Talent mobility: lessons from 2019 By Olivier Meier, Mercer The Brexit, trade tensions, and more generally concerns about the state of globalization once again made the headlines in 2019, but these recurring political and economic upheavals that threaten to disrupt the flow of talent globally should not mask the fundamental long-term changes happening in management practices. As 2019 draws to an end, here is a summary of some of the major trends that are reshaping mobile workforce management and will force HR teams to revisit their practices. Putting the focus back on employees The urgency of meeting annual revenue targets and the fast pace of digitalization could lead to the wrong focus. Talent Mobility remains a human activity driven by high expectations and triggering strong emotions. Yet historically more effort has been put on fixing processes and policies based on the input of management and HR than on addressing issues from an employee perspective. Mercer’s 2019 Talent Management Survey reports that both top management and HR teams are increasingly tracking change fatigue and are concerned about declining employee trust and the risk of burnout for their key talent. Looking at mobility from the perspective of the mobile employees makes business sense: mobile employee attrition and low performance ultimately generate higher costs for the business over the long-term than relocation support and expatriate packages. In practice, this change of focus means revisiting employee experience. Improving the mobile employee experience Organizations have traditionally relied on the “Target Operating Model” describing a desired framework largely based on abstract ideas and the experience of management and HR. It is time to shift to a “Target Interaction Model” focused on facilitating and delivering exceptional personal and digital employee interactions and based on design thinking. In other words, companies need to spend time to map the steps mobile employees are going through and build the experience around them. Gaps are opening between employees’ expectations and the support and technology provided by companies. Companies and HR risk being outpaced by digital changes as individuals witness the fast evolution of technology at home – an evolution not always matched by the slower development of technology in the workplace. Ensuring smooth relocation or virtual international collaboration requires new approaches and tools. The objective is to have a more holistic approach to international assignments (i.e. including the entire family, the long-term career evolution, and the overall well-being of the employee) and to provide employees with the tools they need to perform effectively while avoiding information overload. Beyond managing the assignment cycle, HR needs to revisit mobile employees’ career paths. Clarifying career paths The traditional concept of career management clashes not just with the apparent preferences from younger generations but also with business realities. The future of work is about changing jobs and career paths frequently as opposed to having a linear career progression. Internal gig workers are also leading companies to reconsider their internal organization and career programs: 51% of employees report that they are willing to take on an internal gig to gain experience (Mercer 2019 Talent Trends study). This rise of internal and freelance gig workers but also more generally the accelerating flow of talent moving quickly between jobs is raising questions about the relevance and consistency of performance review and career management processes. Companies need to help employees build a portable career. Talent mobility should be understood in a wider sense and encompass moving employees between countries but also between functions and employers. But this kind of flexible career paths can only work if they are recognized and accepted by both employees and management. Traditional hierarchical organizations often don’t value or least make it difficult for employees changing career paths or functions. Being able to give an assignment a measurable outcome is a pre-condition for management to truly support the different types of move. Giving assignment a measurable outcome Conventional wisdom suggests that talent mobility effectively supports business expansion and provides a boost to employees’ careers. The reality is much more complex, and the benefits of mobility can materialize in specific cases, for selected types of moves and employees, under specific circumstances. In many cases, the added value of an assignment for the employee and the company is questionable. The lack of clear definition of failed assignments is a problem when trying to evaluate performance: in Mercer’s Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices, 52% of respondents indicated they didn’t have a definition of failed assignments. The organizations that do have a definition commonly use criteria such as assignment completion and “meeting business objectives”. However, these criteria remain vague and don’t capture all possible scenarios. Failed assignments are not just about employees terminating assignments prematurely. They are also about low productivity while on assignment, assignees who leave the company shortly after the end of the assignment, or even the lack of succession planning in the host location. This lack of measured outcome leads to a disconnection between the perception of global mobility by top management and its realities. In one of our surveys, 57% of participants deplored the lack of relevance of mobility in the company’s business (Mercer: “How Global Mobility is Responding to new Dilemmas”). Unsuccessful attempts to implement a perfect ROI measurement process sometimes obscure the fact that developing appropriate metrics and analytics still can make the mobility function more efficient and relevant. More than ever, mobility professionals needs to have the basics in place: not only tracking assignees and related direct costs but also understanding indirect costs as well as reframing the discussion about overall cost for the company. Lack of suitable tools and the heavy burden of day-to-day tasks limit the capacity of talent mobility teams to perform strategic analyses. Lifting the administrative burden Technology is moving fast and will increasingly disrupt traditional business activities; the capacity to identify and leverage new tools to cope more efficient with daily tasks will determine the long-term success of the mobility function. New solutions are emerging to help manage complex mobility programs by bringing together all aspects of an organization’s international assignments, along with data, in one place. This platform approach provides an interactive, real-time data and content experience while simplifying workflows, lowering costs, and reducing risks. While the interest for automation is there, a lack of clear vision seems to hold back many organizations: almost half of companies don’t have a clear strategic vision about mobility management automation (according to Mercer's 2019 Mobility Organization and Transformation Survey). And the ones with a vision don’t always translate it into action. Respondents report that they are still evaluating their options or trying to evaluate their internal infrastructures and resources. The priority for mobility professionals is to understand where the human touch is adding value to processes and activities. And this might take serious soul searching and facing inconvenient truths – the common assumptions that only basic tasks will be automatized and that employees will always prefer to talk to human being than machines might be misguided. The good news is that there will be opportunities for professionals who can understand the bigger business picture, interpret new trends and master storytelling (i.e., conveying the right message to management and assignees and explaining mobility policies in the wider business context). Keeping sight of the bigger picture The expectations from top management for talent mobility go beyond the tactical relocation questions that consumes so much of the time of mobility teams. From the perspective of the top management, talent mobility is about: Rightsizing and diversifying the international talent pool: efficient mobility talent management goes hand in hand with decisions about international workforce resizing, reshaping, and reskilling. It is as much about managing an international talent pool as about moving people from country to country. Fostering talent diversity. If international experience is the best way to reach top management, the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the expatriate workforce is blocking the diversity initiative. Ensuring the right leadership talent pipeline is in place. Addressing key skill shortages in critical markets. Protecting key talents: the tactical deployment of key talent from stagnant markets to more active markets. And more generally enabling continued globalization of functions and business activities. These fundamental strategic questions should always be on an HR team’s radar. The main criterion for judging the success of mobility teams will be their ability to connect their activities with these questions. Addressing them will increasingly require a mix of new tools, process, technical knowledge, and a new set of competencies that is not always readily available within existing teams.