This article is the second of the seven dilemmas series that discusses some of the most important questions that global mobility managers will have to address in the coming years. These seven dilemmas are not entirely new; however, demographic, technological, and business practice changes will give them a particular importance going forward. The discussion about the dilemmas is an invitation to move away from oversimplified visions of global mobility and understand that the complexity of the issues discussed also offers an opportunity for mobility and HR teams to become more strategic and expand their horizon. This article series is available as a PDF download.
By Olivier Meier, Mercer
Job Mobility Versus Employee Mobility: Understanding the Dilemma
Working from the country of choice is the equivalent of working from home for globally mobile millennials. As companies are still struggling to deal with the complexities and cost of traditional employee mobility and are looking for ways to attract and leverage new talent, is it time to consider moving jobs to people as opposed to relocating employees to destinations where jobs are based? Companies have historically moved operations to new locations to tap into new talent pools and benefit from lower costs, but they should increasingly consider moving individual jobs to people or, more simply, allowing mobile employees a greater flexibility in the choice of where and how they want to work.
While moving people to jobs is sometimes problematic, moving jobs to people might prove equally challenging and raise a host of new questions. This could however open up new opportunities for both employees and companies and the debate could force companies to reassess what they mean by global mobility.
The Limits of Traditional Mobility: Moving People to Jobs
The traditional approach of mobility, moving people to jobs, has allowed companies to support and accelerate their move to become global. Yet, the traditional barriers to mobility and the cost associated with traditional expatriate assignments remain a significant burden for companies. Issues that are still limiting traditional global mobility include:
Assignment costs. Some long-term assignments might be replaced by shorter types of moves but overall the number of assignments is going up and the budget dedicated to mobility is not unlimited. How long can companies continue to increase the mobility of their employees while not inflating their budget? The answer can only come from new approaches to global mobility. Budget constraints have already forced companies to consider new compensation approach (local plus and various forms of reduced packages) and introduced more segmentation in their policies. They might need to go one step further and rethink their entire mobility approach.
Hardship locations. Significant risks in the host locations have sometimes lead companies to allow the assignee and family to live in neighboring countries rather than in the assignment location. As the mobile employee talent pool becomes more diverse, new issues might arise. Locations with a medium or even low level of hardship might pose more serious challenges for assignees because of their gender, ethnicity, religious background, or sexual orientation (the seventh dilemma in this series: diversity in non-diverse locations). The preference of mobility for millennials also means that even destinations with limited level of hardship can be viewed as not desirable compared to more trendy locations.
Dual career issues. This has been one of the top reasons for turning down assignments for a long time and these issues cannot always be fully resolved. There are ways to alleviate the concerns of the spouse (for example by providing assistance with the job search, coaching, or a contribution to training/education costs) but the loss of the dual income and career opportunity for the spouse cannot always be fully compensated.
Family issues. Aside from dual career issues, questions concerning family, such as schooling can result in huge costs for the company and force families to make difficult decision about the future of their children.
Emigration issues. There is a disconnect between the increasing willingness of people to move and the international mobility limitations due to visas, work permit restrictions, quotas, and other legal restrictions.
The Business Case for “Third-Country Assignments”
In global mobility terminology, expatriates not coming from the headquarter country of the company used are referred to as “third-country nationals” to show that they were neither linked to the headquarter country nor to the host destination. The question now: are we witnessing the rise of third-country assignments where assignees relocate to a country that is not the location where their job was originally supposed to be performed?
In other words, instead of relocating the employee from country A to country B, are we allowing the employee to move to a country C to perform the tasks that were meant to be performed in country B (effectively moving the job to the employee?) Or, alternatively, are we allowing the employee to live in country C while commuting or flying regularly to country B? Finally, we can simply allow the employee to remain in the home country and perform remotely the task meant to be performed in host country B.
These new forms of mobility could help resolve some of the traditional mobility challenges as well as help attract and retain top talent by:
- Leveraging the lifestyle and expectation of the millennials generation. Used reasonably, it could be a selling point, or at least a plus in the negotiation with prospective assignees.
- Widening the talent pool. Families and individuals who were not considering moving might be willing to accept the job. It could be a case of tapping into local talent pools in new destinations. In the case of highly skilled individuals, hiring the right candidates regardless of where they are based might be more important than relocating employees to a specific country.
- Saving on expatriation costs. Meeting the employee’s expectation in terms of destination and offering what is essentially an employee initiated move mean that in some cases a more basic relocation package (one-time payment to assist with the initial relocation) might replace the expensive expatriate home-based packages. For some moves, lower costs in the location where assignees live might lead to further savings for the company. In case the employee is remaining in the home country and just commuting or flying to the host location, the savings can be significant.
Overall, moving individual jobs to people is about developing synergies between employees’ aspirations and business needs: achieving lower mobility costs and higher satisfaction. It is also about acknowledging the fact that working arrangements are changing fast in response to technology and generation changes.
A Pre-Condition: Broadening the Definition of Mobility
The concept of moving jobs to people encompasses different (and sometimes overlapping) types of moves.
Third country assignment. As defined previously, this type of assignment is about allowing the employee to move to a country which is different from the home country and the original host destination. It traditionally doesn’t exist as a category as such in mobility policy. This is a question that is often resolved on an ad-hoc/exception basis. It is also to some extent included in the concept of employee-requested moves.
Employee-requested move. In the segmentation models used by companies, employee-requested move is the category used for moves not seen as business critical but that are allowed for retention purposes. The package offered for this type of moves is usually very limited (facilitation and one-time payment for the initial relocation.) This category is bound to become important and the question will not just be about retaining an employee who would otherwise leave the company but establish an option that could be pro-actively used to foster talent attraction and motivate employees.
Virtual mobility. The assignee is not physically moving to the host location but takes advantage of modern technology to perform tasks from the home country or from a third country.
Frequent flyers. Frequent and extended business trips are often not counted as part of global mobility and not always tracked effectively. Yet, they are instrumental in the success of virtual and third country assignments. They can also trigger mobility compliance issues.
Commuters. Commuters are present in the host location during the week or for a few days per weeks while still living in the country of their choice.
Making It Possible: Mobility Enablers
Several factors explain why moving jobs to people is becoming more relevant. All these factors interact reinforce each other.
- Generational changes imply changes in mentalities. As discussed in the first dilemma, millennials are more mobile than their predecessors but also have high expectations and preferences in terms of how and where they want to live.
- Changing work arrangements. New models including working from home and the rise of the gig workers are progressively changing the way employees and companies plan to set up working arrangements.
- Technology is a major enabler of mobility. Its impact has sometimes been exaggerated in the past and the limitations of having to exchange emails, run conference calls, and send back and forth data between databases in different countries, have meant that the promise of distant virtual working were not fully realized. The advent of cloud computing, collaborative tools, and real time reporting dashboards is changing this.
- Mobility policies have been evolving. Companies have begun segmentation their policies and introduce more flexibility. The traditional boundaries between expatriates and locals and between traditional long-term assignments and other types of moves are falling down.
The Limits: Barriers to Moving Jobs
The obvious first limit is that not all jobs are movable. Depending on the industry sector and specific requirements of each company, the number of jobs that are truly movable will differ. A more realistic objective is not to totally replace employee mobility by job mobility but to have the possibility of moving some jobs to employees as an additional and complementary option.
From a practical perspective, organizations might not have the right processes in place to manage this new type of mobility. A range of issues about reporting lines, HR local support, and payroll arrangements could complicate the moves. Planning career development and next steps can also be tricky – who is following the assignees? How to make employees mobile again once they have settled in the location of their choice? When companies make mobility a pre-condition for a specific career path, offering too much flexibility to the employees might not be a desirable option.
Tax, compliance, and immigration considerations can present significant barriers and even risks for the company. If the new forms of mobility fall under the radar, the risk of employees to triggering unforeseen tax liability or being non-compliant from an immigrant perspective is significant. The fact that a move is triggered by the employee or provision in policies indicating that employees are required to be tax and immigration compliant doesn’t fully exonerate the company from its responsivities and from liabilities. Personal data protection regulation preventing data transfer across borders is also an issue sometimes underestimated by companies.
Another barrier can also simply be that the company has no existing operations and no desire to have a permanent establishment in the location where the assignee wants to be based. In some case, having the employees as freelancers can help solve this problem but the other option brings a whole new set of questions (this is the fourth dilemma in this series: expatriate gig workers).
How to foster teamwork and an inclusive corporate culture when assignees are not based where the company’s main operations are? We can learn lessons from the experience of working from home. While this can increase the satisfaction of employees, some companies are concerned that it could damage company culture and teamwork. The employees themselves can feel isolated or be concerned that they are judged as less productive by their manager. The debate about working from home is not settled and we are likely to see the same type of debate about allowing employees more flexibility to work from the country of their choice.
While assignees might be doing part of their work from the country of their choice, they might still have to commute or frequently fly to the destination when the company is operating. Not being physically present on the ground for an extended period of time can limit social and professional integration in the location where specific tasks have to be performed. The risk for assignees is to be perpetual outsiders.
Cost saving is not automatic: allowing assignees to live and perform their job in high-cost countries might result in additional costs. Reducing expatriate packages in exchange for giving the employee more flexibility might not always offset these additional costs.
Job Mobility Versus Employee Mobility: Resolving the Dilemma
Here are tips and best practices to assess your readiness to move individual jobs to people and implement it:
- Reflect on your company culture and to what extent new form of mobility would fit in. Looking at the current views on working from home is also a good start and some lessons could be inferred from it to manage new forms of mobility and new working arrangements.
- Assess your talent pool, its degree of diversity and the prevalence of millennials in it. Who would request and benefit from new forms of mobility within that talent pool?
- Assess the mobility of your jobs across taking into account several dimensions including the importance of a link to a specific geography, time needed on the ground, technical constraints and work practices, integration with local teams, and cultural issues. Determine to what extent commuters, frequent flyers, or virtual assignees could fulfil these jobs.
- Evaluate constraints and issues in the specific locations where the moves could hypothetically take place, paying a special attention to visas, contract, tax, and cost issues.
- If moving a job to people is an option for you – define precisely when this would be accepted and what the decision process would be.
- Moving jobs to people could mean combining different types of assignment: for example, starting with a short-term or extended business trip to the destination where the task has to be performed and follow up with virtual mobility. In other words, allowing employees to build up a relationship with their peers in the host location (avoiding problems linked to the lack of connection) and only then allow these employees to work remotely.
- Solutions such as commuting can be seen as a workable compromise when too much flexibility would undermine business objectives and policy consistency. However, such solutions should be limited in time as it could become costly for the company and damaging for the family life of the employee.
- Do not underestimate cultural issues: remote virtual teams need cultural training as much as assignees relocated to a host location.
Conclusion: The Concept of Global Mobility Is Changing and Companies Need to Find Their Own Definition
Moving jobs to people is not going to fully replace traditional mobility, but it is one more tool in the growing arsenal that companies need to deploy to manage employee mobility. Companies will need an answer to this dilemma based on their own specific philosophy and business requirements. The next dilemma will then be how to set up and track new types of assignments that were traditionally not managed or tracked by mobility and HR teams.
Contact the author: Olivier Meier
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