Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

The ups and downs of cross-border commuting

Employers like cross-border commuting if it persuades a preferred candidate to do a job they might otherwise turn down, and often perceive it to be cheaper than paying for the employee’s family to move with them.

Jupiterimages/Getty Images/Comstock Images

Most Mondays at 5 a.m., a taxi pulls up to take Barbara Harrant to Vienna International Airport. A flight and another car ride later, she is at her desk in Lenovo Group Ltd.'s U.K. offices, reaching into a drawer for the make-up that she left the previous Thursday, before starting her weekly trip home. Welcome to the world of cross-border commuting.

Ms. Harrant is one of a number of professionals for whom living in one country and working in another solves a dilemma: what to do when an employer wants you to be based abroad but you would rather stay local.

In 2011, more than two-thirds of international employers interviewed by ECA International, an expatriate remuneration consultancy, reported an increase in the practice, with family considerations often uppermost in staff decisions on whether to commute. Ms. Harrant chose to do so because her partner's career ruled out moving to Britain. Others do so to avoid disrupting their children's education, to stay close to relatives who help them look after their offspring, or to keep an eye on aging parents.

Story continues below advertisement

Employers like cross-border commuting if it persuades a preferred candidate to do a job they might otherwise turn down, and often perceive it to be cheaper than paying for the employee's family to move with them.

Marathon commutes, where staff fly out every week and back for weekends, or alternate between weeks away and weeks at home, have drawbacks, however. Working in another city or country can be stressful – both for commuters and their partners, who might find themselves shouldering their other half's chores.

Erika Sandow, a social geographer at Umea University in Sweden, found in her doctoral research, in 2011, that Swedish workers commuting long distances on a regular basis run a 40-per-cent higher risk of separating from their partners than other people.

For employers, commuting challenges can include keeping a lid on travel costs, determining tax liability, complying with immigration regulations, and agreeing on the home-office working ratio of employees.

To stay on the right side of tax and immigration laws, companies need tracking systems, says Cheryl Spielman, a partner in Ernst & Young's U.S. human capital practice. Too often, line managers and workers agree to commuting arrangements informally, not realizing that both the company and employee can become liable for tax in the destination country. "Countries such as the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and India have become much more focused on knowing who is coming in to do business so they can claim some of the tax dollars associated with the work," Ms. Spielman says.

ECA's survey warns that, despite a reputation for being cheaper, the costs of cross-border commuting over a lengthy period can be more expensive than moving the worker's family with them. There are also less tangible implications.

Matthew Vallance, former chief executive officer of the business process outsourcer Firstsource, divided his life between Mumbai and his home in Britain. He warns that shuttling to and fro can mean formal appointments monopolize your day, preventing valuable spontaneous discussions. "If every minute is planned," he says, "you inevitably have to limit your time with people." His advice? Keep holes in your diary for talking.

Story continues below advertisement

Being apart can strain relationships, setting up a vicious cycle of stress that can spill over into work performance, says Liz Morris, director of Working Families Consultancy and Training. A recent study by relationship charity OnePlusOne and work-life balance organization Working Families found that workers with relationship problems were significantly less engaged at work.

To minimize the damage that distance can inflict, Ms. Morris advises couples to talk daily. "Keeping communication going keeps the brain connections [that underpin relationships] firing." She also recommends date nights. "If the other people in your life are children, you'll [probably] prioritize their needs and your partner may end up feeling they are not only second to work but third to the children."

Ken Batty, head of Lenovo's human resources for Western Europe, says cross-border commuting has mostly served his company well − although occasionally people have run into problems. When the young son of the regional chief financial officer – another Austria-to-U.K. commuter – would not settle if his father was away, the company found the executive a local job.

A year in, Ms. Harrant says her commute is quite manageable. However, she dreads Sunday evenings. "What I hate most is packing − that and planning four days ahead."


Barbara Harrant

Story continues below advertisement

Director of sales operations, Lenovo U.K.

Commute: Austria to Britain

Sometimes there is no substitute for being on the spot. Although her boss is happy for her to work two days at home, Ms. Harrant chooses to work four days in Britain so that she can attend a weekly management meeting. "If most people are there in person and you dial in [by phone], it's harder to follow the discussion," she says. Hannes Draxler, her partner, says he is comfortable with her commuting. She used to work locally but had regular trips to China and lengthy Sunday calls with Chinese colleagues. At least weekends are now her own.

With no reason to hurry back, they both work long weekdays. Come Thursday, Mr. Draxler makes a point of waiting up for Ms. Harrant. They swap news and maybe open a bottle of wine.

Jason Parker

Executive assistant, KPMG

Commute: Britain to Germany

Commuting from Sussex early on Mondays and returning late on Thursdays has allowed Mr. Parker to go on an 18-month secondment to KPMG's European, Middle East and Africa headquarters in Frankfurt without uprooting his family. Even so, life has changed for his consultant psychiatrist wife, Victoria Lukats, their 12-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son, who have moved from a state to a private school, offering "flexi-boarding." When Dr. Lukats has a work commitment, they can stay overnight.

Mr. Parker's biggest frustration is being away when the children are upset or difficult. "There's almost nothing I can do to help." The family dynamic has altered, too, he says. "As the one coming home, I'm sort of the minister of fun. Saying it's time to do your homework can be quite difficult."

Steve Chambers

Area manager, CMH Heli-Skiing

Commute: U.S. to Canada

Steve Chambers, a ski guide, began commuting when he married Megan Bee, a film editor. From November to May, he works 15-day shifts at CMH Heli-Skiing in Revelstoke, B.C., flying home to Denver in between for five-day breaks.

Ms. Bee's parents, who live next door, help with their two young children but being in different places makes family video-chats harder to fit in. "When I'm done [on the slopes], Megan is brushing teeth and running baths."

Ms. Bee says her biggest challenge is the continual see-saw between "calling all the shots" and feeling obliged to consult her husband. As a veteran cross-border commuter, Mr. Chambers recommends schemes that allow preapproved travellers to use self-service kiosks at customs and security. "I've saved hours of waiting in line."

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨