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How do you research ‘global mobility’ during a pandemic when travel is highly restricted?

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Two researchers tell the story of how the pandemic completely altered their research topic and how they dealt with it.

Written by Kerstin Martel Ph.d.-stipendiat, and Ivan Olav Vulchanov Ph.d.-stipendiat, Department of Management, Society and Communication, CBS.

Since we started working on the project ‘Global Mobility of Employees’ in 2018, the pandemic has affected our daily work as PhD researchers, as well as the very nature of ‘global mobility’, our research topic.

The project was designed for 15 early-career researchers who were supposed to be regularly travelling internationally for their field work and trainings over a period of three years, and who all moved to foreign countries for the project.

Although we were constantly on the move before, for work and personal reasons, pandemic travel restrictions have forced a sedentary life upon us and our colleagues, but also on many of the individuals who work in organizations that we study.

While limited travel possibilities had implications for all those who want to travel abroad for holidays, it changed even more profoundly the work and private lives of transnational workers.

Having family and friends spread across several countries and being isolated outside one’s ‘home country’ during the pandemic crisis generated long-term separations for countless individuals.

This seems particularly paradoxical in the European Union context, where the principles of free movement have encouraged personal and professional cross-border activity so that it has become an important and necessary part of life for some.

New entry restrictions and border controls have made this kind of life more challenging.

Mobility researchers are quite international

Global mobility studies are multidisciplinary by nature. Our ‘Global Mobility of Employees’ project, which is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme and operates across several EU countries, illustrates this perfectly with researchers from across the globe who have backgrounds in psychology, sociology, political science and economics.

The project brings diverse perspectives together to better understand individual, organizational and societal implications of labor mobility, i.e. people moving internationally for work.

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For example, some of our colleagues are investigating the motivations and situations of international workers, others are exploring the networks and organizations that recruit talents worldwide, and some are studying broader political and economic contexts of cross-border mobility.

All of us depend heavily on collaborating with each other and internationally, in order to deepen our insights into mobility phenomena beyond national borders.

18 months of personal and professional struggles

 While writing these lines, we are looking back over more than 18 months of personal struggles and self-doubt, reinforced by professional challenges, as our research purpose seemingly vanished.

We, like all our project fellows, have lived and worked in different countries and on different continents in the past. For us, heavy travel restrictions have been among the toughest consequences of the pandemic, as they affected our personal and professional lives at the same time, as this recent collaborative auto-ethnographic study demonstrates.

Early-stage researchers, such as ourselves, have in particular felt the pressure of time-limited PhD contracts increase with the lasting pandemic restrictions. Besides, delays from redesigning research projects, fewer and poorer chances for feedback and cooperation on an international stage have likewise slowed our progress.

Personal meetings at conferences, networking and institutional exchanges are often crucial for PhD candidates navigating early years of academic life and identifying future opportunities.

The purpose of our research project was turned upside down

The many challenges that we encountered in our work were especially linked to the suddenly changing conditions around our research topic ‘global mobility’. As social science and mobility researchers, both of us are interested in investigating the conditions of work mobility, international migration and careers from various angles across geographies (see more on our respective profiles here and here).

In 2020, we planned to conduct research and fieldwork stays in partner organizations in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands for two periods of four months. However, whilst at our first destination, we were called back to Denmark by our employer, Copenhagen Business School. We were not allowed to finish our research stays ‘physically’ and consequently we lost valuable insight into the organizational contexts and individual settings we planned to study.

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Moreover, all project meetings, trainings and joint conference participations were cancelled or transformed into virtual meetings. Since the pandemic began, we have had to work from home, stop all travel activities and question and redesign the way we were doing mobility research.

Like many others, we have become masters of Zoom, Teams, Meets and all the other online services. Working with colleagues and partners abroad through videoconferencing and conducting interviews over the phone or via video calls have been the only solutions for continuing the project.

Global mobility vanished before our eyes

We share the fate of many other researchers: we have lost physical access to our research fields for long periods. But there were additional challenges for mobility researchers like us, as the phenomenon ‘global mobility’ as we have known it suddenly disappeared. Our research themes are closely related to international movement and multicultural interactions at global workplaces. However, the unprecedented immobility during the pandemic significantly changed how employing organizations and individuals perceive international moves and working abroad, and how they interact.

This altered our perception of the research topic: from something that we experienced ourselves and could identify with to very abstract investigations of a vanishing phenomenon.

These and other considerations led to distortions in our results and required us to adapt our research questions and scope, combining pre-pandemic data with remotely collected data in a COVID-19 context.

Moreover, we decided to study additional topics that emerged, such as the effect of restricted freedom of movement in the EU on understandings of EU citizenship (our collaborative article is forthcoming).

Many international employees feel isolated

During travel restrictions, we were obviously not the only ones who could not move internationally. Even the employees and organizations that are the focus of our research were suddenly forced to strictly pause international travel and continue working from home.

Changing work habits and reduced social interaction in organizations certainly affected all kinds of professions.

Some preliminary results in our research show that internationally mobile employees – i.e. individuals that have moved around a lot for work – feel particularly isolated, especially when they barely know anybody in the new city or if they do not speak the language. Many had accepted an interesting position abroad despite the physical distance to family and friends, but knew that they could ‘get on a plane whenever they need me’, as one respondent mentioned.

When exploring how the pandemic has affected people’s ways of life, we find that most have been unable to visit family or receive visits from friends for more than a year. Lacking social support, except from other colleagues in similar situations, seemingly leads some mobile employees to reconsider their initial choice of living abroad.

New understandings of global mobility

Employees and employers are equally challenged by the pandemic. Many businesses have traditionally relied on moving employees across their operations in various countries according to different projects and needs.

Multinational organizations have been able to continue some of these practices to a small extent, as work purposes have been recognized as a valid reason for travel within the EU.

However, processes of relocating employees and their families to other regions have often been interrupted. Administrating additional documentation and the exceptional permits required has made working overtime the norm for many global mobility departments in organizations.

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Overall, we can state that the pandemic and the related restrictions have triggered a lot of societal changes that have led us to develop alternative understandings of what ‘global mobility of employees’ stands for and might stand for in the future.

Although certain jobs require physical on-site presence, globally dispersed organizations will explore alternative ways of supporting recruitment needs by hiring locally or other measures.

Hybrid and flexible approaches to mobility will need to ensure knowledge sharing across borders, which can mean, for example, an increase in virtual teamwork and contracts that allow for remote working.

On the employee side, potential restrictions on international commuting make the choice of residence and employment location even more crucial than before. The global turmoil also sheds light on new societal phenomena that were less visible before. These include the need to consider the long-term separations from significant others that international workers experience. This increases, for example, the importance of multilingual, pandemic-related communications and the need for specific support in organizations where local networks of solidarity are lacking.

Free movement is precious

Despite these difficulties and constraints, we are trying to keep on track and complete our PhD dissertations and project deliverables to safeguard future career options.

Advanced positions in academia are scarce and the lack of networking opportunities, paired with travel restrictions, have contributed to an increasing sense of insecurity among many of our PhD colleagues who work internationally.

Nonetheless, by sharing and reflecting on daily challenges with fellow researchers, and by attempting to find a positive twist to the situation, we have matured as researchers. The privilege of free movement and travel has indeed been ‘taken away’ from us by the pandemic and its restrictions, but new learning opportunities have emerged, which will certainly enrich our research perspectives on migration and global mobility in the future.

Experiencing the feeling of ‘being stuck’ in a place that is quite unfamiliar has made us aware of the precarity that restrictions of free movement can trigger for individual lives in general.

Moreover, it has made us even more aware of how unique and precious the rights we have as EU citizens are – the right of persons to move and settle within the territory of the Member States of the European Union.

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