With COVID-19 driving unprecedented business disruptions, many companies have begun to adopt long-term remote work policies that meet the needs of their workers while allowing for business continuity.
That said, the shift to remote work has not been without its challenges — particularly for HR and immigration professionals. In an environment of social distancing and restricted travel and mobility, HR and immigration professionals are often on the front lines, searching for ways to minimize disruptions to organizational operations, immigration, and mobility. Doing so will require a combination of strategic planning and flexible processes.
In particular, there are three concrete steps that HR and immigration professionals can take to adapt their mobility and immigration programs for a remote-work environment:
Stay Up to Date on Policy Announcements and Global Travel Alerts
As the US confronts both COVID-19 and increasing unemployment, the government has issued a series of presidential proclamations that suspend nonimmigrant and immigrant visa processing through the end of December 2020. Additionally, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) closed many of its offices, along with its overseas embassies and consulates. Offices are starting to open back up, but with restrictions on how business can be conducted.
While moves like these may serve to restrict mobility and produce new complications for HR and immigration professionals to navigate, it’s important to note USCIS has also instituted a number of new policies intended to encourage social distancing as a result of COVID-19. For example, USCIS is allowing more flexibility in the submission of certain documents. Some benefit forms and documents that used to require original “wet ink” signatures can now be submitted as copies made via scanning, faxing, and photocopying. In addition, certain applications and required documents may now be submitted by email instead of postal mail.
Other countries have also instituted their own travel alerts and restrictions, which range from mandated quarantine periods and enhanced health screenings to outright immigration bans. Be sure to pay as much attention to the locales of your international employees as you do to US rules and regulations. Look to reputable publications such as Reuters, BBC, Bloomberg, and CNN to keep up with all the most recent updates from governments around the world and how those updates may impact your employees.
Maintain a Positive Employee Experience and Help Manage Anxieties
Given the stress foreign nationals are under at this moment, maintaining a positive employee experience is even more critical during this period than it normally is. The various visa suspensions do not impact foreign workers currently in the US, but some of your workers may have family members overseas who could now be facing delays in receiving their dependent visas. Others may be worried about potential layoffs or having their own visa renewals denied.
To mitigate these concerns, HR and immigration professionals must change their approaches. Make it a priority to become more available to your foreign nationals. They will likely need your help navigating their concerns. Consider establishing dedicated calendar availability or a routine set of office hours during which to hold videoconferences with employees so you can answer any questions they may have about what the various policy changes mean for their specific situations. While in-person meetings are often best for building connections and managing anxieties, they are not feasible at this time. Luckily, videoconferencing can still allow for more empathetic and human conversations than an email or phone call.
Immigration services providers should also make an effort to answer questions in hours, not days, and to be available across whatever channels a company’s employees find most convenient. Whether it’s phone, live chat, email, or an online portal, you want to meet employees wherever they are. Make the process as easy and positive for them as you can.
Plan Strategically for Q3 and Q4
It’s unclear when conditions in the US and elsewhere may improve. That said, some economists do predict an economic rebound in Q3 of 2020. That could coincide with loosened travel restrictions, and many countries and their government agencies — including USCIS and US embassies and consulates — will face a huge backlog of cases when this happens.
Smart companies are already planning now to avoid delays and take advantage of opportunities when the reopening finally comes. This could mean collecting important information and paperwork from employees and initiating global work permits to immediately file when the relevant agencies and consulates reopen. It could also mean maintaining an active hiring pipeline through online recruitment efforts and video interviews in order to be ready for quick action when hiring eventually picks up again.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has created a variety of uncertainties in the workplace, businesses cannot afford to pause their operations. Careful planning and a commitment to the employee experience can minimize disruption to corporate immigration and mobility programs as we weather this unpredictable storm.
Lindsay Dagiantis is the vice president of human resources at Envoy.