Should employers let staff work remotely from abroad during lockdown?

People Management asks the experts what the risks for businesses and employees are of weathering coronavirus in a foreign country  

Home working has undoubtedly caused many employees tired of staring at the same four walls to feel a degree of cabin fever. So it’s understandable some have decided to boost their wellbeing by weathering this period of remote working abroad.

But while the process of employees swapping their UK-based home office for a more exotic location may seem straightforward, there are multiple considerations for both workers and employers. A number of City banks have reportedly warned high-paid executives spending the pandemic at second homes in warmer climates that they could face large tax bills if they don’t return to working remotely in the UK.

So is it time for such employees to come home now England is in lockdown for the next month? What considerations should employers be aware of? People Management asked the experts…

Kate Marchant, consultant at Running HR

“The first thing is not to jump the gun and demand they return immediately. There are many jobs that can be done remotely and that means it doesn’t have to be UK based. An employer needs to consider the type of work performed and whether they actually need to demand an immediate return, especially if the workplace is closed. Is location really that important? Ideally an employee or worker should keep their employer updated on what they are doing – if they don’t they could be in breach of their employment contract.

“There are some downsides for the worker – different countries have different rules when it comes to tax and if an individual ends up working in a different country for a period of time, that country may decide they should pay tax there. In some countries that could mean paying tax on all income even if tax is also being paid in the home country.

“Visas could be another minefield. It is relatively straightforward to stay and work in Europe until the end of December 2020, but when the Brexit transition period ends on this date it will be less straightforward. As with everything, communication is key and some meaningful discussion between the parties ahead of a decision to take off to hotter climes may well deter the worker going in the first place.”

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner

“When employees decide to relocate during lockdown, whether they are on furlough or working from home, the physical distance can cause problems for employers. The flexibility of the employer to recall employees to the workplace for any reason will be severely restricted because of the amount of time it would take for the employee to travel back to the UK; that’s if, at that point, travel is even permitted by the authorities. Time differences between countries could also cause issues for those who continue working.

“Employers who opt for asking employees to come back to the UK even if there is no work to offer them should tread carefully, however. Any rules they placed on travel during lockdown should be considered but, if there is no actual requirement for the employee to be physically in the country, then doubt would be cast over whether it was a reasonable request. Employees may have gone overseas for family-related reasons – for example, to care for a relative during their furlough – and the specific facts would have to be considered to ensure no discrimination was taking place.”

Marine Fournier, HR manager of Powell Software

“As a global technology company headquartered in France but with 80 staff in more than 10 offices around the globe, we did come across the situation of managing employees that decided to remain in a different country to their usual place of origin during the first lockdown. 

“Our advice to the organisation during this situation was that the health and safety of all employees is the organisation’s responsibility no matter where staff are located or operating from. We evaluated the individual employee’s situation – for example, is the reason for them remaining overseas a family matter? And ensured the employee’s working conditions, from their internet to their desk space, are still meeting the required health and safety regulations of their country of origin.

“If the decision is to allow the employee to stay then it’s critical to check your organisation’s insurance policies to check whether, if the employee was to have an accident in this country or fall ill while away, the company would be covered. If the employee does not get the organisation’s approval before travelling, then HR and management has the right to ask them to return to the office even if the office is still closed because of the company’s responsibility towards the wellbeing and safety of their staff.”

Liz Beck, MD and leadership coach at AspiringHR

“There are wider considerations for both employer and employee around tax and social security considerations in the host country; as well as potential employment continuity where someone may find themselves abroad, and choose to stay abroad for lockdown, but are unable to work from that location. In these circumstances, employees may find themselves vulnerable to an employer's request for them to return to work, but employers should not rush into termination decisions. Questions of reasonableness and proportionality will apply where employees have more than two years service and therefore employment rights protection.

“Ultimately, this is a time for discussion. One size won’t fit all and each case will need consideration. Where employees can work from home (albeit abroad), it would be wise to allow that and keep it under review. Long periods of several months abroad may have tax implications. Where an employee can’t work from home/abroad, the employer may consider periods of leave and/or request the employee returns to the UK and follows the required quarantine rules.”