Life abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mar 26, 2021
Seven Chartered Accountants reflect on their careers overseas and describe life in different countries as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Fiona Walsh 

Audit Manager at KPMG 
Sydney, Australia
Time abroad: three years

In June 2018, I was given the opportunity to move to Sydney as part of KPMG’s global mobility programme. This was a really exciting opportunity, both personally and professionally, so I packed my bags and moved half-way across the world.

Moving with the same company and in the same role made the move a lot easier as, along with starting a new job, you are trying to familiarise yourself with a new city, find a place to live, and settle in. The first few months are a really exciting time but while Australia is quite similar to Ireland culturally, it did take longer to settle in than I had imagined.

When the pandemic hit, it changed life as we knew it in Sydney. The switch to a virtual world was sudden. At first, there was a novelty attached to it. We quickly had to adapt as most Australian companies are June year-ends, so busy season was fast approaching. However, in Sydney, we returned to the office relatively quickly as COVID-19 numbers decreased. We have been working from both the office and home for several months now.

One positive outcome from the pandemic is that we now have a lot more work flexibility, but I don’t believe a full-time work-from-home model is sustainable in the long-term. We found the transition back to the office easier than expected, with a renewed value on face-to-face interactions with teams and clients.

In Australia, we have been very lucky with the impact of COVID-19 restrictions compared to Ireland, but the toughest part is that, for the Irish community abroad, we don’t know when we can next jump on a flight to visit family and friends. I got engaged to my fiancé in October (also an Irish Chartered Accountant), so we are very excited to get home to celebrate. The uncertainty of the pandemic makes a full-time move home more difficult to contemplate in the short-term.

Claire Iball

Finance Director at Intel
Portland, Oregon, USA
Time abroad
: 15 years

The worst part of being away from home during the pandemic is not being able to physically see and hug my family in Ireland, though FaceTime and WhatsApp have eased the distance.

When I took this role in the US, I thought I would stay for two to three years. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I am super independent, but the first few months without friends and family were difficult. That said, I don’t think I would do anything differently. You can only grow when challenged by new situations, people, and environments. It tested my ability to adapt and respond to change and differences.

Working for a US company where the majority of business partners are US-based means more traditional work hours. In contrast, working for a US company while living in Ireland meant working later into the evening to collaborate with US colleagues. And while I would love the opportunity to work in Ireland and live closer to family, I have also started my own family here and have a different lifestyle and new friendships.

I think working from home during the pandemic has opened up job opportunities and does not require experts to be in certain locations. As the end of pandemic is in sight, we will reflect and adapt to the new world and way of working. 

I think there are great personal development opportunities in working abroad. Anyone thinking of doing so should go for it. If you want to experience a new country, culture, and learn new ways of working, that’s the best way to go about it. It’s always better to regret something you’ve done rather than something you haven’t done.

S. Colin Neill

Board member
New Jersey, USA
Time abroad
: 45 years

On graduation from Trinity, I joined Arthur Andersen in Dublin. I had always heard that being a Chartered Accountant would provide a passport to travel the world, and indeed it proved to be. 

My wanderlust took me to New York after qualification at a time when it was relatively unusual for Chartered Accountants to make such a move. I eventually got involved in the formation of the Association of Chartered Accountants in the US (ACAUS), which sought to enhance and promote the Chartered brand. The effort was extremely successful – ACAUS celebrated 40 years last year and has achieved mutual recognition of qualifications with many US states. My life would not have turned out the way it did without the solid business foundation of the Chartered Accountant training and qualification.

I am now semi-retired, but I remain active on several boards. The challenge for me has been to master and embrace current technology, which I have luckily done. Some of the boards I serve on support the charitable fundraising activities of hospitals, both in the US and Ireland. The pandemic has made holding live fundraising events impossible, and that has had severe consequences for the hospitals. On the other hand, the commercial entities whose boards on which I serve are thriving. Unfortunately, one is an historical cemetery and crematory – business is booming.

While I travel back to Ireland several times year – mostly to play golf – leaving was a very good move for me. The only time myself and my Irish friends ever questioned moving back to Ireland was during the rise of the Celtic Tiger. The thought did not last long, however.

Gavin Fitzpatrick

Director of Financial Accounting and Advisory Services at Grant Thornton
San Francisco, California, USA 
Time abroad
: 20 months

The pandemic has definitely made it more challenging to achieve the objectives I set for myself when first taking this role. Meeting existing clients to further develop relationships has been more difficult in a remote environment. Building rapport with new teams, whether internal or external, has required additional effort. Add to this the personal challenges of keeping a young family in good spirits during lockdown in a foreign country.

This role, and the last 12 months, have taught me the importance being agile, staying positive, and taking stock regularly to challenge myself to ensure I am putting effort into relevant tasks. The way I support existing clients has changed, but they still get value from a local contact who can help them navigate a world of constant change.

Despite a year of home-schooling and travel restrictions, my family have managed to make the most of this adventure, creating memories, friendships, and achieving many personal goals along the way. 

Despite the challenges, this move has been a success, both personally and professionally. If I had the opportunity to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do anything differently. We try to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at a point in time. When the outlook changes, no matter how radically, we adapt. Roles such as mine are important for our business and the development of our teams. While planning for similar roles in the future will no doubt mean considering additional matters, I would encourage anyone to grab these opportunities wherever possible.

Fearghal O’Riordan

Vice President at Aon
Cayman Islands
Time abroad
: 11 years

I’m missing Ireland. It has been 18 months since I was home. Not being able to see family, friends, neighbours and Galway has been a challenge. I am a keen horseracing fan, so I miss being able to visit stables and see the horses. But, I do enjoy it here, and I guess I am settled now. This is home. I met my wife here on my first visit and we have been together 19 years, and the Cayman Islands people have been very welcoming and good to me. It’s a very attractive place to live. I love the mix of cultures here in the Caribbean. We have over 100 nationalities in a population of 65,000. You meet lots of wonderful people with great stories of life in their homelands.

We are fortunate to have a super global IT infrastructure supporting our local office. That held up very well when we all went remote in March 2020. Thankfully, the IT didn’t buckle under the strain. The Cayman Islands came out of lockdown in July and I’ve been working in the office since, though staff do have flexibility to continue to work from home, especially those who commute through morning traffic. The Cayman Islands is (as of 15 March 2021), COVID-19 community transmission-free since July 2020 so we are very, very fortunate to be living relatively normal lives with the sole exception of the border being closed so travel is restricted.

Having emigrated twice, I would implore anyone thinking of doing so to make the most of where you are – be it in Ireland or abroad. Everywhere has benefits and downsides. Enjoy the best of where you are and, if you move, make the best of that place. Nowhere is perfect but if you do have that sense of adventure, go for it.

Louise O’Donnell 

Manager of International Operations, Strategy, Legal & Compliance at Oman Insurance
Dubai, UAE 
Time abroad
: 12 years

I definitely knew what I was getting into when I moved here 12 years ago, and I would not change anything with regards to working and living overseas. I believe it has moulded me and allowed me to work in an extremely multi-cultural environment where I experience different viewpoints that will remain with me in the future. On a personal level, it allowed me to put down roots in a new city, take up new hobbies, and create a life. I also met my husband in Dubai. 

However, due to the pandemic, it is the first time since leaving Ireland that I have not been able to go home to see my family and friends. The rate of change in lockdowns and the ambiguity prevented me from doing so. That said, I am not ready to move home yet, and given that my personal life is very much entwined in the region, it would be a difficult choice to make. My husband is from Palestine, so it would have to be a good move for both of us – a consideration I didn’t have when I jumped at the chance to move to Dubai. 

For others wanting to move abroad, I would give the same advice pre-pandemic and post-pandemic: go for it. You might have a defined timeline for moving overseas and a plan for when you might then return home. I had that in mind, as well, but my plans changed. We all think ‘I will live overseas for a maximum of three years and then go home’ – most expats in the UAE had the same thing in mind, but most usually end up here for longer than anticipated.

I think there will always be a need for overseas employment, particularly in locations that are well-known expat hotspots. These locations continue to be transient and are developing fast, hence the need to bring new talent into these cities will remain. Even though we are still working from home and many countries remain in lockdown, I do not believe that this will continue full-time post-pandemic. There is a lot of debate on this topic and we do hear of certain industries moving their staff to 100% work-from-home, but I am a firm believer that innovative work still gets done in the office and we all need face-to-face interaction.

Niall Fagan 

Audit Senior Manager at Grant Thornton 
Newport Beach, California, USA
Time abroad
: 10 years

When I embarked on my secondment in 2011, I was looking for a new adventure both personally and professionally. The initial transition was challenging, but working for a large global organisation with consistent systems and methodology made the work transition easier. Having been one of the first secondees in the San Francisco office, I set up a group where we help future secondees and international hires with their transition to the US and I love to pass along all of my experiences.

It’s been just over a year since I’ve been to our office or to a client site. At first, it seemed impossible to think we’d be able to operate at the same level of efficiency remotely. While working from home has definitely had its challenges, I believe we’ve demonstrated that we can perform efficient audits in a remote setting, which could have a large impact on our industry. It brings into question the need for large office spaces and the need for audit team onsite every day. Continued remote working should provide more flexibility and better work-life balance for people.

From a personal point of view, while the pandemic has been tough and we might have to wait until 2022 before we can make it back to Ireland again to visit family and friends, it has allowed me to spend a lot more time with my two small children, for which I’m thankful.

If someone is considering a career overseas in the post-pandemic world, my advice would be to go for it. The Chartered Accountancy qualification is highly respected worldwide. You can gain invaluable experience, learn new skills, and grow your global network. From a life experience perspective, I believe living and working in another country is extremely valuable, and I would encourage anyone who has an interest to take a chance.