The globally mobile workforce of international professionals has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving some questioning the attractiveness of living and working abroad. This is one of the findings of a new study by a team of international researchers of over 500 expatriates of 55 different nationalities in 48 countries conducted between March and June 2020.
- Closed borders, canceled flights and the introduction of new entry restrictions for foreign residents in this phase of the pandemic have left many expatriates separated from partners, family members and friends and unable to return to the countries where they have homes and jobs.
- Many have lost their jobs, their income and their rights of residence in the countries where they have made their lives.
- The ability to travel when needed for family emergencies or to visit relatives and friends has been severely challenged at this time and for the foreseeable future.
Interestingly, despite the raft of difficulties experienced by many who took part in the survey, the majority of respondents (74 percent) indicated that they are ''likely'' or ''very likely'' to continue living and working abroad or to go abroad again to live and work.
Some are sanguine and see the COVID-19 situation as ''just another challenge'' of living abroad. For others, living abroad has become a way of life or they are settled in the countries they are living in. Nearly half (44 percent) of survey respondents identify either a different country from that of their citizenships as home, call several or multiple countries "home'' or no country as home. Comments in response to this question include ''wherever my children are'' ''lived in so many countries'', ''my home is where I make it'' and ''the concept of "home" is outdated.'' Some reported different birth and citizenship countries, as well as dual or multiple citizenships.
At the same time, there has been a shift in motivation and priorities.
Before the COVID-19 situation, the top motivation factors reported as ''very important'' by participants were:
- seeing the world (58 percent)
- new skills and experiences (57 percent)
- career development and new opportunities (48 percent)
Since the arrival of COVID-19 ''health, safety and security'' has become the top priority rising from 19 percent to 37 percent reporting it as ''very important'' slightly above ''financial reasons'' while ''career development'', ''new skills and experiences'', ''seeing the world'' and ''new opportunities for self'' are rated as ''very important'' by 34-35 percent of participants.
The study included self-initiated expats (those who chose to live and work abroad), as well as those who had been expatriated by their employers. The research indicated that the borderless, international lifestyle which many global professionals and their families have taken for granted over past decades has been drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the research, as borders started to close and flights were grounded in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:
- over 75 percent of those surveyed stayed in the country they are living and working in
- 87 percent felt that they had made the right decision given the circumstances
- 81 percent indicated that, with hindsight and knowing how the COVID-19 situation panned out, they would not have done anything differently
The most common reasons cited for staying were that they felt ''safe'', that it was their ''home'' and where they have their ''life'' and ''work''. Some indicated they felt safer in the ''host'' country and had more trust in the measures taken by the governments of the host country than of their country of citizenship. While 5 percent -indicated they felt they had not made the right decision, the rest indicated ''other'' commenting either that they were ''not sure yet'' or that they ''had no choice''. Others indicated a dilemma with pros and cons in either choice, for example;
"leaving would have likely resulted in loss of job, staying meant not to see family for an unknown period of time"
Nearly 30 percent of those surveyed found themselves separated from partners or immediate family members for extended periods when borders closed and flights stopped.
Many of those affected were out of their countries of residence on work trips or on personal visits, such as to support elderly or unwell parents or family members, when COVID-19 took an abrupt turn for the worse causing borders to be closed and flights to be canceled. They suddenly found themselves ''stranded'' and unable to return to their homes and lives in countries which imposed strict entry restrictions. Often, this meant that only citizens and permanent residents were allowed to enter the country (with additional strict quarantine and COVID testing measures). Even foreigners with valid residence and employment permits needed special permission to enter. One respondent who identified as a ''global citizen'' described the sudden shocking realization that the only place he had the right to go to was his passport country.
Some of those stranded were fortunate enough to be in their ''home'' country and were able to stay with friends or family members. Others were in third countries and had the cost and inconvenience of having to find accommodation and make emergency living arrangements in an unfamiliar country. Alternatively, if they were not allowed to stay longer in that country, for example because of visa restrictions, they then had no choice but to travel to their citizenship country and wait there until they were allowed back into their country of residence.
In some instances, this has meant children separated from both parents, and parents from each other, as in this case;
"I've been unable to see my kids this year. They are stuck in China. My partner is stuck in Singapore. I'm stuck in the UK."
Now, as governments around the world try to balance containing the virus with the easing of border and travel restrictions, reduced flights and quarantine requirements have led to long waiting lists with reports indicating there are still tens of thousands of foreign residents waiting to get government permission to enter the countries they consider home and where they can be reunited with their family members.
For many, this has been an extremely stressful experience with a profound impact on their well-being and finances. An extreme example is that of some respondents who have given birth during this period without the presence or support of their partners and have newborns who have not yet been able to see their fathers. They cite social-media support groups for those who have been separated, with thousands of members who provide mutual support and advice.
Over 75 percent of those surveyed, indicated that the situation had impacted their attitude to living and working abroad, with 20percent indicating it had ''very impacted'' and 6 percent indicating it had ''completely impacted'' their attitude. Feelings of ''disillusionment'' were commonly reported by those who were ''locked out'' despite holding residence and work permits, commenting for example,
"I live there, pay tax, pay rent, volunteer for local charities, but without appeal or recourse, I'm banned from going home there and am still paying to live there. No empathy or consideration"
Others described feeling like a second-class citizen with comments like,
"We work there, contribute to the economy and we are treated as if we are a burden on their society. We don’t count!"
Another common theme was ''alienation'' or ''feeling unwelcome'' and the feeling that ''the expat/local divide has widened, which is upsetting''.
In other comments, respondents around the world and of a range of nationalities, described a rise in ''anti-foreign'' sentiment with ''outsiders'' blamed for bringing in the coronavirus or foreigners seen to be flouting the rules around mask wearing and social-distancing measures.
However, for those who stayed together in host countries with closed borders and relatively low COVID-19 cases, life within the country was able to continue almost as normal, with few constraints, as in this example;
"I am living a slightly isolated life, unable to leave and travel elsewhere at present. But within those confines, am comfortable and can continue to work."
- 78 percent of participants in the survey experienced some sort of stay home period
- 60 percent described the experience as ''mandatory''.
Some had contrasting experiences in their ''home'' and ''host'' countries, for example,
"Stay at home in US was much more lax; I had a very very strict mandatory quarantine on my return to Korea."
Some had to quarantine several times in different countries in their efforts to be together including one respondent who had not seen her husband since the end of January after he was quarantined and in ''lockdown'' first in China, then Taiwan and then in Singapore.
Many took it in their stride, finding creative ways to socialize and keep in touch virtually, and adapting to mask wearing and the new social distancing protocols as if they were customs of a new culture. Some even found positive aspects of the lockdown, such as spending more time at home with their family and not having to commute to work. Others found it really stressful causing major problems in their lives, such as ''completely cut off with no family or friends in this country.''
For some, the easing of restrictions was more stressful and sometimes benefited local citizens but not foreign residents. An example cited was the move from isolation to allowing meeting with members of another household, but only if that household is in the same family, thereby excluding foreign residents who do not have family in the country.
International travel (for work, leisure and family visits) was very or completely impacted for most participants in the survey (92 percent). Like most of the world, since COVID-19, from March to the end of June 2020, most survey participants were grounded, reporting zero international trips during this time.
This was a stark contrast to their travel habits before the COVID-19 situation, with according to the survey, 73 percent of respondents reporting international travel for work at least 1-2 times per year and 36 percent more than 6 times per year. For personal and family reasons 74 percent of respondents reported pre-COVID international travel at least 1-2 times per year, while 23 percent traveled 3-5 times per year and 9 percent traveled more than 6 times per year.
With ''seeing new places'' and ''new experiences'' being key attractions for those choosing to work abroad, survey participants additionally reported high levels (96 percent reporting at least 1-2 trips per year) of frequent travel for tourism and leisure prior to the COVID-19 situation. Since COVID-19, between March and June, 99 percent of those surveyed said their travel plans had been impacted, with most having made no international trips during that period. Most also predicted that their travel from June to August would be very (34 percent) or completely (52 percent)impacted, with 49 percent predicting that even beyond September, travel would be very (49 percent) or completely (13percent) impacted.
Some saw advantages to this, especially if they were able to continue working from home.
Comments included, "Unable to travel for my job, which is good for family life." and "While I love traveling, it was also okay to have a break from the logistics of constant travel."
Others indicated that even when travel restrictions eased, they "would think twice about hopping on a plane for a business meeting or discussion which could just as easily be conducted on Zoom."
However, the significance of international travel to those who live and work abroad is about much more than business trips or holiday tourism. As one survey respondent said,
"As an expat, maintaining relationships depends on international travel."
"I always stayed abroad on condition that I could jump on a plane in case I needed to attend to urgent family matters. Being unable to do this has made me reconsider the net benefit of staying overseas."
Others reported that family members, such as their children studying outside their country of residence could not come ''home'' when their educational institutions closed down because of COVID-19 and that it was difficult for them to find somewhere to go. Those whose children did make it ''home'' before borders closed and flights were grounded were concerned about what to do when their visas expired, as this respondent commented,"My oldest child does not have a residence permit, so can only stay 90 days, Not sure what to do next."
For many expat workers, the COVID-19 disruption has been an extremely stressful experience with a profound impact on their well-being and finances
The great majority (98 percent) of participants indicated that the COVID-19 situation had impacted their home lives with 23 percent saying it had ''completely impacted'' and 27 percent that it had ''very impacted'' them. Social lives were also affected as well as work, with some citing the fact that friends are especially important to expatriates, who live so far away from family members.
53 percent indicated the situation had either completely or very impacted their work life. Effects included:
- job losses
- salary cuts
- working from home
For those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, many found they lost their right to live in their country of residence. Also, with many governments focussing their efforts on supporting the livelihoods of their own citizens, some expatriates ''fell between two stools'' – not meeting criteria for financial and job support schemes offered by their own government or the government of the country they are living and working in. With the world economy shrinking, many governments are focussing on supporting their own citizens, and foreigners are expected to bear the brunt of the redundancies forecast.
Compared to the plights of those who have lost their loved ones or who have had their health drastically affected by the COVID-19 virus, these may seem like trivial, ''first-world'' problems. However, resolving the current disruption and dealing with the looming economic and environmental crises will require the collaboration across borders of the world''s best talent. Maximizing the potential of the complex and volatile global marketplace of the 21st Century also requires a range of international skills, perspectives and intercultural competence, along with a ''global mindset'' to lead and facilitate effective work and communication. The development of these skills and characteristics is shown to be enhanced by, ''living and working abroad'' and is one of the key reasons that individuals choose and HR departments encourage international assignments.
So what happens now?
In light of the current situation, as borders begin to reopen and the world takes cautious steps towards an uncertain future that is shaped around living with the pandemic, it will be interesting to see which new models for a globally mobile workforce will emerge.