Olivier Meier By Olivier Meier, Mercer
Principal at Mercer
Helping Companies Go Global
Consulting, Data and Technology to Support Talent Mobility

Talent mobility buzzwords always come in a mixed bag, including both highly relevant ideas that help us look at management practices in a different way and corporate neologisms that leave practitioners utterly puzzled.

In any case, we should pay attention because these buzzwords do tell us something about current global trends, companies’ concerns, and how talent mobility is evolving.

2020’s list of buzzwords comes at a troubled time and, not surprisingly, it is influenced by the COVID-19 crisis.

While the focus on concepts like business continuity and resilience are a direct consequence of the current global disruption, the crisis is also an accelerator of pre-existing trends.

Here is a selection of 2020 buzzwords and insight

about what we can learn from them about current and future mobility practices.

Black swans and grey rhinos

Managing the risk menagerie

Authors have come up with colorful metaphors to describe risk and crises that organizations and societies face.

Two of these metaphors particularly resonate with the Covid-19 crisis.

Black swan: A rare and unpredicable event with extreme consequences. This concept was coined by Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”. Taleb explains how people underestimate randomness and the need to build robustness and agility to resist extreme negative events but also take advantage of positive ones. Trying to predict Black Swans is a futile exercise but integrating the existence of such extreme random events in a business strategy is a must. In other words, prepare for the unexpected. The COVID-19 crisis shares many characteristics of a black swan, not least its scale and impact, but it has also been described as a gray rhino.

Gray rhino: Author Michele Wucker describes a gray rhino as a major risk but a predicted one in her book “The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore.” Many risks such as major pandemics are known and the probability of them happening over time is high. However, few people and organizations prepare effectively for them due to cognitive biases blinding them to the obvious threats, the priority of daily tasks over long-term issues, and the “not-my-responsibility” syndrome. Yet, when the Gray Rhino strikes, everybody is affected and the damage far exceeds the cost of proper preparation.

Are we facing a black swan or a gray rhino? The answer matters less than the lessons that we can learn from these two concepts. HR teams are not directly in charge of risk management but they cannot ignore these risks and need both to prepare for gray rhino events that are likely to happen and build resilience and agility to deal with unexpected black swans. In times of crisis, HR should spearhead the company’s efforts to fulfill its duty of care and ensure employees’ wellbeing.

Assignee wellbeing

This time it is for real

The crisis has put the spotlight on employee health issues but the concept of wellbeing goes beyond healthcare considerations and is not just a priority during emergencies.

Employee wellbeing covers physical but also emotional, social, and financial aspects. Highly mobile employees are even more are risk. They might face health problems, but their wellbeing is also affected by less visible factors, such as stress, financial worries, and mental health issues. Demotivation, family issues, and ultimately failed assignments are manifestations of these issues.

Organizations support their assignees with comprehensive reward packages but sometimes fail to take a holistic approach to employee wellbeing. This crisis is forcing organizations to accelerate their employee wellbeing strategies.

Flexibility is one approach that can enhance wellbeing when applied selectively to allow for a better work-life balance or to let specific employee groups choose what they need. Poorly implemented, it could lead to additional stress for employees who don‘t necessarily have all the information and support to make educated choices.


A stress test for a popular but controversial concept

Flexibility has been dominating HR headlines for several years. Companies have scrambled to introduce more flexibility for both good and bad reasons. We have witnessed attempts to use it to simplify processes, address the legitimate concerns of specific employee groups, and overcome barriers to mobility in some locations. The drive for flexibility has also been based on the alleged expectations of new generations and an exaggerated hope of reducing costs and workload.

The COVID-19 crisis is acting as a stress test of flexible policies and raising questions about two avatars of the flexibility debate.

The effectiveness of flexibility: What flexible policies and benefits are truly viable and effective? During the crisis, the primacy of duty of care over excessive flexibility has been reasserted: policies item should not be made flexible if they are essential for the wellbeing of employees. Some companies has found that flexible policies have prepared them to deal conceptually and practically with urgent repatriations and unexpected mobility scenarios. Others, however, have found some aspects of their flexible policies inapplicable and inappropriate in the context of urgency. After the crisis, it will be time to check which flexible provisions have proved effective and which ones were superfluous or incompatible with duty of care.

Flexible working: The most spectacular effect of the crisis in the flexibility debate was not on packages but on working arrangements. Regardless of their opinion about the remote working debate, companies have had to find the flexibility to allow their mobile employees to work from home or from a different country than the assignment country. While the debate about flexible working has long revolved around lifestyle and employee preferences, the crisis has put the questions of business continuity and resilience at the forefront.

Resilience and business continuity

Are mobile employees assets or weak links?

Are international assignees contributing to the resilience of the business or do they constitute a weak link in times of crisis? There is no simple answer to that question. However, thinking about resilience and continuity should be part of the discussion when setting up a global mobility program.

Business continuity can be at risk when most or all of the assignees are recalled at once during a crisis. In best-case scenarios, the disruption does not last long and the assignees return to their assignment locations. However, if this is not the case the impact on the business can be more damaging. Many assignees might not be willing to resume their assignment for a variety of reasons: family issues, logistical problems, or even psychological trauma. A hasty evacuation can also damage the relationship between assignees and locals and widen the trust gap between employees groups. Building resilience also requires better integration of the different teams. HR, risk management, healthcare, compliance, and other relevant topics are managed by different teams spread geographically and between business units.

As the crisis abates and the question of business continuity gives way to business as usual, will organizations maintain their new working practices and offer virtual assignment to mobile employees?

Virtual assignments

Virtually unstoppable?

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.

A virtual assignment implies focusing on work for a specific location. A virtual assignee is remotely doing the same job as an assignee relocated to the host location. This is different from the situation of a manager overseeing a region or a frequent business traveler who might be supporting business operations abroad on an ad-hoc basis.

Virtual assignments are not going to replace traditional mobility, but they constitute one more tool in the growing arsenal that companies need to deploy their global operations. As organizations move away from traditional expatriation management to embrace best practices to manage a distributed international workforce.

Distributed workforce

Spreading your bets and your risks

Traditional mobility management is based on a linear experience: moving an employee from location A to location B and bring that person back after a set period of time. In reality organizations increasingly have to manage distributed international workforces 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/host-based, permanent/temporary).

Companies will need to re-open the debate about moving jobs to people rather than moving people to jobs. As companies gain in agility and upgrade their technology, it could even be about assigning projects and tasks to mobile people rather than moving defined jobs as such.

These changes require, above all, a change of mindset and 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 fluid and integrated way.

The question about relying on a distributed workforce goes hand and hand with supply chain requirements.

Supply chains

When the economy invites itself to the HR table

At a strategic level, organizations have increasingly tried to shorten their supply chains, and that will drive the future of global mobility. The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating a trend that has been going on for several years. Progress in automation and the transformation of countries like China into consumer markets rather than pure export economies are encouraging companies to produce locally for local consumers to avoid disruption to their supply chains, to be more responsive to the local markets, and to be greener. This could lead to more regionalization and further development of local hubs. HR teams need to prepare for a redeployment of the mobile workforce. More efforts will be needed to support regional assignments.

Rather than bet on the end or on a dramatic resurgence of mobility, the organization should prepare for the redeployment of their mobile workforces. In the short-term this might involve re-relocating assignees who have been repatriated and implementing cuts. In the medium-term, the priority is about realigning the mobile workforce with new economic model centered on shortened supply chains, more on regional moves, and a renewed need to train talent.

The crisis may force companies to let some of their talent go and may lead people to fear for their jobs. Fostering and acquiring skills will remain essential in the post-crisis world.


The great enabler

Multiskilling is the capacity to master a wide range of skills relevant for different types of jobs and functions. Upskilling and reskilling are other important aspect of the skills debate, but in the aftermath of the crisis, more agility will be required.

We are facing an environment of constant retraining, but we are not sure which skills will be relevant in the future. Furthermore, the boundaries between departments have become blurred. There is a premium on mastering skills across types of job. Candidates mastering the skills from different business functions or able to work effectively across functions (derided in recruitment slang as “purple squirrels”) can expect a premium or at least more job opportunities. For HR, it can mean understanding IT systems and terminology, being able to use analytics, and working well in Agile projects as well as leveraging tools and concepts from marketing and finance.

Multiskilling is a talent enabler – a key tool in unprecedented times.


The new normal is the real normal

The current crisis is in many ways unprecedented but the word unprecedented should not turn into an easy leitmotiv to explain the lack of preparedness of business and HR teams. HR practitioners who have been in the business for many years have had to deal with 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, the Icelandic volcano, the Fukushima disaster, baffling political developments, and several wars. The current crisis may be the greatest of them all, but the lesson from the black swan and gray rhino theories and our current plight is that major crises do happen sooner or later.

Policies, processes, and strategies cannot be set under the assumptions that everything will always work well. The mettle of managers is not judged on their ability to deliver results in the golden years when businesses grow fast and unhindered but on their ability to stay on course in stormy times. HR should also be judged on their capacity to help preserve the wellbeing of employees and business continuity during emergencies. HR policies should be built for extraordinary times and now is the time to start building new HR approaches.