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The future of expat life in India

Expats are a crucial part of India Inc., but many are stuck in their home countries because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Companies need to explore innovative ways to manage through this scenario.

With the Covid-19 impact hitting India Inc., one area that may not have been very visible would be the professional expat support for multinational corporations and its impact on business operations. India has thousands of expats supporting various sectors like automotive, auto components, technology, white goods, electronics, chemicals etc., spread across various cities and towns.

The fast spread of Covid-19 raised concerns amongst these expats and resulted in a wave of repatriations. This sudden migration of expats resulted in a temporary setback to global business operations. When the risk of infection was rising, the expats were looking at the respective governing bodies of their countries to provide rescue and relief.

After the lockdown was introduced in India in March, commercial international flights were banned, restricting the influx of foreign expats. Seeing no signs of settling this crisis soon, there are many executives from Japan, South Korea, and other countries waiting to enter India to resume business the way it was. According to Korean Association in India president Euy Don Park, this is the time for India to take advantage of the new world economic order emerging post-Covid-19, and allow foreign nationals to come in.

The extended lockdown in India has vexed the expat business community whose executives and engineers are stuck in their countries of origin and are unable to join work in India because of closed aviation borders for foreigners.

India not a preferred destination for expats

Depending on which list one looks at, it may be safe to assume that India is not among the top preferred destinations for expats. According to expat survey results, the main reasons fall around quality of life, ease of settling in, work-life balance, safety and security, road traffic discipline, environmental aspects like air quality, weather, and availability of great medical facilities outside cities. According to HSBC’s Expat 2019 Global Report, India is in 18th place in a list of 33 countries.

With an increasing number of companies in India (domestic as well as global multinationals) setting up businesses in small cities and towns, hiring and onboarding expats has become a herculean task. And with rising global opportunities, it has become tougher and more expensive.

In recent years, most businesses in India have had a small number of expat leaders or professionals. With a larger pool of competent talent available locally, companies have been critically selective and primarily focussed on hiring expats in specialised jobs. They have been focussed on areas where:

  • Limited leadership or technical skills, and experiences are available in India

  • To set up greenfield operations and ensure efficient take-off

  • Provide multi-geography exposure for senior leadership talent, as part of leadership development and succession planning

  • As a result of Covid-19, many expat professionals chose to return to their home countries. Key reasons were the fear and concerns about:

  • Undergoing treatment in government quarantine hospitals (which was the initial guideline for Covid-19 patients)

  • The imposition of bureaucratic approach for basic healthcare

  • Fast spread of Covid-19 due to high population density in main cities

  • Health and hygiene practices followed across the board to minimise or stop the spread

The obstruction caused due to the current pandemic brought businesses near to a halt. Since business continuity was key, all companies had to figure out ways to deliver work seamlessly while maintaining the expats’ safety.

Evolving future of expat life

Until we come out of the current crisis fully, companies will need to start exploring innovative approaches to manage through this scenario.

A leading auto MNC in India is exploring an entirely new approach for the expat environment. As many companies around the world shifted to a work-from-home approach, this MNC currently has dedicated expats continuing to support its functions from their home country, on specific assignments. These expats do so according to India time, through virtual communication tools. This approach means these expats must sacrifice their personal commitments in their home country and demonstrates their dedication to the organisation and its operations.

This approach may eventually turn out to be cost-efficient and effective for specific jobs that can be worked with digital technologies and time zones with healthy overlap. This is working very well currently for this MNC because these professionals already have a strong understanding of the local work environment and culture. Most of them have worked in India previously and have supported the India plant for many years.

At the same time, this approach has also given opportunities for the local leaders to take more responsibilities and lead the activities meticulously, with timely guidance and support from these expats. This is turning out to be a win for all stakeholders.

On the flip side, few specific skills like die modification in stamping are developed over long periods of experience by the expat specialist. Such skill transfer demands many years of shadow training and hands-on work. This is one of the areas where the local operations struggle. Currently, virtual communication and digital technology have helped to minimise this handicap. This area of improvement has been identified and further efforts are on to prepare new strategies to develop and strengthen the capability.

While few technology and software organisations may have tried similar approaches, in our observation, they have been rare across other sectors.

Need for continuous improvement and open mindset

Overall, this pandemic has led to almost zero business travel, face-to face seminars, and conferences. While this may have helped organisations in terms of cost saving and flexibility, questions remain whether the elimination of face-to-face interaction is sustainable and effective in the long run.

This could be challenging to expats in developing rapport with their team as face-to-face interactions help them to adapt and accept the new culture of the different countries. The impact on trust and depth of understanding of complex topics is also debatable and we are starting to see varying opinions. Questions also remain regarding the impact on teamwork and productivity.

We are of the opinion that working together in an office environment, and attending face-to-face meetings and seminars are key ingredients for teamwork, motivation, confidence building, and self-discipline. This shift to virtual business needs to be approached with an open and continuous improvement in mindset.

Other factors influencing expat life

Another interesting Covid-19 impact could be the movement of expats from certain regions like West Asia. As economies start to recover, some countries may realise that talent pools deplete locally, and specialised knowledge and expertise cannot be developed in short timeframes. We wonder if that may lead to more opportunities for experienced talent from nearer regions like Asia—either as expats or in the form of work moving across borders. We believe that some of these senior expat opportunities may shift from the west to the east, to those countries with larger, skilled talent pools, culture connects, and better comparative cost propositions.

We also observed a huge migration of Indian expats returning to the country, thus enlarging the local talent pool. It would be interesting to see if India Inc. reaches out to these talents to fulfil their talent needs or remain apprehensive in their approach.

Another related perspective is how the return of expats from India has impacted local businesses, especially in the leisure and entertainment sector. Golf course slots were blocked weeks in advance but now the caddies are eagerly waiting for their return. Expats used to spend more time to learn about the local culture and keep their lifestyle active by engaging with options like theatres, events etc. Most of these activities have come to a grinding halt.

As organisations try to work through the current challenges with limited expat support, we are left pondering a few questions: As part of the larger digital shift, would the future of expat life involve more full-time or part-time virtual assignments? What other major changes will impact expat lives? Will work from home-country become the common norm?

We eagerly look forward to the answers.

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Originally published: https://www.fortuneindia.com

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