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For some years it has been commented on by those working in the Global Mobility sector that most Global Mobility functions are often behind the curve in adapting to the changing world of work. As McKinseys’ “War for Talent” has played out, and we have been asked to consider what Millennials truly want from an employer, the playing field of talent has evolved, while Global Mobility teams have struggled to become more advisory and strategic in nature, still occupied in refining their operational capabilities with often diminishing resources. With COVID-19 presenting the biggest challenge for a generation we are being told this is an opportunity to adapt and think differently. I would argue that while no one in Global Mobility could have envisaged or been prepared for a challenge of this scale, the changes to our functions and industry over the last 3-5 years have ideally positioned us to utilize the lessons we have learned to plan for the new reality post COVID-19 and become that strategic partner at last.

Flexibility

Global Mobility has seen a trend for the traditional home vs. host long term assignment policies being challenged by core flex models, trying to achieve that perfect balance between cost effectiveness and assignee choice; changing focus to tailoring a package that provides more individual support and maximizes employee engagement. Technological advances no longer allow Global Mobility leaders to ignore flexible models by citing unfeasible administrative burdens but switches the conversation to technology budgets and the fit, or not, with the organization’s culture.

Technology disruption, in booming or challenging economies, requires a different skillset in the workplace. Digital skills, analytics and cyber specialists, to name a few, are all in demand in every sector, focusing attention again on the supply of talent across all sourcing methods. In fact, a 2018 survey[1] of FTSE 100 organizations showed that 61 percent said they were actively redesigning jobs around artificial intelligence, robotics and new business models. Global Mobility has needed to get a foothold in this type of workforce planning to demonstrate to business leaders the benefits of assignments, of all varieties, and continue to challenge the myth that it’s all about traditional 1-3 year postings. Global Mobility teams now potentially have more in their arsenal to meet business needs than ever before, including commuter assignments, rotators, extended business trips, project based deployments, perhaps contractors, flexible arrangements, and other short term options. International permanent transfers should also not be disregarded as they can play a critical role in the right organization by retaining key individuals within your network. The use of these varied options can be extensive or minimal depending on the nature of your organization, but all will require a re-examination of their suitability in the months ahead.

With hiring freezes and escalating repatriations, it will be vital for an organization’s success to thoroughly and efficiently conduct a detailed skills audit of its workforce and maximize their potential by deploying people – physically or virtually – to the right markets to accelerate their own economic recovery. Having the right policies in place, with sufficient levers to pull in order to secure the right candidate or internal move, will become even more important than before. Care needs to be taken to ensure that a mobility solution isn’t employed to fill a short term skills gap that requires a more long-term development solution, but this makes the link to strategic planning more important. Global Mobility still merits a seat at the table for key resourcing and workforce planning discussions as organizations advance their post-COVID recovery plans due to their existing experience in assessing the right structures for deployment.

Agility

Prior to COVID-19, the immigration landscape had seen significant shifts towards the tightening of work permissions in favor of promoting local labor markets. The tough stance taken in Switzerland with annual reductions in available permits and increasing labor law enforcement is just one of many examples; others include the more publicized pronouncements on US immigration restrictions. Any Global Mobility professional deploying assignees is likely to have seen more immigration rejections in the last 12 to 18 months than potentially they have experienced in their entire careers. The UK, meanwhile, has yet to see the full impact of Brexit and a new immigration system that will provide additional opportunities and challenges across all industries.

Simultaneously Global Mobility had seen a growth in those expecting to work wherever they want, irrespective of what their contract states. How many Human Resources and Global Mobility professionals have uncovered, by accident, individuals who live full time outside their employing country but think it is no one’s business as long as they show up at work when required? Or agree with their line manager that as an Australian-based employee they can now work from New York for six months as their significant other has been posted there. Receiving an official letter from the French social security authorities, demanding back payments for a London-based employee, can unravel lots of challenging personal and compliance scenarios.

Ignorance is no defense of the law, however, even if you are fortunate enough to get in front of these types of arrangements before they occur, the right levels of consultation and key compliance discussions are far from straightforward. The subsequent price tag to maintain and support the situation at hand will quickly focus a business leader’s attention on the cost vs. benefit analysis of that particular employee who was previously considered indispensable. If you don’t already have a commuter policy or compliance process in place, as well as a budget for the advisors that come with it, it is far more challenging to respond to these requests as they increase, or to respond to the next challenge on the horizon – virtual assignments.

Post COVID-19 new reality

With many countries only just starting to emerge from lockdown and so much left to face, is it premature to think about what the longer-term impact to Global Mobility might be? After the initial flurry of activity with assignees considering whether to stay put or repatriate quickly before borders closed, the landscape is becoming slightly clearer. Some tax authorities have issued temporary relaxation of rules around residency and permanent establishment to facilitate those remotely working from other jurisdictions, and longer-term decisions can be contemplated.

In the past, the primary driver for increasing numbers of commuter assignments has been personal circumstances, for example, not wanting to uproot school age children, the demands of dual careers, or the need to support aging parents. In the months ahead, the emotional impact of the crisis may be seen with employees re-thinking their pre COVID-19 work pattern. There is the potential to see those who have been globally minded feel stronger ties to home and family, potentially considering the practicalities of the distance between them, perhaps looking for an assignment back home or a permanent transfer. Additionally, commuters who have been happy working away Monday to Friday may choose to be more present in their family’s lives and will have learned how to work well remotely during this time.

In many industries the need to physically be present for a client or to operate successfully within a market has been imperative, and while traditional physical mobility will likely decline in the immediate future, past recessions have shown that that it is unlikely to cease completely. Those more forward-thinking Global Mobility professionals are already talking about a longer-term increase in virtual assignments – either staying in the home-country while working for another “host” entity or working from a third-country altogether utilizing technology to perform the day to day role. The ease with which many people have been able to continue almost seamlessly in their current roles operating remotely has increased an understanding and awareness of the potential. These virtual assignments could also be balanced with the need to be physically present on occasion via extended business trips or even short-term assignments.

Virtual assignments within the perspective of COVID-19, also help promote business continuity as scientists raise the potential that what we have experienced so far could be the first of future waves – remote and virtual working can continue regardless of what type of lockdown is currently in force. Of course, not all jobs can be performed, and not all services delivered, virtually and the longer-term impact on mental health and well-being is yet to be ascertained.

To collectively move an organization into multiple virtual assignments should not be a knee jerk reaction. While it removes most, if not all, immigration issues, the danger here is that the concept will attract business leader attention as a cheaper alternative to traditional mobility before they are briefed on the compliance hurdles that remain and the potentially more expensive corporate exposure. Data protection issues can also be a significant challenge depending on the role and country combinations. When does the risk outweigh the reward? Or does the external environment mean this is the only type of mobility practically open to sustain client/supplier/vendor/business relationships?

Many questions emerge that will take time and analysis to resolve:

  • What type of policy and compensation packages would apply?
  • How does it impact the home and host labor market in utilizing workers with different cost basis?
  • How fully can technology support the objectives of the role?
  • Where will the costs sit? Will there be recharges?
  • Are there employment law concerns?
  • Does the profit margin of the work exceed the compliance and reporting costs?
  • What’s the impact on performance, development, retention and attraction?

In most organizations, once agreed in principle, this type of arrangement would practically need to be approved by at least eight different experts in the fields of risk, information technology, data protection, personal taxation, corporate taxation, immigration, human resources and payroll.

Let’s also remember that Global Mobility can be a cultural challenge that will not be removed entirely by virtual assignments. Strategic deployments have the capacity to build diverse talent pools as well as diversity of thought and global mindset in the leaders of the future when they are physical moves.

And what of the Global Mobility advisors themselves? Where there is no physical cross-border movement involved, these arrangements lend itself to the skillset that was already under development, or in place, within Global Mobility functions due to the changing talent dynamics of the past – coordinating a multi-disciplinary team of experts to fulfil a business objective. As Global Mobility professionals we have proved to be agile and flexible, even if Global Mobility as a whole has not quite fully embraced both concepts until now.

In summary, successful Global Mobility functions should be able to confidently adapt and thrive in such rapidly changing environments. The frameworks are hopefully already there, even in embryonic form, to support the post COVID-19 needs of businesses trying to stay their course during what is expected to be an economic recession. There will undoubtedly be challenges around the headcount of Global Mobility teams as leaders assume the post-pandemic situation reduces global movement, so surely Global Mobility needs less support – but by clearly demonstrating the way in which Global Mobility has already managed to support flexibility and agility in the workforce, it is well positioned to coach senior leaders through the changes ahead. Global Mobility leaders need to be articulating the skillset of their teams as never before.

Footnote

1. Santa Fe Relocation Global Mobility Survey, 2018

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