Four essential concepts to understand current mobility practices By Olivier Meier, Mercer The pandemic crisis threatens to disrupt the flow of talent globally, but it is also accelerating the pace of change in mobility management practices. Trends and approaches that were once dismissed as superficial or inapplicable are now dominating the HR agenda. Four essential concepts can help us understand current talent mobility practices. These concepts stem from the evolution of mobility practices, the role of HR as talent broker, as well as the rediscovery of the idea of moving jobs to people, and the growing acceptance of virtual mobility. Distributed workforces Traditional mobility management is based on a linear experience: moving an employee from location A to location B and bringing that person back after a set period. In reality organizations increasingly have to manage a distributed global workforce on an on-going basis — in other words, a workforce that is dispersed geographically, could be working from home or from an office, and will have different contractual statuses (home- or host-based, permanent move, or temporary assignment). Managing these changes requires a fresh mindset and a revised operating model. Instead of trying to fit assignees into predefined boxes corresponding to the purview of mobility teams, the objective is to manage a diverse workforce in a more fluid and integrated way. Managing traditional international mobility Managing a distributed global workforce Expatriate versus locals A mix of assignees, locally hired foreigners, third country/virtual assignees and locals with international responsibilities, working together Managing individual moves Managing an international talent network through talent brokering Clearly defined purview for mobility and HR teams — fixed teams manage pre-defined groups / categories of employees Mobility and HR as advisors for the company — internal gigs / ad-hoc temporary teams (“flash teams”) to manage specific groups of mobile employees and projects Mobility teams collaborating with career management, benefits teams, risk, compliance, and other HR teams Multidisciplinary teams Tracking moves On-going monitoring of the situation of employees Integrating assignees in the host location — managing culture shock and expatriation / repatriation transitions Fostering collaboration, team building, and addressing cultural issues in dispersed teams Global talent brokering Global talent brokering marks a return to the strategic objectives of mobility: addressing labor supply and demand imbalances, as well as dealing with urgent workforce challenges and skill shortages. Talent brokering is about matching talent between business units and geographies. Matching talent can involve different forms of mobility: international moves (traditional expatriate assignments, rotators, and short-term assignments) or but not always (local hired foreigners, remote working). Mobility can be across functions (lateral moves) or within the same business unit (vertical moves) as well as external (e.g. gig workers, temporary talent exchanges between organizations, peer talent pools). HR and mobility teams have an important role to play in the global talent brokering process. They remove the barriers to talent matching by assessing the feasibility of different types of mobility, ensuring compliance, containing costs, and improving employee experience. Instead of managing a relocation exercise in isolation from the wider business considerations, they are actively involved in the decision process designed to connect talent owners with business units having talent gaps or urgent needs. The talent brokering exercise will increasingly be about moving jobs to people. Moving jobs to people Companies have historically moved operations to new locations to tap into new talent pools and benefit from lower costs. They are now increasingly 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. The debate is not new and was identified five years ago as one of the main talent mobility dilemmas. The crisis has disrupted mobility patterns, and the question of moving job to people is now as important as moving people to jobs (traditional international mobility). This change raises two new issues: The moves are driven by talent availability and the need for greater business resilience. In the past, jobs were often relocated for cost considerations (for example as part of an offshoring exercise.) The cost factor will remain important but moving jobs to people is increasingly about taping into new talent pools and retaining critical talent. The question of resilience has also emerged as a priority for companies during the crisis. Moving jobs to people constitutes a way to reorganize supply chains and build a more robust international talent network. We need to redefine what we mean by “job”. Observers have been quick to comment about the new trend but fail to take into account all its implications. Moving jobs to people could be about moving a predefined job that was traditionally performed in a host location by an expatriate. However, it is more likely that it will involve rethinking the way the job is done and have the related tasks distributed internationally based on available skillsets. This implies a deconstruction of the concept of job and putting more focus on skill clusters. Moving jobs to people will often take the form of virtual assignments. Virtual assignments The concept of virtual assignments is part of the wider discussion about remote working. More generally, the idea that employees should be allowed “to work from anywhere” — as recently announced by Siemens for example — has implications for mobility management: should working from anywhere include working across borders? Once regarded as an exception or a vague concept, virtual assignments are now a reality, as many expatriates have been forced to work remotely because of the crisis. The capacity of companies to implement a consistent model will determine the long-term adoption of virtual assignments as a viable alternative to traditional expatriate assignments. International virtual mobility can take different forms: The first and most obvious option is to allow an employee to remain in the home country while performing tasks and being responsible for operations in a different location. Virtual mobility can also mean allowing an employee to work in third country of choice that is not the home country or the location benefitting from the task performed. Working remotely across borders adds a layer of complexity to the flexible working debate. Commentators are polarized in their views, either seeing virtual assignments as the new normal or dismissing them as impractical due to regulatory and compliance issues. However, it would be a mistake to seek a straightforward yes-or-no answer to the complex question of feasibility of virtual assignments or to reduce it to a question of compliance. Compliance is essential, but it should not drive the business strategy. A comprehensive feasibility analysis of virtual assignments includes factors such as the nature of the job, the work and technology setup, compliance, cost considerations, the company culture (readiness for remote working), intercultural issues, as well as a thorough assessment of the value for the employees and the company. The objective of the analysis is to provide an understanding of the types of virtual assignments that are viable for an organization given its unique circumstances and requirements. Virtual mobility is very much a work in progress, but the fact that organizations are devoting time and effort to make it work reflects how fast mobility practices are changing. The pandemic crisis is also exposing weaknesses and inconsistencies in current in mobility management practices and forcing HR teams to reflect on the bigger picture. The crisis may affect traditional mobility in the short term, but there are new opportunities to thrive for HR teams willing to embrace more innovative, agile, and resilient models.