A practical path to care flex approaches, part 2 Olivier Meier, Mercer Alain Verstandig, NetExpat Des McKell, NetExpat A successful global mobility program needs to work well for both the assignees and the company. But implementing an infallible assignment policy that’s both flexible and defined enough to serve as the foundation for any mobility scenario is a challenge — for even the most evolved global mobility programs. Recent data show that developing flexible international mobility policies continues to be a challenge for mobility teams. Reconciling compliance constraints, business requirements, and the aspirations of employees and management is leading organizations to explore more meaningful forms of flexibility — new “care flex” approaches. In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the limits of traditional flexibility models. In Part 2, we explore integrating care flex approaches into mobility policy and provide examples. A step-by-step process Setting the minimum: Broadening duty of care The first step in a traditional core flex approach is defining the minimum level of support that should be provided to employees. This minimum is driven by compliance considerations (legal, risk and safety issues). But the definition of “duty of care” needs to be broadened to cover all aspects of employee and family well-being: physical and health safety, cultural safety, mental well-being and social well-being. More than 70% of failed relocations/assignments are directly linked to the poor well-being and unhappiness of the relocated partner or family. (NetExpat, Relocating Partner Survey 2019–2021, 2021.) Employees shouldn’t have the option of discarding benefits and support if this could put them at risk in the short or long term. In addition to being the right thing to do, it’s important to remember that companies cannot give up their duty-of-care responsibilities and that they will be accountable — in many cases, even if employees make a voluntary choice. A link must be made with hardship locations. The same degree of flexibility might not be achieved in a dangerous location as in a safe one; for example, choice and location of accommodation. With a lump sum, employees might be tempted to save and put themselves at risk. Defining the experience: From employee satisfaction to the broader well-being of the entire family The “Good Work Framework,” promoted by the World Economic Forum with Mercer’s support, reinforces the need to develop more purposeful forms of mobility (World Economic Forum, “The Good Work Framework,” 2022.) Types of mobility that are driven not just by short-term business imperatives but by the long-term well-being of the employee, the family and the communities in the receiving host countries. Health isn’t just the basics about diseases but also mental well-being. Social well-being is about the connection or integration of the family through culture, school, spouse work and financial safety. Family experience is a central pillar of an employee’s overall assignment experience. It has become more important due to the rise in dual incomes and new types of assignments. Several transformative forces are putting the spotlight on family experience, including: The impact of the pandemic: In many households, the pandemic has changed the dynamic among family members. Bonding is often stronger, for example. When employees are asked why they want to work remotely, a top answer is that “something changed in the dynamic of my family.” Appreciation of family life has grown, while the need for business travel and the importance of loyalty to a company is starting to be questioned. The role of the partner, from involvement to shared decision-making: A partner’s situation is a key reason for refusing an assignment. When asked about the partner's involvement in deciding to take an assignment, the clear trend seen across all cultures and age groups is that the partner’s personal development is a significant part of the discussion. Making the move with their partners was of considerable importance to 97% of respondents to the 2019–2021 NetExpat Relocating Partner Survey. Companies should be more cognizant of shared decision-making instead of viewing the partner as merely being involved. The challenges of dual-earner couples: Statistics show that the number of dual-earner couples has been increasing steadily. The figures are even higher for millennials, 90% of whom have a working partner. Consequently, families are grappling with whether they’re willing to reduce family income by moving abroad. Care policy items to foster a better employee experience Spouse support — working and non-working assistance options (inclusivity) Social support group Mental health benefits Health — prevention measures Minimum living wages and financial well-being education Ensuring relevance We hear a lot of buzz about the alleged preferences of the new generation and different employee groups. In practice, companies cannot blindly follow these high-level trends and need a better understanding of their own employee groups — bearing in mind that these preferences might vary over time and by geography. Defining personas representing the most important groups in the mobile workforce is the first step toward creating a better mobility experience for all employees. The concept of a “persona” refers to a typical individual representing a segment of the employee population. Each persona has a specific background, unique requirements and expectations that might need to be addressed in the mobility policy. The objective is not to create more policies or seek to create something new for every single persona. It’s to evaluate how a flexible policy can address the needs of a diverse mobile population. Processes Roles and responsibilities Define who should be the decision maker for the flexible items in the policy (the mobility team, local HR or the assignee). Historically, flexibility was often used to allow local management to adapt policy items to local constraints or to facilitate administration. This approach can easily lead to inequity across a program and organization. In a care flex approach, the decision process needs to be more balanced and provide choices for employees as well. Foster collaboration between teams to enable greater flexibility (some decisions and processes might not fall under the purview of the mobility team alone). Making informed choices Make sure employees can make informed choices through financial and tax education. Involve local HR teams and management in the process so they understand the implications (and value) of addressing duty of care and know how to reconcile pure compliance and employee experience. Mapping the interactions The employee experience is the sum of all interactions during the different stages of assignments. Companies should map these different stages and define what types of interactions should take place and how they should be delivered (human contact — in-house, external providers, automation, etc.). Safeguards Determine what safeguards against excessive flexibility should remain in place and what practical barriers may or may not be addressed given the current resources. Flexibility doesn’t have the same implications for all assignments; consider limiting flexibility for moves to hardship locations and other select types of moves. Measuring success Any new approaches need to be monitored through well-defined metrics that will help measure success. Key metrics include: Awareness survey results to check that all stakeholders (including assignees, line management and local HR) know about the different options available Adoption rates of the various benefits provided Satisfaction rates from the different stakeholders covering different dimensions (usefulness, ease of delivery, etc.) over a longer period (pre-assignment, during the assignment and post-assignment) Monitoring talent retention and assignment acceptance/rejection figures over the medium term for groups benefiting from care flex approaches The exact return on investment of family and partner support is hard to measure, but there are several positive indicators, one being that 62% of mobility managers report that family support has helped to sell assignments. (NetExpat data.) Also, 33% report seeing improvement in job performance throughout assignments — an emerging indicator of the support’s continuing benefit. Upon repatriation, the impact of support provided is still visible. Many employees who didn’t receive support harbor the strong belief that their employers derailed their partners’ careers. They feel resentment due to a perceived loss of income. On the other hand, assignees whose families received support are more likely to have a positive view of their experience, thus reinforcing the employer’s brand image. Building a care flex narrative HR professionals may spend months crafting competitive mobility policies only to see them shot down by stakeholders or not applied consistently, while similar policy changes in other companies may receive strong support and acceptance among management and employees. Why would similar policies fail in one organization and succeed in another? Mastering the narrative is about linking the elements of the care flex approach with business objectives, communication channels and company positioning. The narrative provides context behind the policies communicated to internal stakeholders and assignees. The master narrative brings a sense of causality, purpose and alignment. This narrative can be tailored for different audiences and purposes: Elevator pitch: A two-minute description of what care flex is about Introduction for policies: A longer version of the narrative, often involving the point of view of top management, which articulates the vision clearly Success stories: A version of the narrative with examples involving role models/successful assignees Elements of language (words to use, principles): The keywords, terminology and principles that should be communicated consistently by all stakeholders (what are you promising explicitly and implicitly?); words matter and trigger expectations Controlling the master narrative isn’t a mere communication fad, it’s a tool designed to achieve successful implementation of mobility programs. Policy changes can be shot down by a counter-narrative — a negative message about the new policy that has spread in the company and ultimately makes the implementation of changes difficult. Conflicting narratives crystallize around cost, value, alleged perceptions and mobility trends. They can block change. However, a well-structured, positive narrative can support changes and new policies and practices — and ultimately reinforce mobility branding. Some of the largest companies attract mobile talent not because they pay more but because they give a sense of reassurance about the level of support they provide for the whole family. (“They take care of everything.”). They don’t spend more money, but they have well-established practices backed by a strong narrative. It’s more than just basic communication. It’s about having a structured story repeated over time and validated by consistent practices. Post-implementation: Closing the say–do gap The say–do gap leads to challenges to policies and could produce negative buzz that would threaten the whole approach: “I didn’t receive the support I was promised” (assignees); “We spent a lot of money on the assignments and the people resigned shortly after. Do we really need so many international assignments?” (management). The gap can be the result of several things: The narrative isn’t adapted to the realities of talent mobility in the company. For example, the HR team struggles to deliver the experience promised in the policy due to lack of time and resources. There’s a lack of global consistency (or “congruence” as marketing would say) in the implementation or communication. The implementation of the mobility principles is patchy. HQ might be aware of these principles, but local management and regional hubs might say something different. The organization claims to provide extensive support to assignees and their families, but, in practice, it’s difficult for assignees to find information or a clear point of contact. There are conflicting and changing priorities. Business changes can affect mobility practice and force management to discard some of their original promises. A new, sweeping cost-cutting exercise or reorganization means some mobility provisions aren’t fully implemented. A narrative should be positive, but it’s not about telling employees they’ll have a perfect experience on assignments. Closing the say–do gap is about improving management practices and being consistent but also about adapting the narrative to the realities of mobility. Case studies 1: From cash to service Background information The company’s global mobility policy had been in place for several years; however, recent employee surveys suggested the need for policy improvements on partner support to better align with the organization’s corporate values and, in particular, with a larger focus on improving employee experience. The Global Mobility team was entrusted with the mission of reviewing the elements of the company’s global mobility policy. The objective was to offer services that would actively contribute to the well-being and happiness of the relocating partner and indirectly to the transferee. In short, shifting from “we pay” to “we care.” Global Mobility’s objectives for the new program were defined as: Enriched employee and family experience, including a new people-centric policy for relocating family needs Improved diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) approach, especially for female international talent Significant cost savings for the company The company’s former family-support global mobility policy was designed to be simple and consistent and to minimize exceptions. A lump-sum amount was transferred to the employee in lieu of any form of service and was offered to all eligible mobile employees. It was intended to cover any wishes the relocating spouse or partner might have and give them full autonomy, with a minimum of administrative burden. This policy created frustrations, and negative comments emerged from both internal employee surveys and the Global Mobility function. Employees didn’t perceive much value or contribution to the caring culture of the company, and the actual ROI of the total cost was challenged. Outcome A new partner support program emerged, shifting the cash approach toward one of support supplemented by some cash to cover different family needs. A new people-centric approach, customized to each partner’s needs, differentiated between partners wishing to work or not and included regular well-being check-ups, a community support system and the latest technology to support partners. The new support format differentiated depending on the partner’s needs. The company replaced a consistent but sometimes unfair approach of giving exactly the same allowance to all partners with more equitable support based on the partner’s needs, which aligned with the “Equitable” pillar of the company’s DEI approach. Additionally, the new format now supports a wider range of employee partners, without distinguishing between gender, sexual orientation, legal union status, etc. The new program led to increased usage of the available benefits, higher employee satisfaction and a 35% overall reduction the cost of the program. Additional considerations The company’s improvement project has also demonstrated that Global Mobility is able to drive an internal workforce improvement initiative, with a direct impact on its international talent pool. A better partner-support system has increased the number of potential female international talent candidates willing to move abroad, which has a direct impact on DEI objectives. It has also helped talent attraction teams offer more appealing benefits in their hunt for international local hires. With an image as a more family-friendly employer, the company is stimulating a more diverse workforce to contemplate the wonders of global mobility in a more serene way. The overall positive impact on the company’s Global Mobility team is also worth mentioning as their members regained a sense of purpose and value from what they provide to international employees compared to when cash was the sole form of support provided. 2: From choice paralysis to a best-in-class care flex program Background information A large German company on the DAX stock exchange had begun offering partner support programs several years ago. In the early phase, the company insisted on a rather complex model, with several decision points for the partners, including the option to step out at different phases, with some cash-out options. This was later changed to a leaner version with two modules. A partner-support consultation, which provided orientation on how to make the best use of their time abroad, was offered as a core benefit, and a follow-up program regarding job search, career alternatives or integration support was offered as a flexible benefit. After the new program was implemented, the company discovered that the utilization rate of the first module was 80% but dropped to below 20% for the second module — as predicted by the provider. So what happened? After completing the first module, partners had to decide how to use their budgets at a stage when they were still quite uncertain about what they could do abroad. In other words, the partners were often paralyzed by choice (FOBO syndrome: fear of better options) and hence postponed their decisions so that, in the end, they often didn’t use their budgets at all. When partner support is offered as a flexible benefit, it prevents guidance in a phase of low decision capability. In other words, there is limited family experience and a fear of making the wrong decision. And finally, a budget instead of support leaves the partner in isolation. In essence, it says to the partner, “Here’s the money. Good luck. We don’t want to hear about you anymore.” In other words, the company isn’t fulfilling its obligations regarding duty of care. Outcome After a people change in the Global Mobility function, with a new focus on partner support, the situation was discussed intensively with the service provider and with the respective relocation management company. During the discussion, the company clearly expressed that it would like to see a model with a more caring approach (from “we pay” to “we care”), combined with a better family experience. As a result, three significant changes were implemented: The company discontinued the two partial modules and instead offered only one complete partner-support module — without the need for any additional decisions. This new and complete partner-support program was offered as a core benefit, avoiding the need for partners to make difficult decisions about the use of their budgets. The flex budget was kept untouched, giving partners the freedom to decide later between additional benefits that could also relate to partner support. After completing the partner-support program, partners now have a clearer idea about the future and options available in the host country at a time when they are better able to make decisions. This new model was implemented at the beginning of 2023, and the percentage of partners who benefit from the partner-support program went up from below 20% to over 90%. Initial reactions from the partner community show they are very happy with this new approach. A positive side effect is that the increased utilization rate comes with a significantly higher number of happy partners who have secured jobs abroad. The program is now recognized as successful in the company and contributes to positive HR branding.