By Olivier Meier, Mercer
Talent mobility buzzwords always come in a mixed bag, ranging from highly relevant ideas that help us look at management practices in a different way to corporate neologisms that leave practitioners utterly puzzled. In any case, we should pay attention because these buzzwords do tell us something about current global trends, companies’ concerns, and how talent mobility is evolving.
As the world emerges from the crisis, will organizations go back to normal, or will they embrace the new international HR practices deployed as stop-gap measures during the pandemic? Pressure is mounting to introduce more sustainable practices and to understand the requirements of the different stakeholders. Introducing new changes might be a challenge at a time when employees are facing exhaustion. A new debate about working from anywhere has emerged, but many are confused by what it means. Could a compromise emerge in the form hybrid working? Last but not least, the question of equity is coming to the forefront, but what does equity really mean in the context of mobile talent?
Here is a selection of 2021 buzzwords and insight about what we can learn from them about current and future mobility practices.
The rise of stakeholder capitalism
Executives are increasingly concerned about how their organizations are perceived on everything from welfare practices to progress on climate and ethical practices. The pressure from management is trickling down to HR and mobility teams. We are seeing the rise of stakeholder capitalism: organizations need to create value not only for shareholders but also for consumers, employees, and local communities.
The company’s reputation should not be the only driver: the value of sustainability for all stakeholders at all levels of the organization should be well understood and communicated. International HR teams will need to review talent mobility practices to take into account sustainability factors. Environmental issues, the wellbeing and inclusion of the mobile workforce, and how mobility can contribute to the resilience of the business will need to be assessed. Regular reporting about progress on these factors will increasingly be expected.
ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) analyses
Striving for virtue
Sustainability objectives should be turned into quantifiable values and KPIs that would allow for regular reporting that can be communicated to top management. Running an ESG analysis focused on mobility is a way to structure the debate and avoid superficial discussions about sustainability. The sustainability concept and ESG analyses are often used by investors, but they are becoming relevant for all parts of the business.
Increasing awareness and providing training on ESG issues is usually a first step. Education programs should not be purely prescriptive and need to help line management and assignees reflect on possible initiatives to limit the environmental impact of mobility or use assignments to foster ESG goals in the host locations. Mobile employees can play a role as ambassadors spreading best practices.
Environmental considerations should be taken into account when working with external vendors. Procurement guidelines might already be in place at corporate level, but they could be complemented by questions focused on mobility issues.
Information about the travel/relocation carbon footprint and how to compensate for it should be captured. This information might already be available (e.g. as part of the business travel process), but it should be consolidated and reported as part of the mobility activities.
Retention is not driven purely by pay. Organizations need to put more emphasis on social issues and the needs of the whole person (e.g. community, purpose, job satisfaction) and also take into account the needs of families.
New mobility models require new forms of social interaction, inclusion, and employee support. The question of the productivity of the remote workforce will partly depend on the companies’ ability to foster remote workers wellbeing. Training the local workforce should be part of the assignees’ performance indicators. Opportunities for employees to partner with local communities and do charitable work could also be encouraged.
Sustainable practices should also aim at re-energizing the mobile workforce.
Finding a second wind
The 2021 Mercer Talent Trends study found that one of the biggest risks for HR in 2021 is employee fatigue. This should not come as a surprise after the shock of the pandemic. However, this trend is not new, and we need to look deeper at the roots of employee demotivation. Employee fatigue stems from many reasons including ones linked to personal circumstances that are beyond the concern of companies. Others, however, stem from the work environment.
During the pandemic, employees had to face not only health concerns but also suffering from stress and social isolation. International assignees who were forced to repatriate at short notice or have been separated from their families have been particularly affected. The economic crisis is adding potential financial worries. The pandemic may also have been a time for employees to reflect on new priorities; they might be less willing to go on expatriation or might request different forms of assignments.
Managing repatriation and the subsequent careers of international assignees is a perennial issue for companies. Assignee retention rates are misleading. Companies cannot always guarantee returning assignees jobs that would leverage their newly acquired skills and experience. The assignees themselves might have lost their business network and be out of touch with recent business developments in their home country. They may suffer from reverse culture shock if they have been abroad for a long period of time. Demotivated and underperforming former expatriates staying in the same companies are putting their careers at risk and constitute a burden for their employers.
Even before the pandemic, many changes were in the pipeline in most organizations: upskilling/reskilling programs, adoption of new technologies, re-organization to optimize costs, etc. Employee exhaustion in the face of constant changes was already mentioned as a key concern Mercer’s 2019 Talent Trends study. We should also not underestimate the propensity of new managers of suggesting change for the sake of it, just to leave their mark or justify their new roles, and out of “short-termism” (frequent contradicting changes with no sense of direction). Change may be good but HR teams, but it needs to ensure that all employees are on board and that the pace is manageable.
Flexible and remote working have helped ensure business continuity and offered new possibilities for employees. In 2021, it remains at the top of the HR agenda, and mobility managers are exploring ways to allow different forms of remote working and virtual assignments. However, what constitutes a positive change for some employees can also become a nightmare for others. Single parents forced to juggle childcare and working from home or remote workers struggling with the technologies and facing doubts from their managers about their productivity are exposed to additional stress.
The stress is even greater when there is a lack of clarity about the types of international remote working that are allowed.
Working from anywhere
Lost in translation?
The lack of clear definitions is adding to the confusion. CEOs have been making vague promises about the possibility of “working from anywhere” without providing much detail. At the same time, employees who have been working remotely for months increasingly expect more flexible working arrangements. In the face of this rapid evolution, HR professionals sometimes struggle to keep pace with the remote working debate. The risk of misunderstanding between stakeholders is significant.
International remote working refers to employees who work virtually from another country. International remote working is, of course, just an extension of remote working, but it may come with a host of compliance and practical complications. International remote working is part of the concept of managing a globally distributed workforce composed of local employees, expatriates, and remote workers. Going forward, many companies would like to maintain the option of allowing employees to work remotely internationally but only for well-defined scenarios. Having employees working across borders under the radar is major concern for HR. International remote working is still very much a work in progress.
Another term for international remote working, “virtual assignment,” conveys more specifically the idea that traditional forms of long- or short-term relocations could be replaced by assignments performed remotely. The focus is on having a structured assignment option with clear goals and fixed duration, as opposed to simply providing more flexibility to employees. Relying on virtual assignments could lower costs for companies and open up new opportunities to work internationally for employees who cannot relocate to another country. There are, however, many practical barriers to virtual assignments in terms of job setup and compliance, and virtual assignments are unlikely to replace all traditional assignments. They will nevertheless represent one more option for companies in their arsenal of international HR policies.
Companies sometimes try to combine traditional expatriate with international remote working to leverage the best aspects of both types of assignments.
Is it the new flexible?
At a domestic level, hybrid working is often viewed as a pragmatic compromise between working full time at home or in an office. Hybrid working could also be about combining a traditional assignment with a period of remote working. Some examples include a short period of remote working during a traditional long-term assignment or having a short-term assignment to build relationships with local peers followed by remote work. This combination may gain popularity as compliance issues may limit the duration or feasibility of virtual assignments in many situations.
The concept of hybrid is also relevant for talent management issues: digitalization is prompting companies to look for new talent profiles and more specifically for "hybrid profiles." The characteristic of a hybrid profile is that it combines the skills and knowledge of different lines of business or functions. It could be, for example business managers with advanced tech skills and who can work closely with the IT department, finance and HR managers who can rely on analytics to provide strategic input, or HR team members who can use marketing techniques to boost employer branding.
Mobility has a role to play to help develop these new forms of hybrid talent. High profile employees will be required, through international developmental moves as well as lateral moves between functions, to upskill or reskill and match the requirements of the future of work.
The good, the bad, and the equitable
The rise of local plus approaches, increased personalization, and flexible packages are some the trends that have attracted attention over the past few years. The notion of finding a perfect compensation approach that suits all assignment types has persisted, however, but it is unrealistic. The compensation challenge is not about the buzz and identifying good or bad practices. It’s about defining a robust logic for all types of moves that preserves equity between employees. What should be the reference used to set salary for long-term, short-term, and international remote workers? Is it acceptable to pay mobile employees more than their local peers? In many cases, the logic will be based on the question: “Are we creating additional costs for the employees that they would normally not have and need to be compensated, or would these costs been incurred even in the absence of assignment?”
Pay equity is also a question of gender parity and more generally of diversity and inclusion. The objective of ensuring pay equity is normally tackled at a broader level and is not the responsibility of mobility teams. However mobility programs can indirectly reduce or increase pay gaps over the long-term in the absence of career equity. The objective is not just to achieve pay parity and increase the number of women and members of minority groups in the mobile workforce. It’s about providing the right opportunities over the long-term.
Not all assignments provide the same benefits in terms of career progression. In some cases, the overall diversity of the mobile population in an organization is good, but women and minorities are underrepresented in key assignment locations. This is especially the case when management assume that they are not suitable candidates for “difficult” locations.
Only time will tell if the buzz around equity, sustainability, and working from anywhere will translate into effective practices going forward. But it will be hard for organizations to ignore the debates born out of the crisis and the shift in employees’ expectations.