April. A time for spring warmth and the coming summer months; a time for excitement as Major League Baseball teams start fresh on their quest for a pennant; and especially in 2021, a time for increased hope for effective vaccines and reduced travel restrictions. In short, April is a time for optimism and new beginnings. In this article, we continue this forward-looking optimism by considering the future state of mobility tax. Casey Stengel, a Hall of Fame baseball manager, once said “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” However, despite this “warning,” we are looking to the future and have outlined three key mobility tax trends and related planning considerations you should be thinking about. By understanding these trends and taking steps to prepare your organization now, you can maintain a winning mobility program.
The flexible workforce is here to stay
Prior to 2020, non-traditional mobility scenarios were on the rise, including remote workers and commuters. The COVID-19 pandemic greatly accelerated this trend and for many companies, it has proven to be a positive and potentially permanent addition to their workplace culture. As vaccine distributions continue, many companies are now considering a return to the pre-pandemic office setting, but perhaps in a more flexible or socially distant way. On a macro level, this will likely lead to some type of new balance between in-office and remote work scenarios. But how will this new flexibility impact your organization?
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for companies to follow as they consider work-from-home or work-from-anywhere policies. Key questions that need consideration include:
What types of work are your employees doing and can this work be done as effectively outside of a specific office?
A year or so ago, this determination probably seemed a lot more obvious for many professions. But now, most of us are used to online meetings for many of our business and personal needs. However, face-to-face meetings can still be critical for many reasons, including collaboration, system implementations and maintenance, relationship building, and business development (we might add mental health to the list!).
Certain roles and industries may also have a more difficult time supporting a remote work environment (e.g., the job may not allow for remote work or in-person collaboration is deemed a cornerstone of the organization’s culture). However, although a fully remote scenario may not work, it may still be possible to incorporate some flexibility or consideration for a “distributed” workforce even in these situations. With a distributed workforce approach, teams may meet in any convenient physical office when in-person meetings are needed, rather than being tied only to a given headquarters location.
It is critical to identify and work with key stakeholders in the organization as you begin to consider what types of roles can work outside of a physical office or specific geography. Your colleagues in corporate tax will play an important role in this process because factors such as an employee’s location and duration, role, and duties can impact your company’s corporate tax position and compliance requirements.
Do you know (really know) where your employees are currently working and how will you verify their work locations in the future?
At the beginning of the pandemic, many companies became aware of employees who had been working in unexpected locations. For example, some employees became trapped in a location due to COVID-19 travel restrictions that did not match up with the address found in the company’s HR information system (HRIS). As physical offices begin to reopen, it is likely that more surprises like this will again surface when employees fail to show up at a given desk.
Will your company culture support the use of a more invasive technology tool for tracking workplace locations or will you need to rely on employee self-reporting? In either case, how will your organization enforce a given policy? Will a strict adherence to a given policy result in issues with employee retention and difficulties attracting new talent to the organization?
Understanding your internal tracking capabilities (if any) and the potential technology solutions offered by your mobility vendors is an important first step in identifying potential solutions. If you do decide to deploy a technology solution, it is important to make sure your organization is not simply paying for data that arrives on your desk without actionable output that will allow you to assess risk and next steps.
Employee self-reporting can also help to mitigate risk if supported by appropriate policies, communications, and follow-through. The key point is to develop a policy that balances the needs of your employees and the risks for your company.
Do your compensation and benefits packages need to be adjusted to address the new types of scenarios that may result from having a remote workforce?
If an employee decides to move to a lower-cost location, will you require that their base salary be adjusted to be commensurate with the new location? What if the employee is critical to your business and your organization can save costs by reducing its physical footprint in a higher-cost location? Salaries and benefits may also increase for workers in traditionally lower cost locations if companies from higher-cost areas begin to compete for remote talent.
If the remote worker is eligible for equity compensation, it is critical that your organization understands its reporting and withholding requirements for individuals who are now a resident of or working in new jurisdictions. This review is especially critical in an international context as different timing or withholding and taxation can result in issues for your employee, including cash flow issues relating to unforeseen withholding requirements or double taxation that eliminates the intended benefit for the award.
In addition to compensation, the benefits for remote workers will need review, especially for international scenarios. Here, there may be mandatory benefits under local employment laws that apply to your remote worker, even if they are not working in an official office location for your organization. US medical benefits may not be appropriate, with local or supplemental coverage needed for duty of care purposes.
Does your organization have the bandwidth and capabilities to meet its compliance obligations?
This migration to increased flexibility and utilization of remote workers has resulted in significant tax compliance issues for companies that need to be addressed. At the start of the pandemic, such risks were regularly seen in organizations when traveling employees suddenly became stuck in new locations due to COVID-19 related border restrictions. Potential issues and risks included:
- Payroll reporting and withholding
- Employment law
- Data privacy and security
- Legal and immigration
- Employee duty of care and retention
One internal control failure that was central to these issues was not understanding where employees were really living and working. Information in the HRIS was often not accurate, leading to surprises. To help your company avoid future surprises like this, consider these questions:
- Does your organization have the appropriate technology and processes to track your employees?
- Can your payroll handle the reporting and withholding requirements for employees with requirements in newly identified locations or multiple jurisdictions?
- Do you have the internal resources to identify and manage the risks relating to remote workers, including corporate and individual tax, immigration, legal, employment law, and payroll issues?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, it will be important to leverage your mobility vendors to understand their capabilities as you consider the establishment of your company’s policies and processes.
What policies and procedures will your organization create to manage a flexible workforce?
In the fall of 2020, GTN conducted a poll of organizations at events across the US to discover how companies were handling the new world of work anywhere. The results reflected close to 60% of companies anticipated some form of temporary or permanent remote work. At the same time, 60% of respondents reported having no policy or only informal guidelines. Although companies have continued to progress in considering how to handle this new population of mobile workers, it is important to take steps now to outline your policies and the processes that will be used to approve and track new scenarios.
Steps and questions to consider include:
- Who are the key stakeholders that need to be involved in approving, communicating, and implementing the policy and process? To truly make progress, support from top leadership is a necessity.
- Consider the types of roles in the organization that may be eligible for a flexible or remote work arrangement.
- Decide what types of scenarios your organization is willing to support. For example, an international scenario may have more risks and challenges, so there will likely be more restrictions than for domestic cases. For international cases, many companies will at least limit possible locations to countries where the organization already has entities to help support compliance requirements.
- What tracking philosophy will work for your culture? If you rely solely on self-reporting, are you willing to accept the compliance risks? Will your culture support a more invasive use of technology tracking or is there a middle ground where you more actively communicate and request for self-certification? Our survey from the fall of 2020 showed a 50/50 split between companies favoring employee self-reporting and those advocating the use of corporate data.
- What will your approval process look like? Here, technology can be your friend, but it needs to fit into your budget and culture.
To help you in the policy development process, we have created a checklist that companies can use as they evaluate policies in this area, as well as additional content which is available through our resource center.
These changes are already occurring so the time to review, prepare, and make updates is now. The good news is that those managing global mobility within their organizations are already managing similar types of issues and risks for their traditional assignments and transfer cases. Given top leadership is very focused on remote work, there is no better time for the mobility team to step up to the plate!
Increasing border scrutiny and data mining efforts by taxing authorities
Over the years, the awareness and enforcement of business traveler compliance has grown. With technology advancements and departments sharing more information, the ability for authorities to track business travelers is an issue that was not a reality years ago. The enactment and implementation of Canadian Bill C-21 in 2019 and 2020 is an example of how governments are now tracking business travelers and sharing the data with tax and immigration authorities as well as other countries. This scrutiny has increased risks for companies and their employees.
Some risks for noncompliance include:
- In addition to the tax that may be due, additional fines and penalties may be assessed to the company and individual.
- The individual may be stopped at the airport if an unpaid tax liability exists or the agent questions the individual on their activities in the Host location and no filings are on record and/or tax payments have been funded.
- The Host location may exclude the company from doing business in the Host location.
- Bad press for the company throughout media outlets.
While business travel is still restricted or limited due to COVID-19, it has not come to a complete standstill and many of our clients are currently focused on two things:
- In countries that have already issued guidance on COVID-19, fully understanding the impact and reporting requirements for its business travelers and mobile workforce.
- Looking towards the future and how their mobile workforce may need to be more agile and open to different working arrangements. This means implementing tracking capabilities for their workforce, understanding the risk potential in certain locations, and setting up internal policies and processes to cope with a new normal.
If you’re looking to create a process for managing the risks related to your business travelers, a critical first step is to identify who within your organization needs to be involved. The people you identify will form a core team of individuals who will help to develop the policies and processes for your business travelers, ultimately assisting you in managing their risks.
To form this team, think about who in the organization you speak to about business travelers. Download our guide for questions to consider when creating your team.
In addition to your internal team, it will be important to consider use of vendors and technology tools that are scalable to address the customized needs of your program. Here, there is no one-size-fits-all approach as is often found in the market. The key is to make sure that your vendors and technology supports a compliance process that works for your organization, rather than just providing you with data that is not actionable.
By creating a team and having appropriate tools, you will be well set up for success.
Increasing automation of global tax preparation
We continue to see increased automation of the tax return process, with a shift from taxpayer-submitted to government-issued returns in many locations. For example, in Australia, the tax return is essentially prepared online by the Australian Tax Office. The tax return is then simply approved by the taxpayer, which can be done through voice recognition technology. The UK is similarly moving away from the traditional self-assessment returns in favor of similar online accounts that are pre-loaded based on employment income records obtained via direct download from the employer.
Compliance will be more automated and automatic. This in turn will lead to three changes:
- Increased pressure on the responsibility of the employer’s reporting and withholding capabilities, including cross-border equity, bonus, and pension reporting.
- Increases in the level of company payroll and control audits over personal reporting audits.
- An increased need for communication regarding the reporting implications for the employee.
As the process of individual tax compliance becomes more automated, the reporting and withholding standards will inevitably increase accordingly. Areas of non-compliance within payroll reporting will no longer be acceptable to the tax authorities. Cross-border equity, bonus, pension, and business travel remuneration will all need to be reported and withheld in real time.
This expectation will lead to an increase in audit activities from global tax authorities with an increased focus on a company’s controls and ability to report on these issues rather than on individual reporting requirements.
Of course, as the reporting requirements are increasingly met, the impact to the individual employee will also need to be managed appropriately. Individuals will need to file in more locations than they had previously, causing increased stress and frustration. A clear communication plan will be vital to ensure the individual is aware of and understands their personal requirements.
Additionally, common excuses—like the ones below—from organizations regarding why they are unable to fulfill their reporting requirements will no longer be accepted.
- We have no idea where our people are.
- It’s too complicated to figure out so we just report the income on the current payroll.
- We can’t get the data in time to include all of this year’s income.
- Our payroll can’t handle more than one state/province, country, etc.
- No one owns it so we just don’t do it.
From a tax perspective, we are in a post-discovery world and the expectation from tax authorities is that employers have the data necessary to fulfill their reporting and withholding requirements. Global tax authorities want to not only see that an employer has the data, but that there are controls and processes in place to ensure compliance. If these are absent in your organization then you are at significant audit risk.
At GTN we've increased our focus to assist companies with these process driven compliance issues. By helping our clients understand global payroll requirements and to build processes, we are actively putting them on the forefront of addressing these future challenges.
As the great baseball player and coach, Yogi Berra, once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” He was right because the future is now for your mobility program to address these current and future trends. Schedule a call with our team so we can help you instill the policies and processes into your organization that will simplify your mobility program and keep you and your employees compliant and on a winning path.
Author: Eric Loff
With more than 20 years of global tax experience, Eric serves as the Managing Director for GTN's West Central region. 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 | firstname.lastname@example.org