The spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has many companies concerned about their employees’ wellbeing. Hundreds of people have been stranded abroad since Chinese New Year, and companies are scrambling to keep their offices open.

If this is your first run-in with a global emergency like COVID-19, then you may not yet have a contingency plan for these types of situations. Unfortunately, health epidemics are not the only reason an employee may be stranded abroad. Political unrest in the Middle East in 2010 left hundreds of passengers stranded in airports, and the 2020 Taal Volcano eruption in the Philippines disrupted travel in and out of the country, too.

Business travellers can and do get stranded abroad even when you least expect it. At the same time, work cannot suddenly stop because of a prolonged emergency. If your business travellers get caught up in a similar nightmare, here are some ways to manage their prolonged unplanned absences and keep your business running.

Be understanding and help them make new travel plans

When an employee’s flight is delayed or cancelled, they’re likely just as disappointed and worried as you are—especially in the case of a political or health emergency. Try to be considerate when an employee informs you of their absence and develop an action plan together. Their safety abroad should be the highest priority.

Help your employees get home on the next available flight, regardless of corporate travel policy or cabin class. If the nearest airport is closed, consider the next closest option. During the recent political unrest in Hong Kong, for example, many companies rebooked their employees’ flights from nearby cities Macau and Shenzhen.

It can be challenging to figure out exactly how many employees are stranded during a sudden emergency. A centralised travel solution like Travelstop can help keep you on track. Our dedicated travel experts do the hard work for you, so you don’t have to spend hours managing travel on different airlines, hotels, and third-party websites on your own.

Provide flexible working arrangements

Flexible working arrangements are gaining increasing popularity around the world. In fact, it’s set to be one of the major workplace trends in 2020.

Cities are becoming more congested, but Internet access is becoming widespread and much more affordable. If it’s possible for your employee to do their job from their hotel room, then why not give them that option?

In the case of COVID-19, working from home is turning out to be a good solution for many companies. According to China Daily, more than half of workers in Beijing are currently working from home rather than going to the office amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Major tech companies, including Tencent and Alibaba, have also asked their staff to work from home due to health, safety, and quarantine concerns.

As for civil servants in Hong Kong and Macau, only essential staff or emergency service providers are still required to come to the office during the outbreak.

Consider what your employment contract and internal policies have to say about working off-site and working extra hours to cover for lost time, as well as all the facilities employees usually need to get their work done. If all they need to do their best work are a functioning laptop and an Internet connection, employees stranded overseas could continue to “come to work.”

Larger companies with overseas branches could also request employees to work from those locations in the meantime.

What if your stranded employee cannot work remotely?

Sometimes, it’s simply impossible for employees to make it to the physical or virtual office.

Let’s say you have an employee who went on a business trip on your behalf, and supposed to be headed home. But they are now stranded at the airport, or stuck within city limits. They have their work laptop with them, but external factors are preventing them from working offsite—say, a weather disturbance, natural disaster, transport strike, or political unrest.

Especially since the employee was travelling to represent you and the company, you must fulfil your duty of care. A comprehensive corporate travel policy should include contingency measures, emergency contacts and numbers, alternate transport and accommodations as well as covered costs, and adjustments to the current travel budget.

Reimbursements can then be done once the employee returns, and special cases for out-of-pocket expenses can be negotiated with both HR and accounting.

Provide support, and use technology to your advantage when possible

The employer-employee relationship is at its best when both sides give and take. It’s important to be on their side when possible, and to remember that you should be working together towards a common goal. Flexibility and kindness in difficult situations can go a long way.

Work-from-home arrangements have been discussed for years, but they’re becoming more and more feasible thanks to the advent of cloud-based technologies. Compared to 10 years ago, it’s now much easier to work from home. One can send emails remotely, file documents online, and join video conferences with people all around the world without getting up from their office chair.

Of course, flexible working arrangements shouldn’t be your only solution should employees be stranded abroad. It’s important to understand how your office is being affected by the challenge and make a plan for the future to keep productivity and output stable.


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