widespread the way we have in some areas right now.

We're expecting healthcare systems, at that point, to have capacity to treat everyone. We're not going to have the threat that the healthcare system could become overwhelmed and packed with limited services. We're expecting them to be fully caught up and to resume normal business.

The key element, which is going to get us to this next phase, will be a vaccine. And based on the estimates that we're hearing from the World Health Organization, the CDC, and vaccine manufacturers, the earliest we can expect that vaccine will probably be the fourth quarter of this year [versus] the second quarter of 2021. When I say “vaccine,” I really mean widespread availability of a vaccine, not just a vaccine that is approved for use or is in testing.

Once we reach that next stage of our recovery, access to healthcare and access to that vaccine are going to become very important to keeping our populations, our friends, our family members, and our employees safe. I expect that hand hygiene and potentially the use of masks may persist [and] become a part of our society because this has taken so long, and it's going to leave a lasting impact on all of us. And we're expecting that to remain as a key part of our societies.

Then there's going to have to be a certain degree of risk mitigation. And this risk mitigation means making special accommodations for those who either cannot receive the vaccine or have high risk factors and may potentially become very ill if they were to catch the illness in spite of the vaccine. We're expecting this new normal to be at least 12 months away—potentially less, but at least 12 months away right now is what all accounts tend to suggest. And I think that will be much closer to the normal that we've all become accustomed to prior to the start of 2020.

In this current phase that we're in, a lot of us are really eager to return to co-located work, going back to the offices, potentially going back to travel. But we need to discuss how we can do this safely for the sake of our employees and for our businesses. The first key element of this is going to be structuring our businesses to allow for social distancing. [We need to find] ways to move our desks or workspaces farther apart so that our employees can feel safe and comfortable in those spaces, and limit transmission of the disease if anyone were to come into contact with it.

[Another key element is] eliminating pinch points. One thing that we noticed in a lot of workspaces is that shift times start at a certain time and end at a certain time. And during the 45 minutes prior to that, you can have hundreds of people trying to come through a single point of access: doors, elevators, or stairwells. And those pinch points really become places where we could potentially see the disease spread. We're going to have to talk about how we mitigate those pinch points to limit the spread of the disease.

Finally, lunchtime is another key consideration for us to consider when we return to work and travel. In all other aspects of work, we can typically protect our employees and our members by wearing masks. However, lunchtime tends to be a time when the masks have to come down so we can eat. It also becomes a time for our employees to socialize with each other, which drops their guards and raises the risk. How we address lunchtime will actually become a key element for how we are able to return to work and to travel.

Hygiene in the office and the work environment is going to be very important. Allowing masking and hand washing stations, whether that's with alcohol-based washes or soap and water, is going to be key to maintaining the health of our employees. And then how do we disinfect our workspaces? How are they maintained and kept clean after hours and during hours so that if someone is sick, they don't spread it through contact with a non-living surface?

For all these things to be successful for reopening and for work and travel, we're going to have to maintain a certain degree of flexibility. This means allowing work-from-home to continue—if not for the entire staff, at least for certain pockets of our staff, so that we can keep our businesses going and keep our employees safe. Shift times will likely have to be adjusted so that all of work does not begin at the same time and end at the same time. [We have to find] ways to eliminate the pinch points and eliminate crowding. And then [we need to] maintain the flexibility to realize that if an outbreak were to occur in a localized area, we may need to go for another closure.

We're seeing this happen over the last few months in several places. China's having some issues [and] having to close down certain areas of Beijing. We've seen this with factories in Mexico, which opened up and then had to close down again due to outbreaks. But maintaining the flexibility to continue [operating] our businesses and continue our travel, while accommodating for the potential for another closure, is going to be a key element for us to continue moving forward.

And finally, [we must] make sure that all of our employees and everyone who works with us has access to healthcare so that they can keep themselves safe, keep their families and their surroundings safe, and allow us to continue to work without having a widespread outbreak in our workspaces for our members or for our employees. Key elements that will help keep everyone safe and healthy [include] access to telemedicine, which has really undergone a huge boom over the last couple of months, and EAP programs—we are seeing a lot of mental illness associated with the anxiety and uncertainty of what's been going on for the last few months, and that is likely to continue.

Evac and repat benefits are key elements for a lot of our members and a lot of our partners. [They want to] know that they have the option and the capability to potentially return home or to higher levels of care if where they're currently located is insufficient. Look at your policies to see if pandemic clauses are written in and reevaluate them with your insurance agents to make sure that you are covered through the COVID pandemic.

And then, finally, understand that everyone's risk for this virus is not the same, and their willingness to return to work or to travel may not be the same. And take that into account as we move forward. Who do we need to worry about, as far as from a risk standpoint? Two broad categories: There's personal risk factors--an individual’s factors that put them at higher risk, and then professional risk factors, jobs which place people at higher risk.

From a personal standpoint, anyone over the age of 60 is at an increased risk for a bad outcome if they contract COVID-19. People with underlying medical conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and lung problems all tend to have worse outcomes. People who are caretakers have special risks, because if either they themselves or the person they care for are exposed or become infected, there's a potential for significant harm and damage to the entire household.

Finally, those with lower socioeconomic status are a high-risk group. In this, I'm particularly referring to people who may be in our offices or workspaces whom we may not interact with normally or think of as employees, but who may have an impact on our workspaces—particularly those involved in housekeeping. They may have multiple jobs or be lower-wage workers. We found that they tend to spread the virus more quickly. They live with more family members in larger communities. And they may need the money, so they may continue to work if they're not feeling well, and that can put everyone in the office at risk. And we need to be mindful of that and make sure they have the opportunities to keep themselves safe, so they keep everyone in the workspace safe.

From a professional standpoint, there are certain professional risk factors that increase the risk of someone contracting this disease.

First and foremost, anyone who is exposed to other people is suddenly at risk for this. This includes a lot of sales staff, who I know are really eager to get back into traveling so they can have their face-to-face meetings with their clients. But those face-to-face meetings do come with an increased risk of contracting COVID. People who work in reception areas and housekeeping, as well as security, are often exposed to other people, and this can increase their risk. We may need to be cognizant of those positions when we're discussing a return to work and a return to travel strategies, and [we need to] be mindful of how we address those specific populations.

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The panel spent some time answering questions from the live webinar attendees.

How Organizations Have Held Up During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Steve Hoffman, Director, Business Development for GTN: I'm going to begin with the first question, which isn't really a question. I'm just going to ask all the panelists to introduce themselves, talk a little bit about themselves personally, the organization they work for or run, and then how their business has held up during the pandemic.

Peggy Smith, Chief Strategy Officer at CapRelo: Thanks, Steve, for having me. I'm honored to be a part of this distinguished group of panelists. I have to say it's funny; our topic is leading during COVID-19, but it feels a little bit like leading during turbulent times. And I hope we have the opportunity later to talk a little bit about that because it really is more than healthcare today.

My paying job is at CapRelo, but I like to say my job of the heart is [the one I've] picked up—I'm president of Smith [Tower] WeWork here in Seattle, Washington because I've got a displaced daughter who is working here on her internship. And I've got a husband who is also running his business from our home. And if we come through this and we remain a happy family, that will be a good thing for us.

A little bit about CapRelo. Greater than a 20-year RMC (relocation management company) headquartered just outside of the Washington, D.C. area. [We have] a great founder who started when he was 16 years old and built a tremendous business, J.K. Enterprises. We're one of the four business units underneath that enterprise. We serve large government clients as well as other large clients, and we are global.

Dick Burke, Chief Executive Officer at Envoy Global: I echo Peggy's thanks for [the opportunity to] join such a great panel. I’m Dick Burke, the CEO at Envoy Global. Got out of law school about 30 years ago to the month, practiced for about 10 years, and then switched over to the business side where I was one of the first employees at a business that became [and]

I ran and we sold that [business], and I had the chance to join Envoy. Back then it was called VISANOW. And if you're not familiar with Envoy, we're about 22 years old, and we help companies with their visa and immigration needs both in the United States and outside the United States. [Envoy is] based in Chicago, but we've got people scattered around the country. A majority of our customers are on the coast. And we help companies from Fortune [500] all the way down to small, promising startups to navigate the employment-based immigration landscape.

And we do it two ways. We have terrific lawyers. We've got an affiliated law firm of about 90 attorneys and paralegals. All they do is employment-based. And then we augment what they do with very powerful technology, which we've built in-house. And we think that yields a better outcome. Our business, I'll tell you... When January, February rolled around, I got very, very nervous because we're so tied to hiring and so tied to global travel. I became quite concerned. We've obviously been impacted. Our plan was to grow 40% again this year. We're not going to do that, but we're still up in the double digits. It's hurt us, but frankly it has not hurt us as bad as I would've thought. And I'm hopeful. We're starting to come out of the woods as I see our clients start to hire more.

Susan Benevides, Chief Executive Officer at Plus Relocation: Hello. I'm honored to be here as well. Thank you for asking me to attend. I'm Susan Benevides, CEO of Plus Relocation. I actually just celebrated 30 years in the business on June 1, so that's a long time. I grew up in this business, [in] a family who started with a real estate company, so I've got a long history of this. Our company, Plus Relocation, has 52 years in business. [We do] global relocation management with offices in London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore, so [we’ve] been actively doing relocation management.

We're really focused on the employee experience and the employee journey and innovation and transformation. That's probably where I spend a lot of my time. And we'll talk about that a little later as we talk about some of the challenges of working from home.

And the pandemic, yeah. Absolutely. We've been impacted. This has been challenging. I went back to our playbooks from 2007, 2008, 2009, to see how to approach this and what we needed to do. There have been some bright spots. People are still buying and selling real estate and mortgages are good. The reality is if people aren't moving, we don't have a lot to do other than... I think we're spending a lot of time just comforting people and trying to limit their anxiety and give them hope on when maybe they can move forward. Especially with school starting, there are a lot of people who are wondering whether they should move or not. And do you want your kids starting in a [potentially] online school, and they've never even met their classmates? It's been a challenging time for sure, but I guess this is our history, and our tenure in this industry has led us to so that we can lead through this. Thank you.

Dave Kolb, President and founder of GTN: I'm Dave Kolb, President of GTN. First, I just want to thank Dr. Amit for making the time to join us today and for a great presentation. Thanks also to this amazing group of leaders on our panel today. Before we get going on the panel discussion, I want to take two minutes and just call out Susan Benevides and Plus Relocation for their response to the protests and unrest triggered by George Floyd's murder here in Minneapolis.

I'd like to take just a moment and read Plus's post from LinkedIn. It said, "Plus stands with the black community and all people of color against racism and inequality. We are committed to helping our community heal. We are committed to being an active participant in ensuring progress is made toward equality everywhere."

The post goes on to discuss the mission of the Longfellow Community Council, which is to improve the well-being of the diverse Longfellow community through engagement, involvement, and empowerment. It's located in arguably the hardest-hit neighborhood during the Minneapolis rioting. The area had about 31 buildings that were completely destroyed, including three major grocery stores and two pharmacies. The Longfellow Community Council will use donations to aid in rebuilding their community by providing food security, safety, and security and business restoration.

I just thought that was a fantastic post. And I just wanted to thank Susan and Plus for their position and their leadership on this. With that, I'll jump into a little bit about me, GTN, and how we've held up through the pandemic as well.

I've got a pretty typical background for a mobility tax consultant. I [have an] undergraduate degree in law enforcement. After college, I was a lieutenant in the army for three years, spending most of the time in Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana, where I was introduced to some amazing food and a much different culture than where I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota.

I originally thought I might actually make a career in the army. But after a few years of getting chased around by wild pigs while out on military maneuvers in the backwoods of Louisiana, I thought it might be time to try something new. I went back to school, attended the Master of Business Taxation program at the University of Minnesota. But halfway through that, I started with KPMG and did some pretty standard corporate tax and partnership tax work. And then I was asked to help out in this expat group, just for a busy season.

My boss at the time made it very clear that I should absolutely not get involved with the expat group. He said it would essentially be the end of my career. It's just too much of a niche. That's pushing about 30 years ago. Fast-forward to today, we've got our GTN 20-year anniversary coming up in August.

For anyone not familiar with GTN, we're a mobility tax professional services firm. We assist organizations with tax issues related to their mobile employees and business travelers, [both] domestic and international. We provide mobility tax services, solutions, and technology just to help simplify mobility programs.

We're headquartered out of Maple Grove, Minnesota, which is a suburb of Minneapolis. We've got five managing directors, each one heading up one of our five US regions as well as a national practice leader for our business traveler services. That brings us to today where we have, like many of you, a number of very empty offices across the US, and virtually all our employees working remotely. Steve asked us to comment just a little about how we've held up during the pandemic. I'll admit when the gravity of the pandemic started to crystallize, I thought back to my old boss at KPMG, who advised against getting locked into this career in mobility tax. In March 2020, that advice from 25 years ago all of a sudden sounded pretty relevant.

We put a freeze on hiring, put an end to essentially all business travel, and quickly cut back on certain expenses. And really the focus was doing all we could just not to lay anybody off as a result of the pandemic. So [we] told our team, “Do what you need to do,” understanding many of them had young kids at home, setups that probably weren't the most conducive to working from home, and [we] just tried to provide whatever resources we could to help everyone adjust to our new reality. Obviously, we've seen a sharp decline in new assignments, but we've been able to keep our team busy. Thankfully, [we’ve had] no layoffs due to COVID, and now things seem to be starting to pick up again. [We are] very fortunate to be in the position we are and looking forward to the day we've got a vaccine and can hopefully start to put this behind us. 

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The Future: Embracing the Hybrid Model?

Steve Hoffman: How has your work-from-home strategy been going? Do you plan on keeping that on some level as part of your new normal when the current pandemic is over? In addition, feel free to comment on how the reopening of your offices has been going.

Susan Benevides: The work-from-home portion I think has been going well. We had a lot of remote employees anyway, so from a technology standpoint and security standpoint, our tech team had done a wonderful job of getting us set up. And you don't know until one day when your disaster recovery plan has to come into play because you're in the middle of a pandemic, that you have to actually put it to test.

So, from that standpoint, it's good. I'd like to pivot a little bit to a leadership standpoint. I've been leading the company as president since 2006, right before the recession. When 2007-2009 came around, I was able to rally the troops, be in front of them, talk to them, see how they were doing. Leading in a crisis, virtually, has its own challenges, especially for me, because I'm more of a face-to-face person.

One of the things we did right away was we set up [a schedule] where every Tuesday morning, we do an all-hands meeting with our entire global company offices, and just give them an update of what's going on. The financials, the industry, the moves, the activity, COVID, George Floyd's murder... I mean, we've gone through all these different things. And so that's been really good. Sometimes it will be five minutes, sometimes it might be 15. I also instituted right away wanting to do 15-minute check-ins with all the employees. About an hour or two hours every day, I just get 15 minutes back to back and just [virtually] go into their homes and ask them how they're doing.

Work-from-home, from a technology standpoint, yes, they're doing fine. Some people love it. Some people thought it would be really fun to not ever have to commute again, and now they're struggling. You have to be very aware of the loneliness that some people feel. I think it's gotten better because we're not in a shelter-in-place anymore or stay-at-home order. But when I hear about some of these companies saying, "Well, we're just going to work from home forever and we'll give you a thousand dollars and you'll be happy," I don't know that they recognize that some people are three people or two people in a studio apartment. It's not about the technology, it's not about the Wi-Fi, it's about struggling to maintain. Not everybody's relationships at home are easy; they've got small children. I think sometimes the teenage children are more difficult because they're used to being with their friends.

Really having this time to talk to people, to see how they're doing, has helped us to understand what resources we need to put in place. Moving forward, for all the reasons Dr. Amit said, [we have to] look at what it takes to open up. Right now, we've just tabled that. I think it would be costly and I think it would be a distraction. I think it would be challenging. We have such a close-knit culture. Putting people in zones and telling them they have to stay in that zone and making sure that all the different things [are in place] ... I just don't think that is where we're at right now.

While I know people want to come back, I think it would be really challenging to do. I don't know if it's 12 months. I don't know what it is. But I think that even when we do start to open, it's going to be very different. Not just the safety reasons that Dr. Amit talked about, but even just, we are working from home so well, and maybe somebody comes in for two hours for a meeting, but then says, "I'm going to work from home for the rest of the day."

I think our comfort with productivity and people working from home and having metrics to measure that, how they're doing, has allowed us a lot of freedom. [We’ve] realized that our people are probably working longer hours than they were before. And so [we’re] encouraging them to get up and get out. I've told people, "We're probably strengthening some muscles during this time that we didn't have to, for those who were always in the office." You could bounce over to a cube and talk to somebody. This is forcing us to work in environments that aren't necessarily natural for people, but we're getting really good at it. They're videoing for everything. I think our remote employees actually feel more connected because now everybody knows how they feel.

I think we're strengthening some muscles so that when we do come back, it's going to be this really powerful balance between community and knowing how to be inclusive of those who may not be in the room. I think that's been great. One thing that we are seeing is that I think there's going to be a lot of people who have been renters who are probably going to start looking for homes. If this is your new work spot, being on the 15th floor of a rental unit and having just a small deck makes you sit there and say, "What do I want to do?" I think people are looking at their work life differently. Again, that's kind of what we've done, but it's all been about really making sure that you're connecting with people and don't assume that everybody's just fine.

Dave Kolb: We're very fortunate we were able to have virtually our entire team start working from home as soon as the stay-at-home orders came out. We've been working in a cloud environment for a number of years. We have quite a few people who have historically worked from home. And we just so happened to have moved our headquarters office location in December.

Associated with that, we had everyone in our Maple Grove office working from home for about a week or so while we moved our office space. That turned out actually to be a great dry run of moving our entire team to a work-from-home status in March. Once we got the order and went to a full work-from-home status, there were definitely some on our team that had a much more challenging situation than others; there were very different experiences for different people. Working from home was obviously a much different experience for someone who has a lake cabin that they're able to go to and work from with their spouse or partner. [That person’s situation is different than] those with really no family in the area and maybe living alone in an apartment, or those with young kids suddenly home and needing school and other support throughout the day.

As many of you know, the US tax due date was extended to July 15. This actually allowed us to cut back our typical busy season hours with the plan of spreading some of that work into the summer months. I think that has definitely helped to keep everyone busy and also helped to avoid some of the stress of the tax busy season, which was happening at the same time we were all dealing with the shutdown and the shift to work-from-home and all that was happening with COVID.

But when COVID struck and the stay-at-home orders were implemented, we had everyone, obviously regardless of level, including our tax busy season interns, working from home. That was something we've never done before. But the team just quickly figured it out and [has] stayed connected through what seems like the never-ending Zoom calls. Even our technology development team, who during the pre-COVID days were just constantly having huddles and meeting in one of our conference rooms, seemed to have adapted pretty quickly as well to the whole work-from-home environment.

We've had a few people start to go back into our offices, very limited. We're taking it very slowly. The very earliest we'll start to really open up our offices is mid-July. But again, I think we've recently taken a wait-and-see approach on that. Once we do start to open up, we anticipate doing so in a phased approach. And then if anyone is just not comfortable with coming into the office, then we'll find a way to make that work.

So yes, going forward, even once we have a vaccine, I expect we'll continue to see an increase in how often our teams are working from home. Our people will just continue to figure out what works for them and their clients, and our role will be to continue to work on how we can best support our teams.

Peggy Smith: I think similar to what both Dave and Susan kind of talked about, I'll spend just a few seconds talking about CapRelo, then I guess some other broader thoughts here. We've embraced, obviously, every element of the work-from-home culture. Our CEO, Barry, similar Susan as you, sits down and does the check-ins as well.

I think what I would say is that we're in an industry whose core DNA is built on empathy. And more than anything, this is the time for us to use that empathetic muscle. Even, Dr. Amit, in your comments, you talked about the EAP access. And if you read anything in the trade regs, they talk a lot about the challenges of mental health.

I think our role as leaders is to lean way into that and to really, really make sure that we're pulling that out in people and a variety of things. And we talk about the workforce—we've been on this journey, and I've spoken about this for a number of years, about work-life integration. We're just now living that physically. That's really what we're seeing, right? We've been talking about this.

And so I don't know that my crystal ball suggests that 100% of everybody goes back into the work environment [and it] is going to be good, or 100% goes back into a permanent work-remote situation, which quite frankly, we've heard some companies explore. I think the real benefit is going to be those organizations that can adapt to a flexible dynamic. And whether you put people on cycles or whatever it is, you embrace the flexibility. 

And what it's going to do is that when we're then back out with our clients, we can have a great conversation with them talking about, "Yes, that is really hard. And yes, this is what we did." We often get criticized because—I don't know how many of you decide that you want to pack your home and move around the block just to see what that's like, right? So are we really empathetic?

This is going to give us a true opportunity to be empathetic and dynamic. And the more that we can play on that with leaders in HR in their organizations, by talking about what we did, I think that the more all of us will raise mobility in its strategic nature in a company. I'd like to see organizations just leverage that and make sure that we advance that.

Dick Burke: I would echo much of what Susan and David and Peggy said. In particular, I loved Susan's outreach. I've tried to do that. Our whole ethos at Envoy is that technology should allow things to go faster and smoother and better. Embracing that ethos, we were ready for work from home. We always had to work from home. Once it became clear this was going to be a much more permanent thing then once or twice a week, I said we were going to do four things. We're going to be guided by four principles during this pandemic. And all the decisions we make will be guided by them. And I've been able to refer back to them, and I think it's provided a sort of lens and a mooring for our employees.

[The four principles] were:

  • Protect our team.
  • Serve our customers.
  • Protect our business.
  • Position us for the rebound.

We actually do twice a week, 10- to 15-minute virtual all-hands. And so frequently, when all the decisions, initiatives, results, successes, and challenges come up, we'll share those through those four lenses. And I think it's provided... It's like a mooring or anchoring quality. That's one thing that I'd share that's gone well.

The frequency of the meetings is very, very good. And so it’s very similar to Susan’s in that regard. I also said, at the very outset, "I need to make a trade with you. I will be incredibly transparent. I will share with you slides from our board decks; I will share with you all our financial results. In return, I need you to embrace the ambiguity of the situation we're in. Anyone who says there's certainty is a charlatan. You need to embrace the ambiguity, and in return, I'll give you all the transparency, all the information I have, so that we can work through this together.”

I think folks like that. And we've tried to honor that. In terms of the future, I really echo what Susan said. Again, some folks love being at home and we will honor that, but some folks don't love being at home. And that can be for any number of reasons. What we're going to try to do is bring some optionality to our coworkers, being empathic, like Peggy would say, to say, "If you want to get back to the office, we'll let you back in. We're aiming for mid-July. It'll be entirely voluntary. It'll be limited." There'll be restrictions on it consistent with what Dr. Amit said. "If you don't want to come in, that's okay too." And we said, "You're certainly not going to be expected to come in until the fall.” I expect that will get pushed out some more. So far so good. [For] people struggling, now with the warmer weather, the ability to get out helps.

Peggy Smith: I had one quick thought. Dick, as you were talking, it occurred to me that another important thing for us as leaders is to not be afraid to say, "I'm scared too. I don't know what it's going to be like." And so they are looking at us to see how we react. And these are turbulent times. So we're talking empathetically. But I think it's OK to say, "Yeah, I'm scared too." I think they would appreciate the authenticity of that if we were comfortable doing that.

Steve Hoffman: Dr. Amit, do you have any thoughts you want to share regarding reopening of offices or anything like that?

Dr. Arwindekar: There's been a flood of really dead-on comments made here, and I want to just point them out again. I think one is making sure that you're communicating with your employees about what the plan will be. What a lot of people are dealing with and, I think, is causing everything to be worse, is the uncertainty. You don't know when things are going to open up again, when the office will open up, when the grocery store is opening up, when the park is opening up.

But I think as leaders, if we're able to give them some degree of either a framework or a plan to say, "You know what, we're going to look at opening up in July. We're going to look at opening up in October. We're going to look at opening up next year." I think that gives everyone a certain sense of control and clarity, which is key for them, I think, to feel they're getting some of their own control back. I really want to commend everyone here who said, "We were trying to communicate that to our employees." I really do think [it’s a good idea to] frame it in the way Peggy said: "Let's put this in the context of empathy. And yes, I may not know exactly what's going to happen, but I want to be open and transparent about this is what we hope to do."

The second point I want to bring up, which I think everyone here mentioned, is to be flexible and say, "You know what, not everyone needs to come back. You have your families, you have your situations, we want to respect and honor that." And make this work for the employee, because I think that's a level of support a lot of people are really looking for. And then we're not necessarily hearing from the general public with all of the uncertainty.

I really want to commend everyone here for the stances they're taking on making the workplace a safe place to return to when people are ready. I think that work really should be a good and solid, safe anchoring place for people. And I want to commend all the leaders on this call for making an effort to bring that out in their own specific organizations.

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Misconceptions About Remote Work

Steve Hoffman: What do you think is the biggest misconception in the marketplace regarding the concept of remote work?

Dave Kolb: I think one misconception we're seeing is that a company may see remote work as essentially teleworking. Meaning the employee will simply be working from home rather than going to the office, but certainly expecting that they'd remain in the same tax jurisdiction where they're employed. Some companies are telling employees they can work remotely through the end of the year. But what we're actually seeing is that some employees are interpreting that a bit differently.

Remote work is being interpreted, in some cases, as working anywhere, which could mean the employee expects to be able to work in any number of locations. It could also mean any number of tax jurisdictions, with employees working in or even moving to another state or country on a temporary or even permanent basis.

A key difference with work anywhere employees is that companies are generally not going to provide tax equalization and unlike assignments or transfers, many of these work anywhere employees also may be provided a little or no tax support. However, even though a company may not provide the tax support to these employees, the employer's payroll reporting and withholding obligations for remote workers can actually be very similar to their obligations for assignees and transferees.

Where this can go terribly wrong from a tax perspective is when the company isn't aware of the new work location, and they haven't reviewed or approved that new work location in advance. There could very well be corporate tax implications via change to the reporting and withholding requirements for the company, and certainly individual income tax implications to the employee, whether they may be aware of it or not.

Historically, when a company sends someone to a new location, either on an assignment or a one-way transfer, the company typically has some entity in that location to essentially receive that employee. And accordingly, from a corporate tax perspective, they generally either have an entity there with a permanent establishment or nexus already, or at least they're aware of those issues. And from a payroll perspective, there's typically an entity there as well that can facilitate the employer payroll reporting and withholding obligations.

With a remote worker, employees may be going to places that are based on their personal needs, maybe where they have family or even where they're a citizen. In these kinds of remote worker situations, there may not be any corporate presence in those locations, and just the mere presence of these employees could create what's deemed a PE or permanent establishment or nexus issues.

Thankfully, some tax authorities are, at least currently, being somewhat forgiving on this point, which is good news. But a bigger consideration is that even if there is no PE or nexus, there's almost certainly going to be an individual tax issue and/or a company payroll reporting and withholding obligation. And that can be a real challenge if a company just has no presence in that state or country to deal with those obligations.

Susan Benevides: That's a good point, from what you hear about Winnebagos and motor homes being the biggest sale and everybody's like, "I'm just going to travel all over the US while I'm working." And they're crossing six states and while they're spending a couple of weeks in each nobody from payroll is saying, "Well, wait, wait, wait, you can't be working a month here and a month here. We're not set up [for that]." Getting that message out there I think is important because I think that's kind of gotten lost in the work-from-anywhere concept. I appreciate you bringing that up.

Peggy Smith: I'm not going to come at the technical tax perspective. I would come at it from a little bit of a different pivot and simply say that I think the biggest misconception was a lot of leaders and executives didn't pay homage to that four-letter word called work. They just had this sort of mindset of, “You're out of sight, you're not really working.”

Pre-COVID, there was research that was done that productivity increased 56% when you worked remote. I can only imagine where it is right now. I mean, my commute is 12 steps, right? I'm not passing anybody on my steps, and there are no traffic jams. What we haven't done is change our hours. Meaning that I still get up at the exact same time I did as if I was going to drive in, I'm just not driving in. I'm still working, and that productivity exists.

I think that as we look at the biggest misconception, it is that you actually can deliver great organizational results in a remote environment. I've even talked to executives of big Fortune 100 companies that are now saying, “Wow.” They're going to send out surveys to their employees and ask, "Did you like [working remotely]?" Because they were pleasantly surprised with how good their organizational results were. And they are then listening to their employees and saying, "Boy, maybe I don't need to have everybody in the office all the time. And I can create a flexible environment and we can sort of put to rest this misconception that working remotely means you're not working, you're sitting on the beach, or in your Winnebago or whatever it is."

I'm hopeful that there'll be some great results that come out of this, but I'm going to put one asterisk here as well. We're in HR, and it's incumbent upon us and our HR leaders and organizations to make sure that they have the right structure, because we became an instant overnight remote manager, right? And we have to be sure that if the great experiment of working from home that got thrust upon us is going to fail or be revisited, it needs to have failed and be revisited under the right conditions. If we didn't train managers in how to manage remotely, shame on us as leaders for not doing that, because it is absolutely a very different skill than if you were able to walk by and see somebody and check in. Just because you're physically not there doesn't mean that those needs don't exist. And I think it's even more critical for us to make sure they're there.

Dick Burke: Two quick [thoughts] on immigration. So many have the misconception that, "Well, boy, now that I can't get in the office, this immigration program has got to slow down, or I got to grind it to a halt." We've been able to prove, because of our technology and our approach and our empathy, that, no, your program can continue. And we’ve received some glowing testimonials, which are issued now in white papers, where people said that we're enabling them to continue their global mobility program, notwithstanding the fact they're not in the office.

Another point on immigration is very similar to the immigration version of what Dave said. Many people would say, "Oh gosh, I'm just working from home." Well, under our weird immigration laws, working from home may have consequences. If you're there for more than 30 days, there can be a consequence. If you go to a different geographic area, there can be a consequence. We've been very communicative and proactive with our clients, saying, "Be mindful that if your folks are not in the office, there may be an immigration consequence to that. If you're furloughing them, there's a consequence. You may have limitations on your ability to furlough them dependent upon the status of their work authorization." There is an immigration lens to many of these things, the misconception being, "Oh, they're just working from home, no big deal." Not accurate.

Susan Benevides: I think that we've gotten so much stronger. The piece that I think I struggle with [is that] there is power in collaboration for innovation. It is really challenging to innovate in a Zoom call. I, for myself personally, need to be able to sit there and have conversations going back and forth, not saying, "You're on mute. You're on mute." I mean, it just loses that energy.

For me too, innovation comes in everyday life... I'm walking by something and I see something that goes, "Oh, wow, I bet we could do that in our business," and flipping [something] on its head. I think [because of] the stay-at-home order, all of a sudden, I wasn't getting really innovated from the kitchen to my office except [as to] what I could eat next.

I do think there is a balance [between] collaboration in an office and community. I mean, a culture is so much of what a company is. And [when you’re] onboarding new people in this environment and not being able to embrace them in a way that you have in the past, to make them feel part of the family, it's hard to feel part of the family sometimes on a Zoom call, right? You talk to the people you know.

I do think the misconception is that “it's just work,” because I don't think people have figured out where innovation lies in that environment, because it does have a separate space that it needs. And yeah, you can have digital tools and the Slacks and things like that, but that's kind of executing on an idea. That's not the ideation part, necessarily. That's what I would add.

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The Role of Corporate Mobility Programs in “Work From Anywhere” Situations

Steve Hoffman: What role do you think corporate mobility programs can play with work from anywhere situations?

Dick Burke: I think it is an enormous opportunity to help the company attract and retain the best talent. We do quite a bit of research and we know, and it's been confirmed by other studies, that many millennials, in particular, want the ability to do short-term assignments, either domestically or overseas. “I want to go to Madrid for 60 days.” “I want to go to Moscow for 90 days.” And [they feel] if you do that, it'll make you a more attractive employer, and it will also drive your retention of these otherwise sometimes jumpy coworkers. We think that that can be a real boon to the company.

And secondly, it's also an ability for the company to season more folks whom they see as high potentials and folks whom they envision advancing through management up to the C-level. In both of those contexts, [through] grooming and recruitment and retention, I think there's a vital role for global mobility programs to play.

Susan Benevides: One of the things we've been doing over the last few months is doing qualitative interviews with employees who were stuck in transition while they were moving. They moved to the Bay Area, and they weren't able to find a home yet, and all of a sudden, they're in a temporary housing unit for an extended period of time. Without any resources, not knowing anybody, [they] don't even know where the grocery story is, no neighbors, things like that.

One [important thing is] getting involved and understanding where the employees are. But also, let's say we get through that second wave and all of a sudden, things shut down again. Where's the role when you have people working from anywhere, even if they're in a transition phase? How are they supporting them?

There's a lot to be learned about how employees feel when they're stuck somewhere, and they can't create their community and they can't go to the office. The [question about] working from home/anywhere is, where are your employees when they can't be at the office? And how are you supporting them? What tools, what resources, do they need from you? Mobility doesn't stop just because the state paused it. You still have people who are really high anxiety during that time.

Again, I'm looking at it from work-from-anywhere, and then we have a shelter-in-place or a stay-at-home [order in place]. People weren't anticipating this, they weren't prepared for it, but I think global mobility has to prepare today for when that happens again, and what they're going to do with those employees who are in that transitional phase.

Dave Kolb: I think corporate mobility programs and leaders are in a unique position to be able to really address a lot of these issues. And certainly one role mobility program leaders can take and may want to take is to actively help educate the entire workforce, not just the populations and mobile employees we typically provide services to. To stick on the tax component a little bit more, as stated, employer's payroll reporting and withholding obligations for remote workers are often very similar to obligations for assignees and transferees. Based on that, it would certainly be ideal for a company's mobility department to really take a leadership role in helping to ensure the company's compliance for work anywhere or remote workers.

The unfortunate thing there, I think, is the volume of what is going to be needed to be addressed—it just could be massive. What we're seeing is that a lot of our clients, HR mobility managers, are in many ways already kind of taking the brunt of many of the COVID-related issues. And it seems almost every case is unique in some way. And each of those cases is already taking way more time than usual.

The challenge will certainly be for mobility departments to have the budget they need in order to be able to grow in size to address these issues. There's just a lot here, much of which is going to need to be addressed really on a case-by-case basis. And a lot of this, frankly, is going to fall on corporate mobility programs, which in many cases are already stretched pretty thin.

But one role mobility program departments can certainly take is to just help ensure policies are in place that help address what's coming. We've already seen a number of high-profile companies announce that they'll allow their employees to work remotely or work anywhere on an ongoing basis. I think this is probably just the tip of the iceberg. There's a number of policy topics or issues that companies will want to include within their policies. I won't go into detail here, but I’m certainly happy to follow-up with anyone who wants more information on that. I think [those are] a few areas [where] corporate global mobility program leaders are going to be able to really jump in and make a big impact pretty quickly.

Peggy Smith: Let me throw a couple of things out there. Let's start with table stakes. We know that from an HR lens, mobility is one—it may be the only one, actually—that touches all elements of HR. Because it's payroll, it's healthcare, it's benefits, it's performance management, it's acquisition, and it's retention. We are in an enviable seat to be able to touch a variety of elements within an ecosystem. We'll start with that. That makes us very important in an organization.

The second thing is, when you think about what's happening now, I want to rewind our movie back to 9/11, right? During 9/11, for many of us that were around at that time, a lot of organizations had no idea where their employees were. So, who gets pulled in? Mobility. Every time we [experience one of] these global crises, be it Hurricane Katrina, be it the Arab Spring, be it 9/11, be it COVID, these are opportunities for mobility to stand up and suggest that they are an important strategic lever. Because who do they come to? They come to us, saying, “Where are the employees? Can you help us find housing because New Orleans has shut down? Can you help get a flight out of Saudi Arabia or Lebanon because we've got this Arab Spring?” Or whatever it might be.

And so, I would just encourage every mobility practitioner to lift their voice up during this time and to talk about their importance. And I truly believe, Dave, if we can tell that story from a mobility lens, we will get the resources, and we are unique. For those that know me, you know I love musicals. And [in] Hamilton, there's a line in there, [in] a song called, “I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot.” This is another one of those windows; let's not throw away our shot. Let's do this thing and go out and say, "Wow, we can really help you in this time of crisis. And these are the resources we're going to need." Find the voice.

Steve Hoffman: Now, we're going to turn it over to the Q&A portion from the audience. And let's go over to John Schultz.

John Schultz, Director of Global Business Development at International AutoSource: I have a specific question for Dr. Amit on his views of public transportation going forward. How do public health officials and government leaders view the needs of their citizens to feel secure in their daily commute to and from work?

Dr. Arwindekar: The question was around how do we make public transportation safe as we try to move back into working, especially because it tends to be very congested, there's a huge impact on air quality and things like that.

I think this really is one of the big public policy arenas that need to get addressed. And we're seeing different jurisdictions going about this differently. I think at a very, very minimum, masking, (like uniform masking on public transportation) is going to be mandatory to keep it safe and to allow people to feel safe, especially because those masks are not necessarily meant to protect the person wearing them, but it's to protect everyone else. And so, having those masks on helps other people feel safe from you.

The other part is, also, we're going to have to find a way to decrease the congestion on public transit, whether that's more buses running frequently, more rail cars running frequently... something along that regard. But this is a real challenge, especially in larger cities where public transit is the predominant method of moving the general population around. And it can be very, very crowded. If you're looking at New York, London, Beijing—all those cities have tried to shut down public transit, with the exception of New York, in an effort to contain their outbreak.

And this is a balance between the public good of transportation and the public good of keeping people safe. I can't necessarily give you an answer, but I think at a very minimum, reducing the congestion and public masking are going to have to be a part of the conversation going forward to keep public transit safe.

Steve Hoffman: With this work-from-anywhere idea, how do we know where our employees are for safety reasons? What are some of the best practices for this possible shift in distributed work?

Peggy Smith: I think the biggest thing, and I always stitch back to stage four... five, seven years ago, you all might recall when Marissa Mayer was the CEO of Yahoo, and she created this controversial plan where she pulled all her remote workers back, right?

And so in doing that, what she failed to sort of share—because there was a lot of blowback—was that she had done an IT audit and found that most of the employees weren't even logging in, so obviously they weren't working and so she needed to track that. I think, one, technology tells you where people are. That's a key thing that we can all lean into: Look, we're talking to each other, we're all dealing with these Zoom meetings.

There are sort of the more technical elements of this, and then I think there are the less technical elements. If we're doing our jobs and checking in with people, then you're going to know when somebody isn't around or isn't there. I think it's taking advantage of both components of it, and just making sure that you don't lose that connection.

I guess the other part to this is that if they are [not connecting], some companies have adopted a best practice where the managers need to know where the employees are, and they're keeping up with that. If they're deciding to go visit grandpa in Florida, they know, okay, Susie's in Florida. Or if they're deciding to be somewhere else, the managers are held responsible for knowing where their employees are. I think it's sort of a combination of a variety of things and just making sure that managers are held accountable for knowing where their team is.

Dave Kolb: I think it has to do a lot also with just company culture and what companies are comfortable with. When we start getting into tracking employees, certainly there's a number of different technologies out and available in the marketplace to be able to track employees. And it really then comes down to what are you, as a company, comfortable with? And what are your employees comfortable with?

And it may be a matter of looking at, even on a region-by-region basis, if there's more unrest going on in a certain region, perhaps we ramp up our use of technology for certain individuals, if we're not going to apply it to the company as a whole. But certainly, there's a number of technologies out there that are specifically geared for this and that can really help to quickly identify and reach out and check in and make sure people are okay or [know] when they might need assistance.

Steve Hoffman: This has been a really wonderful panel discussion. I thank you all very much for your time. Thank you so much for your time and thank you to our sponsors, Corporate Living, International AutoSource, Ruoff Mortgage, and GTN.

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Mobility tax specialists

Author Eric Loff

With more than 25 years of global tax experience, Eric serves as a Managing Director for GTN. He is known for leading by example and finding the strengths in others, improving communication so all participants are engaged in a project, and serving as a bridge between a company and its expat employees. As a specialist on managing international assignment programs and the related tax, human resource, and payroll matters, he serves as a frequent speaker on global mobility topics. +1.763.252.0642 | 
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