Are Hong Kong’s global talent pool and pipeline drying up?

A recent survey sheds some light on expectations and motivations across the community of global professionals since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo: Wiki.lkfa / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)


Attracting diverse talents is one of the key factors for global cities to sustain and renew themselves. Great cities need outsiders and locals with different values and ideas to thrive, drawing intellectual energy from the entire world. 

The alarming slump in visa applications to Hong Kong and the increasing uncertainty about its future attractiveness challenge the competitiveness of Hong Kong as a magnet for talents. The official answers tend to blame everything on the pandemic, but how do expatriates actually see their future of living and working in Hong Kong?

A recent survey conducted in collaboration with the International Association of Cross-cultural Competence at Management (IACCM) at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, sheds some light on expectations and motivations across the community of global professionals.

The borderless, international lifestyle which many global professionals and their families have taken for granted over past decades has been drastically affected by COVID-19. Over 500 expatriates of 55 different nationalities in 48 countries answered a survey conducted between March and June 2020, which reveals that the globally mobile workforce of expatriates has been significantly impacted by closed borders, cancelled flights and the introduction of new entry restrictions for foreign residents in this phase of the pandemic. While Hong Kong is not completely closed, only residents can travel to Hong Kong. 

The ongoing pandemic has led expatriates to consider their current work and life situations. While some say that their lifestyle abroad has not been impacted, others are reviewing their choice of location. A Hong Kong expat says he “still likes Hong Kong” but believes the protests will have a greater impact than the virus on his decision to move.

As borders started to close and flights were grounded in response to the pandemic, the majority (over 75 percent) of those surveyed stayed in the country they are living and working in. Most (87 percent) felt that they had made the right decision given the circumstances. The most common reasons cited for staying were that they felt ‘safe’, that it was their ‘home’ and where they have their ‘life’ and ‘work’.  Some indicated they felt safer in the ‘host’ country and had more trust in the measures taken by the governments of the host country than of their country of citizenship.  Hong Kong is still considered one of the better regions to stay during the ongoing pandemic. 

The majority (78 percent) of participants in the survey experienced some sort of stay at home period with restrictions varying across countries.  Some saw the advantages of this, especially if they were able to continue working from home. One Hong Kong expat says that being ‘unable to travel outside Hong Kong for my job [is] good for family life,’ and, ‘While I love traveling, it was also okay to have a break from the logistics of constant travel.’

Over 75 percent of those surveyed indicated that the situation had impacted their attitude to living and working abroad. 20 percent indicated their attitudes were ‘very impacted’ whilend 6 percent indicated it had ‘completely impacted’ their attitude. A typical answer is: I always stayed abroad on [the] condition that I could jump on a plane in case I needed to attend to urgent family matters. Being unable to do this has made me reconsider the net benefit of staying overseas.’

International travel (for work, leisure and family visits) was either very or completely impacted for most participants in the survey (92 percent). Like most of the world, since COVID-19, from March to the end of June 2020, most survey participants were grounded, reporting zero international trips during this time. 

This was a stark contrast to their travel habits before the COVID-19 situation. According to the survey, 73 percent of those surveyed travelled internationally for work at least once or twice per year, with 36 percent travelling more than six times per year.  Since COVID-19, unsurprisingly, between March and June, 99 percent of those surveyed said their travel plans had been impacted, with most having made no international trips during that period.  49 percent predicted that even beyond September, travel would be very or completely impacted. Many indicated that even when travel restrictions eased, they would think twice about ‘hopping on a plane for a business meeting or discussion which could just as easily be conducted on Zoom.’

Despite the raft of difficulties experienced by many who took part in the survey, the majority of respondents (74 percent) indicated that they are ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ to continue living and working abroad or to go abroad again to live and work.

Some are sanguine and see the COVID-19 situation as ‘just another challenge’ of living abroad. For others, living abroad has become a way of life or they are settled in the countries they are living in.  At the same time, there has been a shift in motivations and priorities. 

Since the arrival of COVID-19, ‘health, safety and security’ has become the top priority with 37 percent reporting it as ‘very important’, slightly above ‘financial reasons’, while ‘family reasons’ was rated ‘very important’ by 32 percent.  ‘Career development’, ‘new skills and experiences’, ‘seeing the world’ and ‘new opportunities for self’ are still rated as ‘very important’ by 34-35 percent of participants.

So what happens now? This is the time of the year that many expatriates think about new assignments. This year, many face hard choices. Clearly, for expats in Hong Kong, these choices will be based on more than post-pandemic considerations. 

Convincing global professionals to stay put despite the looming economic and political crisis will require more than just promising that there will be something like “business as usual”. 

The complex and volatile global marketplace requires a range of international skills, a global perspective and intercultural competence, along with a ‘global mindset’ to lead and facilitate effective work and communication. In light of the current situation, the HK government and the business sector may need to consider what measures can be taken to address the concerns of the globally mobile workforce of international professionals to ensure that their skills and competencies are still welcome and won’t be constrained in the new environment.

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the author

Waltraut Ritter, Knowledge Dialogues, conducts research on digital and knowledge economy in Asia and Europe.