How Global Mobility Is Responding to New Dilemmas
By Anne Rossier-Renaud & Olivier Meier, Mercer
The series “How Global Mobility is Responding to New Dilemmas” explores how organizations and talent mobility professionals are reevaluating their practices in response to new HR trends and business development efforts resulting from digitalization, new mobility patterns, and the expectations from the different generations at work. The articles in this series are based on the results from Mercer surveys as well as discussions with practitioners. This series follows Seven Dilemmas Facing the Future of Global Mobility, which covers some of the most important questions that global mobility managers have to address.
The cohabitation of several generations in the mobile workforce has been the subject of much debate. A mixed workforce with employees from diverse backgrounds is more productive and catering to the needs of all age groups in the workforce is part of a corporate strategy to become more competitive and address talent gaps. Much of the attention is focused on younger generations and their coveted digital skills but the population is aging fast and older workers will represent a significant proportion of the workforce. While companies need to adapt for new generations and leverage their digital skillsets, they cannot ignore the requirements or experience of older workers.
A major issue for talent managers is determining to what extent do companies need to adapt their mobility policies to strike the right balance between their business requirements and the expectations of the different generations in the mobile workforce. In the second article in this series, we are summarizing the findings of several surveys designed to help us understand how companies are adapting their talent mobility practices to address this issue.
Generations at Work
|Baby Boomers /
|Born mid-forties to mid-sixties
||Born mid-sixties to late seventies
||Born late seventies to early nineties
||Born mid-nineties and later
The Relevance of Generations: Buzz or Reality?
Millennials and Generation Z are making a buzz, but to what extent do differences in generation matter for the business? The debate about generation needs to be contextualized and be exempt of oversimplifications.
When referring to the characteristics of the new generations, are we reflecting about characteristics that might be unique to these generations or are we just restating the neverending opposition between the attitudes of young and older employees? The desire for fast changes, increased mobility, and flexibility are characteristics that have always been applied to younger employees rather than novelties that appeared with millennials. Truly unique characteristics, from the new generations, might result from the rapid evolution of technology and the advent of a digital world that is reshaping the way people think and act faster and triggering new challenges that older generations didn’t have to face in their formative years.
At the same time, we need to remind ourselves that the new generations are early adopters of new trends, ways of working that will eventually impact all workers. Baby boomers and Generation X workers are no longer working and behaving in the same way as at the beginning of their careers – new technologies, including the advent of internet, emails, and smart phones, have changed their way of working, their attention span, and their way of thinking. From that perspective, the new generations should not be viewed as totally alien tribes unrelated to their predecessors but rather as early adopters of trends, habits that will be eventually applicable to all workers. Rather than analyzing the different generations in terms of clear simple separate groups, it is useful to bear in mind these three aspects of the question:
- The traditional opposition between young and old.
- The fact that current younger generations might have unique characteristics due to fast technological changes.
- Some of the characteristics currently attributed to Millennial workers and Generation Z might eventually permeate the working habits and attitudes of older workers.
This complex interaction of the characteristics of the different age groups and generations is one more reason why companies might need to review their current policy and practices.
Assignee Population by Age Band
Source: Mercer’s 2017 Worldwide Policies and Practices Survey. All countries, all industries.
How Are Companies Handling Generation Changes?
Generations are not in themselves a cause for policy segmentation – the same rules are usually applied to all employees with possible differentiations based on assignments types and purposes. In fact, slightly more than half the survey respondent either don’t consider that generations don’t impact their program or don’t constitute a new trend. However, compelling policies are built on clear Unique Value Proposition (UVP) articulating how employees should benefit from the assignment from a pay, benefits, and career perspective as well as defining a sense the of the higher purpose behind the day to day job. And that’s precisely where new generations are challenging the status quo and prompting organizations to reconsider the alleged priorities of mobile employees. This is leading a sizable minority of companies to take action to adapt their mobility programs.
Millennials constitute an important part of the workforce (progressively forming the majority of employees globally, at least when taking into account emerging markets). Their preferences have been the subject of much speculation and prompted 43% of companies responding to our survey about how companies are responding to “new dilemmas” to recognize that these preferences and ways of working are impacting mobility programs.
Generation Z is entering the workforce. Companies are just starting to evaluate the impact of the changes they might bring. Only 13% of companies are planning or have already made changes. This figure is bound to increase as more employees from Generation Z go on assignment.
In regards to older assignees, unlike for the new generations, the issue is not to adapt to a new way of working but the realization that companies might need to retain the skills of the older workers in a context of talent shortages; and the fact that some differentiation in the policy might be required to address their specific needs. A quarter of organizations are planning to or have addressed these needs while a further 11% are not modifying their policies while recognizing that this trend might have an impact.
Impact of Generational Shifts in Assignee Population and Policy Changes
||Yes, it is impacting our mobility program, but we do not plan to make changes
||Yes, it is impacting our mobility program and we are planning to make changes
||Yes, it is impacting our mobility program and we have already made changes
||No, it is not impacting our mobility program
||Change/trend not recognized / I do not know
|Expectations and requirements of the Millennial generation (born between 1980 and 2000)
|Expectations and requirements of generation Z (born after 2000)
|Expectations and requirement of older assignees/ageing workforce (+55 years old)
Source: Mercer’s 2018 survey: “How Organizations are Responding to New Dilemmas”
The New Generations: Expectations and Roadmap
Millennials and Generation Z will not make mobility easier and they won’t necessarily make it harder, but they will make it different. The new generations are both the agents of change and the symptoms of major changes in the society and in business practices that will force management and HR teams to evolve.
The most common adjectives to describe millennials are mobile, tech-savvy, and flexible. This seems to herald a new golden age of global mobility that would reconcile the aspirations of employees and the business imperatives of companies. Some companies hope that this increased willingness to move will remove the need for high incentives. The bad news is that the locations favored by the millennials are not necessarily the same as the ones where the companies need assignees. The first consequence of the priority given by millennials to lifestyle means they favor moves to locations that are perceived as trendy or can foster their personal development and career. While millennials might decline moves to destinations that are viewed as less attractive, their lifestyle preferences may lead to a rise in self-requested moves and commuter assignments that are not fully aligned with their company’s business objectives.
It is important to identify gaps in mobility programs and implement solutions for types of assignments that will play a greater role in the coming years, such as self-requested moves or moving jobs to people.
This led respondents in our survey to describe a need to “bring flexibility into the policy and allow for lifestyle moves” and more generally “cater for desire to drive own development and incentivize willingness to relocate for job more, as it is decreasing with this generation.”
Source: Mercer’s 2017 spot survey on the “Impact of Millennials in the Mobile Workforce”
Flexibility is about “Self-service mobility support via technology, flexible policies, and providing lump sums.” It could lead to the adoption of a cash-based policy, giving the employee the flexibility to determine how to spend a given budget. Whether this will lead to the widespread adoption of what a respondent called “Individual click-and-choose program” can be subject to discussion; while new technology increasingly enables more flexibility, there are objective limits to these changes, linked to duty of care and compliance.
Changing employers frequently is not a new trend, but many Millennials go beyond that and view their career as portable and fluid. They market themselves globally and are entrepreneur of their own career. The model of long assignments with limited feedback and unclear perspective is not appealing to them.
The acceleration of the career process is reinforcing the trend to reduce the duration of assignments (e.g. having long-term assignments lasting two years instead of five and recognizing that the boundary between short-term and extended business trips is becoming blurred.) It could lead to an increase the number of short-term developmental/networking assignment programs – a “first-time mobility experience intended for high performers.”
Family considerations constitute a major concern for millennials. The needs of young families and importantly of dual career spouses need to be taken into account – the millennials generation includes more trailing spouses (more dual career couples) and these trailing spouses no longer conform to the traditional image of a woman not working and following her husband. Trailing spouses are increasingly expecting to work abroad or at least be able to maintain their career. Trailing spouse is no longer synonymous with woman as more and more men are discovering the difficulty of following their spouses abroad.
New family types are also having to be relocated, such as single parents willing to continue their career. The recognition of same-sex marriage (or formal partnership agreements) in western countries has led to the rise of same sex couples on assignments. These societal changes call for a re-evaluation of policies originally designed for a traditional family model.
Reducing the business cost and making international assignments more accessible for millennials is a major objective. As one respondent noted, “We have increased our use of mobility budgets for earlier in career international experience. Also we have developed shorter stay, more cost effective packages so as to be able to have more early career employees participate.”
Technology and Transparency
Integrating more technology and transparency into policies and process is a priority when dealing with techno-savvy new generations. Can digitalization of HR keep pace with the millennials’ expectations? For a disconnected global HR team trying to meet the needs of a connected generation, the gap might be technological as well as organizational. Reactive communication pushed via email will no longer meet the needs of a generation used to instant 24/7 access to information via smartphone, chat-bots, and self-service solutions.
Furthermore, new types of assignments will necessitate better tracking and better regional integration. Faster moving, more complex global mobility goes hand in hand with increased compliance risks.
Generation Z: Preparing for the Next Wave of Assignees
Generation Z is just entering the workforce and its participation in the mobile workforce is still limited. The specificities of this generation and its eventual impact on practices is still uncertain. A minority of organizations are trying to anticipate these changes and are reviewing their practices. In many cases, the planned changes to accommodate Generation Z mirror, to a large extent, the changes triggered by the millennials, and take them one step further.
Focus on Early Career Assignments
Organizations trying to meet the requirements of Generation Z are reviewing “options for apprenticeships, overseas intern programs, and regional graduate development programs” while trying to reduce the business cost and make assignments more accessible for Generation Z.
Flexibility and Lifestyle
Similarly, efforts are made to integrate more flexibility in the policies, foster work/life balance, and communicate clear career advancement opportunities.
Generation Z is the first truly digital generation and the increasing use of technology to engage and interact quickly and effectively is viewed as a given rather than an enhancement. This is increasingly leading to the implementation of new software solutions to manage assignments and allow new assignees to have instant access to their information.
Generation Z will face financial uncertainties in terms of debt (e.g. US university graduates starting their careers with huge debts) and pension (is the concept of retirement compatible with the future of work). Ensuring that these entry level employees are educated on their career choices and financial decisions will increasingly be a responsibility of the companies.
Older Assignees: Managing the Silver Generation
When asked about talent trends, the questions around older assignees sometimes fail to attract the same attention as Millennials. Yet, older professionals represent a significant talent pool, and of the wider populations. In the context of a talent shortage and shrinking workforce, attracting and retaining older professionals will become increasingly important. Millennials may be more digitally savvy, but older workers offer essential core skills – from international business management skills to engineering – that can plug the growing skills gap that multinationals are experiencing.
There is a clear business case to send older professionals on assignment, but mobility policies are not necessarily reflecting their needs and priorities.
A primary issue is about company priorities, communication, and workforce integration. There is a widespread recruitment bias against older workers – either conscious or unconscious – reflected in the priority given to younger professionals. Ignoring older generations, or at least failing to accommodate their specific requirements, is a significant risk. Career management approaches must be different for assignees who are about to retire.
Making “relocation and in-assignment support more flexible for 55+ assignees” is one of the objectives listed by some of the respondents and older professionals can indeed be as flexible and as mobile as younger ones, if not more. Whereas younger expatriates may have children and family responsibilities, older expatriates no longer have to care for their children and might have already achieved a degree of financial stability that gives them more flexibility in their career choices.
The question of cultural adaptation should also be taken into account: older assignees are more likely to integrate in the host location and show a range of interpersonal competencies and “soft skills” that are important to the success of international assignments. Some organizations are pioneering inter-generation coaching: digital skills in exchange for soft skills and market experience.
Flexible working and new forms of mobility are not just for millennials. Virtual assignments, third-country assignments, and locally hired foreigners are models that could be suitable for older assignees. Older professionals could be hired or brought back from retirement as freelancers/gig workers for specific projects. More generally, organizations trying to adapt their program for older workers review contract types, support provided by company, and the type of allowances and benefits offered; a participant noted that the company has “increased housing allowances, provided more specific intercultural training, and add out-of-policy benefits.”
Redefine Family Support
Shifting some of the budget normally allocated for education to support for care of elderly parents is also something that could be considered. This can also involve adjusting the policy to provide more trips home (“enhancing home leave benefits”) and even envisage, in select cases, (when feasible from an immigration perspective), to relocate an elderly parent along with the assignee.
Retirement provisions should be reviewed and offer solutions to help older assignees prepare for retirement and secure a sufficient income, evaluate how to address pension gap issues, and fractured pension histories. Determining the desired country of retirement as early as possible is important and might drive the compensation approach (i.e. guarantee of return to the home country or, on the contrary, preparing for localization in the host destination). Providing financial advice could be beneficial.
Similarly, healthcare is a pressing issue for older professionals who may have to rely a lot on health insurance and medical support. They may be living with chronic diseases that are perfectly manageable when adequate support and medications are available. These may be more difficult to organize in a foreign country or costlier from a financial perspective. Assignees may require comprehensive health coverage.
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