In case your employer offers you a job in a foreign country subsidiary, but relocation is undesirable for several personal and family reasons, becoming an international commuter is a possible solution. Indeed, a recent report by ECA International on commuter assignments indicates that this practice is becoming more and more popular.
So far, the most commonly cited reason (84%) for using commuter assignments is about fulfilling temporary needs, such as short-term projects. However, when looking at the permanent commuter assignments, this type of mobility becomes a solution to barriers of traditional relocations. Just under half of respondents indicated that permanent commuter assignments are a way of adjusting to employees’ personal circumstances. Moreover nearly 40% of employees reported that such assignments are preferred to relocating the whole family.
International commuting – the employees’ perspective
The stories presented in a recent Financial Times article illustrate the reported data well. Instead of relocating for the job, many people prefer to stay local in order to avoid disrupting their partner’s careers and children’s education, to stay close to friends and relatives, as well as to look after ageing parents. However, satisfying these personal circumstances and at the same time fulfilling job requirements abroad comes at a price of constant commuting.
The drawbacks of such a lifestyle are visible especially to the so-called marathon commuters, who fly out every week and return home for weekends. Frequent absence from home can be stressful for both commuters and their families. Recent research from Swedish Umea University concluded that long-distance commuting jeopardizes partner relationships, as the risk of separation is 40 percent higher among long-distance commuters than among other people. Naturally, ‘living out of a suitcase’ may also influence work-life balance, and the time spent on the road can produce extra fatigue and stress.
International commuting – the employers’ perspective
For companies, cross-border commuting is beneficial foremost as a means to get the right people in the right places. As noted in the FT article, ‘employers like cross-border commuting if it persuades a preferred candidate to do a job they might otherwise turn down’. Another advantage, mentioned in the ECA report, is that being localized in the home country allows assignees to maintain strong links with the home country company, thus making the post-assignment re-integration easier. Finally, many companies perceive international commuting as a cheaper option as opposed to relocation. However, this is quite disputable, as, for example, higher travel costs and temporary housing rentals can offset the savings of not relocating. As the ECA report shows, only 14% of companies cited that commuting reduced costs compared with traditional assignments.
As for the challenges of international commuting, compliancy with governmental immigration and tax laws remains the biggest headache for employers. Commuters, as well as frequent business flyers, are the main population at risk of becoming ‘accidental expatriates’, or so-called stealth-pats. To stay on the right side with legislations, employers need to have good tracking systems in place. Mainly these include tracking the time spent abroad, taking into account job responsibilities and tax laws of host and home countries. In addition, tracking costs is a good idea for controlling travel expenses, and evaluating the return on investment of such initiatives.