Pros and cons of Virtual Assignments

In looking back at our pandemic experiences, it can be hard to pick out the positives. Yet there are one or two ideas and innovations coming to the fore with the potential to change the face of global talent development and global mobility. For the better – and indefinitely.

One of those is Virtual Assignments. Loved by some business leaders and mobility professionals, they are seen as a way to be nimble in the short term, with the rapid deployment of skills at low cost. They can offer long-term developmental opportunities as well. But by the same token, there is some skepticism around the potential for misuse and mismanagement. This occasionally stems from cost-conscious leaders and can often lead to employee burnout. Like any other assignment type, the successful Virtual Assignment program requires guidelines and structure.

Making sense of Virtual Assignments

Let’s start by looking at the basics. What exactly is a Virtual Assignment? A general consensus has emerged within our industry. The term describes a temporary assignment to fill a goal or job in another location, without the employee leaving their home location. This type of assignment can take different forms.

With a hybrid assignment, the assumption is that a physical move will occur after a period of Virtual Assignment activity. A second approach, born of necessity, is where an employee and their family experience delays in the home location due to travel restrictions or immigration processing but will eventually physically relocate. The third model is the purest form, where working from the home location is the only plan.

They all have two things in common. They are timebound and are for the benefit of a corporate geography other than the one the employee sits in. This separates virtual assignees from a pan-regional role or a “work from anywhere” employee.

The advantages of Virtual Assignments

The Virtual Assignment is being heralded as a flexible strategy that can be added to a Global Mobility wheelhouse of policies to expand developmental opportunities, open international experiences to employees who might not otherwise be able to travel for personal reasons, and as a means to backfill short-term staffing needs with a low cost and creative approach. This does not look to be a replacement of traditional assignment options, but an innovative addition to the strategy. More reason, then, for mobility professionals to build a clear and well-defined Virtual Assignment policy and process that addresses:

  • Maximum assignment duration; typical durations range from 6 to 24 months
  • Business case and justification processes that address role fit, value, assignment goals and home country / host country fit
  • Candidate selection and preparation
  • Funding assumptions – who pays the assignment costs?
  • Payroll model (home or host) and any additional compensation (e.g. anti-social hours allowance if the time zone differences are big)
  • Stipend or direct reimbursement for home office set-up (if needed)
  • Cross cultural training / global virtual team training
  • Employee reintegration into the home location organizational structure at the end of the assignment
  • Creation and tracking of assignment and development goals within the performance review structure
  • Upskilling the “receiving” manager to manage virtually across cultures

That said, organizations still need to weigh up the potential benefits and hazards of implementing Virtual Assignments.

How might you misuse a Virtual Assignment?

The biggest concern is that not every role or every employee is a good fit for a Virtual Assignment. A rigorous approval process should identify gaps in the role or candidate selection. These assignments are not right for everyone and not right for every home host country combination. It takes a specific set of competencies to be successful in virtual and multicultural settings, let alone both at the same time. Two stand out:

Curiosity

Curiosity is key to successful global working – always wondering “why?”

It is driven by sensory stimulation which is in overload during early days in a host country. But in a Virtual Assignment it is lacking. Natural curiosity, or the ability to build it up like you would a bicep, needs to be present or willingly adopted for success.

Lifestyle

A Virtual Assignment may not be practically possible for all employees. It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of working a schedule that is widely different to the cadence of home life. There is nothing motivating about working over an extended period of time when your friends / family are out or trying to sleep when everyone else is awake. Productivity will surely suffer if time zone differences are not a consideration.

Virtual Assignment fit

With some judicious choices about when and how to apply them, Virtual Assignments present great opportunities. As companies grapple with creating a more diverse mobility population that better reflects their company and country demographic, Virtual Assignments offer wider access to global skill building opportunities where a physical assignment would be challenging. Maybe because of mental or physical health issues, timing or family planning.

Also, as companies look to attract and retain early-career employees who are increasingly joining with higher aspirations for global exposure and experience, Virtual Assignments can be used as a means to initiate projects that satisfy that need. Moreover, with the varied waves of the global pandemic, the possibility that “health passports” will become commonplace puts a big question mark over extended business travel and short-term assignments, at least in the near future. Virtual Assignments may hold the key to providing just-in-time tactical support when traditional move types are not an option.

However you choose to use them, you should manage Virtual Assignments like any other policy – with clear “bright lights and guard rails” for consistency to ensure the greatest chance of success.

Contact us

For more information on building a clear and well-defined Virtual Assignment policy, contac­­t Joanne Danehl, Global Director, Global Skills or Lisa Johnson, Global Practice Leader, Consulting Services.

Crown World Mobility’s “5 standout talent mobility trends for 2021” exploring Virtual Assignments and other trends influencing our industry’s priorities can also be downloaded here.

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