Expert Interview Series: Sofie Jensen Sofie Jensen is head of Labour Relations and Mobility at COWI. Ms. Jensen has an impressive and lengthy track record in the global mobility realm, and the HR realm. Her work, educational, and life experiences have allowed her to lead a large global mobility team successfully. Sofie, can we start by having you explain a little bit about your role in the company? Ms. Jensen: I've been with COWI for a little over two and a half years. I started as a mobility consultant and I've had a sky-rocketing career. I became the head of mobility after six months, and then this spring I was promoted to head of Labor Relations and Mobility. We had a restructuring of our HR organization where the Danish functions merged with the global functions. Global mobility was obviously a global function servicing all of our countries or all our entities across the globe. Then we had the local Danish labor relation function, and they were then merged. So, overall, my responsibilities are broad. For the Danish part, I'm responsible for heading the labor relations department, and we advise on everything that must do with recruitment, employment, termination of employees, legislation and everything else typically HR. I'm also responsible for our global mobility program. We service all employees transferred across borders. So, there can be someone going from Denmark to Tanzania, Sweden to India, Lithuania to Canada, and so on. My team handles all transferees. How did you end up working on mobility issues? Ms. Jensen: I finished law school in Denmark in 2010, and straight after I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. My boyfriend at the time worked for another large Danish company, and he was expatriated. So I moved to North Carolina as a trailing spouse, and I think being a trailing spouse developed my interest in mobility. In law school, I always thought I would work with compensation, torts, and so on. But then when we returned from North Carolina, I had a friend who worked at the University of Copenhagen in the HR department, and she referred me to her manager, and I got a job. I would say the job market in Denmark at the time was rough. So I applied for a few jobs within torts and compensation, but then this opportunity arose, and I grabbed it. Your experience as a spouse probably helps you empathize with your assignees. Ms. Jensen:Actually, I think it's a very big strength for me personally, and also me working with the expats, and it has been, in all my jobs. It was the trigger for my employment when the University of Copenhagen hired me as a legal consultant in their mobility department. After a year, I focused more on the international aspects of employment law. I took a job with PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) in Copenhagen. I worked as a mobility tax consultant there. Although they said that I had an interesting resume, it was that I had been a relocated spouse that got me the job over the other applicants. The spouse’s experience is a big part of whether an assignment is a success. Ms. Jensen: When I was a spouse myself, I was a little disappointed with the assistance we received. The debrief from the Copenhagen office was excellent. They explained to us that at first we would be excited and even depressed, but we'd get used to it - the expat curve, or cultural curve, so to speak. But they also told me that with my impressive resume and my high education from here in Copenhagen that getting a job wouldn't be a problem all, and that I should just contact local HR when we arrived. But local HR couldn't help me at all. I struggled for the first three months. Now I've taken that frustration and put it into something good so that, when we brief our employees before they leave, we emphasize that it can be tough, especially for the spouse. We've received excellent feedback on that. Tell us more about the expat curve you have just mentioned. Ms. Jensen: It is sort of like an 'S' that's laying down. You start off high. Everything is fantastic. When you arrive, everything is new and exciting. Then you suddenly realize that your husband will work every day and you're at home. You miss your friends, you miss your job, and then everything gets a little low. Then you settle in. You might get a job, or get enrolled in school or classes; you make friends. Then the curve goes up again. Then you stay high until you realize that you're leaving. Then it goes down again because you have to say goodbye, to terminate your lease, sell your car, say goodbye to your friends, and so on. And then, when you come home, it can be rough. Some people say that returning home is harder than leaving. We focus on that, especially for our younger expatriated engineers. We also have older employees who have probably been expatriated ten times. We don't go into that much for them, but for our junior engineers, we focus on that. Do you have any advice for other HR professionals who want to pursue a career in mobility or international HR? Ms. Jensen: That's a good question. I think having a legal background has been a huge help for me. If you're already in HR and have no legal background, it might be complex. With the mobility area changing, at least from what I understand, the previous form of mobility work and the softer side of mobility and HR is shifting. In my team, now when we're hiring new people, we're trying to hire only lawyers, just because it's getting so complicated, to be honest. My first tip would be to work for an international company and have an interest in working internationally. That's the first step. And the law would come after that. Ms. Jensen: You can learn it step by step, but it's difficult because international mobility is not a degree you can pursue in a university. It's something that's self-taught. What’s driving the complications or technicalities? Ms. Jensen: We have offices in 20 countries. I would say the complications are local legislation for employment law. For countries established on either commonwealth or civil law, it's fairly easy to see at least a line or the same legislation or clauses in their labor laws. But we also operate in countries that differ completely from what we know. So keeping ourselves up-to-date on local legislation - which can be anything from work hours, to maternity leave, to holiday requirements, to local statutory requirements that could be the end of service gratuity, and so on – is one thing. Then, tax, social security, and insurance issues must be taken into account. We are focusing on the new changes to all the double taxation treaties. We now have to consider not only where we're working and for how long, but also what we're doing because that might trigger different tax issues. What about people already in mobility but would like to take the next steps in their career? Do you have any advice for them? Ms. Jensen: It's a good idea to have a specialty. We just hired a new mobility consultant who specializes in international pensions and insurance, because we saw a gap in our pool of knowledge for this specific area. You can also specialize in a region or country. We also have a lady on our team who specializes in India and Africa, so she has all the hands-on information about immigration and tax law in India and Eastern African countries. So specialty would be my best suggestion. You talked a little about the company and what it does. Can you tell more about COWI? Ms. Jensen: COWI is an engineering consultancy company founded in Copenhagen in 1931. We have 6,700 employees, of which 2,400 are in Denmark. We have close to 1,000 in Norway, 1,000 in Sweden, 350 in North America, and the rest scattered across the globe. We have a large shared service center in India with approximately 400 people, I believe. We offer 360 degree solutions within engineering consultancy but our main areas of expertise are in infrastructure, so consult/draw/calculate for roads, airports, railways, tunnels, and bridges. We're gaining market shares on marine structures as well, so off-shore windmill foundations, and so on. We create the marine structures for that. We have approximately 150 expats in 32 locations. We have offices in 20 countries. Anything exceeding 20 countries with offices would be field work or on projects. We're always working on approximately 15,000 projects, and they can be scattered within all our areas of expertise and all over the world. That is amazing. Just the scope of that is incredible. Ms. Jensen: That's also one thing that makes our mobility function interesting. We have a very flexible policy because, for most of our expatriations, the salary or benefits are defined by the project economy. We see projects in developing countries in Eastern Africa where we're paid by the European Central Bank. That's not a project where we make a lot of money, so the packages for these assignees are determined by that. But we also have large projects where we are building a bridge and tunnel in Hong Kong. The mobility programs for these expats to Hong Kong are more generous. What are the objectives of the mobility program at your company? Ms. Jensen: When I started with COWI, we had a mobility policy from 2010, and that was just copied and pasted from some other large Danish company. It wasn't very individualized to the needs of COWI. The first thing I did when I started here was to get into dialogue with all our stakeholders and managers asking, "Why do we want mobility?" What's quite interesting is that on January 1st we launched our 2020 strategy, and one of the focus areas are mobility. The objective is to move employees across borders quickly and at a reasonable cost. Going on assignment for COWI, you don't get rich doing that. You mentioned talking about potential policy changes with stakeholders. How does one do that? Ms. Jensen: My feeling from the previous policy was there was no buy-in to it. It was a global policy, but it only applied to Danish expats. None of our other entities used the policy. Some called it the Danish policy instead of the global policy. It was also very much a policy created and implemented by HR. I can't say what works for other businesses, but at least in our business at COWI, we need the business and the managers to be involved. There are important stakeholders, and there are also our customers. Before we drafted anything, I conducted 50 interviews with our main customers and important stakeholders in all our entities just to get their feedback: Did they even know we had a policy? Did they know the content of the policy? What did they want in the policy? Without exception, all 50 used the word 'flexibility.' Our previous policy wasn't very flexible, so that might be one reason why some of our entities weren't using the policy because it was just too rigid, to be honest. Involving stakeholders was one of the most important parts of the change process for me. But the implementation was easy because they had been involved in the development phase. Can you tell me a little bit more about what a flexible mobility policy involves and how it works? Ms. Jensen: Flexible policies can be flexible in two ways. Either it's flexible for the employee, which is sometimes referred to as the 'cafeteria model' where you choose, but it can also be flexible from the manager's point of view. That is the approach we've chosen. As I mentioned before, the final compensation package for the expatriate is designed for the specific person by the sending and receiving manager in collaboration with a mobility consultant. We use the term 'policy' for our policy document, but it is, in fact, more of a guideline. We have recommendations for what type of duration, salary, benefits, and so on, that we would offer the specific person going on this specific assignment. But if the manager wants to do something different, we usually say "Ok, if he wants to pay for it then it is up to him, therefore he can decide. That's the flexibility. Obviously, we have a policy of 21 pages. We have a manager's guide with 20 pages as well where all the combinations of assignment types are defined. We have discovered that, since we offer this much flexibility, we have managers who have sent no one on an assignment before. They need guidance. Most of our assignees are on net salary agreements, and we offer calculations using cost of living and mobility premiums to all managers. Whether or not they offer the employee the number at the bottom of our calculation is up to the manager. Overall, we see that in 50% of cases the calculation is applied, and that's what the managers offer the employees. But the managers can increase the salary or decrease the benefit level, and so on. We have made a few benefits mandatory, and that's because we want to ensure that we are responsible employers. All expats are offered medical insurance, immigration assistance, and tax assistance. These are non-negotiable, but, besides that, everything is negotiable. Is there a name for the approach you take to compensate international assignees? Ms. Jensen: I don't think so. Peers in other companies ask me if I have a home approach or a host approach. We do both. We usually determine it by host location. Expatriates going to Africa and India are usually on the home balance sheet approach with a net salary. For those moving to other Western countries or the U.S. or the U.K., it's more local contracts and local terms and conditions. Do you localize employees who are no longer on assignment, or who are on a longer assignment? Ms. Jensen: No, I haven't seen that yet. Is there a process for that? Ms. Jensen: We didn't include it in the policy because we haven't seen it yet. There might be a process where at some point we decide that the person is no longer an expat, but I can't think of anyone in our population. What have been the greatest barriers or the greatest challenges you've faced in your role to date? Ms. Jensen: Our greatest challenge is that COWI is growing primarily by acquisitions. Whenever we purchase a new company, they have their own staff manuals, their own per diem rules, and they have their own mobility policies. Getting the company aligned and everybody using the same policy and guidelines is our greatest challenge. Is there anything you do that helps you overcome those challenges? What kind of adjustments have you made to address those challenges? Ms. Jensen: We decided that the current policy only kicks in after six months. We see more short-term transfers or extended business trips compared to the previous classic long-term two and three-year expatriations. Because of the cultural differences, especially between North America, Denmark, and Asia, having a common policy for these short-term transfers, we learned is very difficult, especially at our company. It's almost impossible. All short-term transfers are handled locally by local rules. That helps a lot when we see larger populations. We just won a project in London where we're creating a tunnel under the River Thames. We'll create a short guideline for this specific population, and there will be business trips back and forth over the next five years. We'll offer this specific package. We've made arrangements with three specific hotels where we get special rates. So we'll make these small, specific policies for specific projects if we see a larger population going back and forth. Are there any trends in mobility, either within your company or in the market that you'd like to share? Ms. Jensen: As I just mentioned, we see the trend of the short-term transfers or extended business trips instead of these long-term, traditional expatriations. For COWI, it's both good and bad. In Denmark, we have a large focus on work-life balance. In most families both the husband and wife both work. So getting someone to move to, let's say Tanzania for three years is a challenge. Based on our profit margin, we can't offer large salary packages and make it a good business. Like I said, being expatriated from COWI doesn't make you rich, so for the wife to give up her job, it takes a lot. We see an increase in extended business trips , so they'll be in Tanzania for three weeks, and then home for three weeks, back to Tanzania for three weeks, and so on. That works out well. I see that in other companies, so that's a trend we see. Also, commuting is a big trend, where children are in school and you don't want to move them, the husband or wife will take a job in a different city or country and then commute every Monday and Thursday, and so on. We have a handful of those. How do you keep abreast of trends in mobility? Ms. Jensen: I am a member of the Mercer European policy forum where we meet twice a year, and also get newsletters and so on. I get input from the Mercer consultants, but also from like-minded people or those in the same position with other European companies. I'm also a member of different Danish networks, but I think it's very important to be a part of international networks. How do you work with Mercer and what are some of the benefits you've derived from this cooperation? Ms. Jensen: Working with Mercer is crucial for our work because I've only been in the mobility business for four-and-a-half years. Their expertise and knowledge are very important to us. We use the cost of living index for our salary calculations as guidelines for the managers. We also work with Mercer on the pricing of various items in host locations where we haven't been before. That's just for mobility. We've also done some salary benchmarks for COWI North America where Mercer has assisted. From a day-to-day ad-hoc perspective, they ensure that we deliver to our internal clients. On a personal note, I would say the inspiration that comes through the different networks in which I participate. What do you look for in a partner like Mercer? Ms. Jensen: I look for professionalism and international outreach. We use Mercer in our policy development and implementation. How often do you envision reviewing policy and making updates, or how often have you done it? Ms. Jensen: We launched January 1st of this year. The previous policy was from 2010. I think no policy can be up-to-date for six years. Our company and business change too much. We've decided to review our policy on an ongoing basis. We'll do an audit and an update in three years. What is the greatest challenge that someone in your role faces? Ms. Jensen: I would say having the strategic view on mobility on our shoulders. I always have to make sure that our policies are in line with our company strategies, and that our policies and work best support the company strategies. That, combined with being very operational and that we have a strong focus on compliance. In my role, juggling with having to be operational and keeping myself up-to-date on tax legislation in Tanzania, and at the same time having a helicopter perspective of "Where does COWI want to go?" "Why do we have a mobility strategy?" and so on. I think that's the hardest challenge. Is there an achievement in mobility that you're most proud of to date, either by you or the team? Ms. Jensen: The implementation of the new policy, which is 90% rolled out and accepted across our entities. I think that's a very big achievement. Another is that since we are in so many countries, we do not have HR on site in all our offices. In the fall of 2015, we made a contract audit for all of our African entities. That was a big achievement as we aligned with local legislation and market practice. We saw pretty interesting contracts hand-written on napkins and so on. So just issuing actual contracts to all African staff was satisfying. In which African countries are you involved? Ms. Jensen: In West Africa it's Ghana and Benin. In East Africa, we have offices in Tanzania, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, and Uganda. Do you travel a lot to the places you're working in, and, if so, does that help you in your role? Ms. Jensen: Yes, I've prioritized traveling. I traveled for the stakeholder interviewing and the policy roll-out. Last year we were in Africa for the contract audit. Visiting all the offices around the world and meeting face-to-face with your HR and finance colleagues and stakeholders makes a big difference. Our economy and budgets are under a lot of pressure. We try to do meetings on Skype for Business, but some tasks just can't be handled over the phone. I think it's a priority that we travel. We don't overdo it. There has to be a purpose. I've been to the offices in Zambia, , Dubai,Qatar, and ofcause the Scandinavian countires and I think that helps in my work today. When you shoot off an email, you know who's at the other end. You've met them or had lunch with them; it makes a difference. A funny story from Zambia: I was emailing a country manager and local attorney before going there, and sometimes I was a little frustrated that they wouldn't react to my emails promptly or at least within a day. When I went to Zambia, my first day in the office I noticed there was a large pile of newspapers on the reception desk, and I was thinking, newspapers! In actual paper! We don't do that in Denmark. It's all online. After an hour, the power went off, and everybody went to get a newspaper. And then I realized, now I get it. The power went off all the time, and the internet kept disconnecting, and suddenly everything just made sense. My coworkers here in Copenhagen were emailing me and sending me texts asking me why I'm not replying. I said we have no power or internet. After working with my colleagues in the African countries, I have a different level of tolerance. I've realized that just because they don't answer me within the hour that it's not because they don't want to, they might not be able to. I didn't think of it from that perspective, but it makes sense. What were the keys to success for the rollout of the policy? You mentioned that it was a big success. Ms. Jensen: We set up a few KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for ourselves. One was that we would see the policy in use in over six countries within six months. We thought that was an appropriate success criterion. We met that number. Sometimes you get a feeling that when you show up at headquarters, and you tell them they have to use the policy, they have to use these guidelines, they'll just smile and nod, and nothing will happen. The fact that our different entities are using the policies was an important success for us.