The COVID-19 pandemic brought about the need for social distancing in order to contain infection. Remote work (Donnelly & Johns, 2021) thus became a premise for organizations across the globe. This special issue addresses the following questions: Which parts of the global remote work ‘experiment’ into which employees and organizations have been thrown by the COVID-19 pandemic shall be kept and which shall be discarded, and why?
This IHRM challenge not only pertains to mapping ‘HRM in times of crisis’ (Newman et al., 2021) but also takes the next step: Moving forward and facilitating transformation beyond the immediate time and events (the COVID-19 pandemic, see Cooke et al., 2020) which triggered the increase in remote work, both locally and on a global scale.
Established concepts and delineations, such as digitalisation (Meijerink et al., 2018), virtual teams (Adamovic, 2018; Mockaitis et al., 2018), flexible work arrangements (Williams et al., 2021), work from home, and new ways of work (Alfes et al., 2019) do not seem to grasp these events. Rather, all these concepts are somewhat inherent to the – now considerably enlarged – phenomenon of ‘remote work’, but none of them provides sufficient explanation and advice on IHRM. Thus, not only did remote work increase in scope and relevance, but the concept itself underwent a fundamental change.
- Firstly, the profile of the remote worker has changed and diversified: it is no longer the internationally mobile high-skilled professional who chooses to work outside an office environment, in order to combine work and travel. Rather, people of diverse gender, ethnicity, age and social class backgrounds and diverse time zones have been thrown into the remote work experience 'at home', necessitating new approaches to IHRM.
- Secondly, organisations have not consciously ‘chosen’ to change some tasks and responsibilities to the remote mode, but rather ‘remote’ has become the organizational default setting without much of a prior strategic thinking or choice.
- Thirdly, HR itself was thrown into remoteness as well, with ensuing implications for HR processes and system, and HR roles and responsibilities.
- Fourthly, line managers and organizational leaders are asked to manage their subordinates remotely, with emergent questions, such as how to conceptualize and implement a remote leadership mindset, and how to facilitate an innovative climate and to manage employees from a distance.
- Finally, the remote work transformation has fundamentally changed what ‘international’ means for HRM and organizations.
Clearly, remote work is thus in the process of being fundamentally transformed on a potentially global level, and HR needs to take up the task of steering and managing this transformation. This requires assessing the learning environment to the present remote work transformation, and then to transform this learning into HR routines, processes and structures. It concerns:
- The remote worker: Who is the remote worker, and what are their needs from an IHRM perspective? What does it take to cope with the complex situation of remote work (Mayer et al., 2021), and how can IHRM support employees in that? Is there a remote mindset and how can it be developed and supported? What is the employee experience of remote work (Mahadevan & Schmitz, 2020). How to ensure sustained or improved levels of employee engagement during remote work (Syed, 2020)?
- The qualities of the remote work transformation: For what reasons and purposes does remote work happen (Donnelly & Johns, 2021)? Which tasks and responsibilities are remote voluntarily and involuntarily, which are remote not due to strategic choice, and what IHRM learning emerges from there? What are the implications of remote work becoming the default setting, and not implying mobility but being a local phenomenon intersecting with work from home? What are the specifics of technologized remote work (Meijerink et al., 2018)? When and how does remote work develop into self-exploration or self-exploitation?
- The HR implications of the remote work transformation: To what extent does IHRM need to rethink and reconsider established ways of how to frame and combine person-to-person HRM and e-HRM in an international environment (Cooke et al., 2020; Lin, 2011; Francis et al., 2014)? What is the (new) role of social media IHRM? What do recent changes imply for HR processes, the strength of the HR system, and HR roles and responsibilities, and the ideas of how to configure them for highest resilience and innovativeness? How does the remote work transformation impact in vogue approaches in practice, such as design thinking and employee experience (Mahadevan & Schmitz, 2020)? How shall IHRM be communicated remotely, and which technologies and channels will ensure distinctiveness, consistency and consensus? How shall HR strive to achieve and maintain legitimacy and employee focus (Adamovic, 2018)? How shall HR deal with the uncertainties (Wood et al., 2018) and the dark side of the remote work transformation (e.g. increased control, spyware, new inequalities)?
- The leadership implications of the remote work transformation: How have the tasks, roles and responsibilities of line management and team leaders changed due to the remote work transformation? How can line managers implement HRM policies and practices remotely (e.g., Bos-Nehles et al., 2013), and how do they give sense to and make sense of remote work (Christianson & Barton, 2021)? Which leadership styles are more suited to a remote setting, and how should HR support these and help line management develop them?
- The international dimension of the remote work transformation: To what extent does remote work imply global and/or local structures and characteristics, and what does this imply for IHRM strategies, processes and systems concerning it? To what extent is national culture still relevant under remote work conditions? How can IHRM transfer local remote work insights into international strategy? What is special about new organizational forms, such as COVID-induced virtual teams, and how can they enrich existing HRM literature? What are the implications for diversity management on a global scale, if some diversity categories, such as physical (dis-)ability become less visible, whereas others, such as social class (what kind of work from home environment can one afford?), gain prominence?