7 Dilemmas

Facing the Future of Global Mobility

This article introduces a series on some of the most important questions that global mobility managers will have to address in the coming years.

These seven dilemmas are not entirely new; however, demographic, technological, and business practice changes will give them a particular importance going forward.

The discussion about the dilemmas is an invitation to move away from oversimplified visions of global mobility and understand that the complexity of the issues discussed also offers an opportunity for mobility and HR teams to become more strategic and expand their horizon.

This article series is available as a PDF download.

By Olivier Meier, Mercer Contact the author

We tend to look at mobility in simple terms: expatriates versus locals, international assignment versus localization, or balance sheet approach versus local plus approach.

As the global mobility landscape is fast evolving, the temptation is to follow the same thinking pattern and assume that the advent of the millennials and new technologies will simply replace old approaches and make mobility easier or that new types of assignments such as short-term and permanent moves will systematically replace traditional long-term assignments.

This oversimplification underestimates the complexity of the changes taking place and ignores some of the emerging dilemmas that will challenge mobility management practices in coming years.

1. Mobile Millennials:

Beware the Expectation Mismatch

The increasing willingness of the new generations to move abroad goes hand in hand with increased expectation in terms of lifestyle, career opportunities, and flexibility.

The destinations favored by the millennials include global hubs and trendy cities such as London, Dubai, Singapore, or Shanghai but might not include the low-cost hardship destinations where companies need them.

The focus of the negotiation will not be on the size of the compensation package but will include the experience, work-life balance, and career development perspectives.

Companies might have to offer a more holistic approach than just cash or vague promises about career perspective. Millennials will not make mobility easier, they won’t necessarily make it harder, but they will make it different.

Companies will need to adapt to their needs to avoid losing talent and developing synergies by aligning their mobility practices with the expectation of the new generations.

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2. Job Mobility vs Employee Mobility

The changing expectations of employees are leading companies to reassess the concept of mobility. Traditionally companies have been moving people to jobs but are now increasingly considering moving jobs to people. In other words, they are offering assignees a greater say in how and where they will be working.

This implies flexible working conditions, an increase in commuter assignments, and making better use of frequent flyers and virtual assignments.

Technology development makes this transition easier. Not all jobs are mobile but the stereotype of traditional expatriates coming from their home country to a destination to support the local operation is being replaced by highly mobile expatriate gig workers bringing their expertise when and where needed.

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3. Extended Business Trips and Commuters:

More Prevalent but Still Under the Radar?

Ten years ago, not all companies were able to track their short-term assignments accurately. As more companies have become better at it, the focus is moving to extended business trips, commuters, and frequent travelers.

These types of moves present a host of challenges for companies from compliance, tax, emigration, and security perspective to cost issues.

Coordination issues (across teams and geographies), technology limitations (no system available or lack of integration of the different systems) and siloed teams (tax, immigration, and HR) are limiting the efficiency of the tracking processes.

Should it be the responsibility of the mobility team to track these types of moves? Wherever the responsibility lies, the HR and mobility teams are often better equipped to do it than other departments, and it is in the interest of the company to facilitate smooth processes. In the new global mobility landscape, international assignment management should be seen as a continuum ranging from extended business trips to long-term and localization and should cover different types of moves that were not traditionally considered as part of global mobility.

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4. Contractors and Self-employed Assignees:

Rise of the Expatriate Gig Worker?

The growing complexity of global mobility is not just about having more short-term assignments or commuters. Some of your future assignees might not even work for your company.

This trend has existing for many years in the oil, gas, and engineering industries where contractors and freelancers are used on a regular basis.

The trend is now reaching many more sectors and types of jobs.

We are seeing an increasing number of highly skilled professionals willing to market themselves directly in the host location (“locally hired foreigners”) as opposed to be hired in their home location and relocated to the assignment location by the company.

In some cases, these highly skilled professionals are hired as freelancers rather than as permanent employees.

The rise of the gig workers who go from project to project for multiple employers is part of the future of work.

The implications of this new way of working for global mobility and international assignment models could be profound.

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5. Flexibility Versus Duty of Care

The preference of millennials for greater flexibility and the imperative of adapting host-based approaches (e.g. local plus) to specific country conditions are driving the need for increasing flexibility in policies.

Some companies are considering having two parts in their global policies: one part covering global principles and a more flexible second part reflecting local conditions. More generally there is an increasing appetite for cafeteria style policies that mirror the flexible benefits provided to local employees.

The limit to this flexible approach is the duty of care that companies have: in hardship locations, companies might need to limit the flexibility given to assignees to limit risks.

From a tax perspective, an absence of tax equalization doesn’t mean that a company can completely ignore assignee’s tax issues. Tax support and advice still need to be provided not only for compliance reasons but also to limit scenarios where assignees could make costly mistakes and turn against the company.

More generally the question of duty of care and minimum level of support can be expanded to encompass exchange rate issues, insurance questions, and pension decisions. More flexibility therefore implies that educating mobile employees on financial and benefits decisions will increasingly play an important role.

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6. Older Expatriates:

Silver Revolution

While millennials capture the headlines, the population and the workforce are aging fast, not only in developed countries but also in many emerging markets.

This is putting pressure on pensions but also affecting the way people work. Aside from the aging of the general population, other factors are driving the increasing number of older assignees – employees in their 50s are potentially more mobile than younger employees with families and might be tempted to go on one more assignment before retiring.

They can also be tempted to offer their expertise internationally on a freelance basis. Certain industry sectors have been relying on older workers and even brought back employees from retirement.

That was the case a few years ago in the oil and gas sector when companies had to bring back engineering from retirement to bridge talent gap and while investments in the oil sector have more recently dropped, the trend of bringing back or extending the career of highly skilled individuals with critical skills for the business is likely to continue.

The challenge is therefore not only to accommodate the needs of the millennials but foster an inclusive corporate culture that also use the expertise of older assignees, takes into account their priorities (e.g. saving for retirement) and their specific needs, such as caring for elderly parents.

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7. Challenges of Diversity:

Diversity in Non-diverse Locations

Fostering assignee diversity is allowing companies to tap into new pool of talent and is becoming a significant advantage in the global talent war.

However, managing a diverse assignee talent pool when doing business in destinations where diversity might not be welcome is a challenge.

From practical questions about sending non-married couples to destinations when non-married couples are not tolerated, to serious concerns linked to the ethnicity, nationality, gender or sexual preferences of the assignees, the risks and potential barriers to mobility are numerous.

Employees might sometimes be willing “to take a chance” but companies have a duty of care and cannot allow this. Sometimes facilitation, cultural training and careful planning can help but in any case issues need to be openly discussed and anticipated.

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