How can global mobility strike the right flexibility balance?

By Ulrike Hellenkamp and Markus Kurth, Mercer

At Mercer’s 2022 Expatriate Management and Talent Mobility Conference, we spoke to Annette Späth, Head of Center of Excellence Global Mobility at Boehringer Ingelheim, and Nicolai Wassmann, Senior Specialist in Rewards and Mobility Development at Novo Nordisk, Denmark, about how they have incorporated increased flexibility within their global mobility programs.

The question of exactly how flexible global mobility should be has existed as long as the programs themselves. The past couple of years, however, have driven an accelerated process of change, bringing this issue to the fore.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected many aspects of both employees’ personal and business lives, presenting corporate global mobility departments with an increasing number of requests for flexible handling of assignments. These changing expectations have created many dilemmas for mobility teams, including:

  • Need to simplify and standardize in an era of individualization and personalization: Demand for personalized compensation and benefits packages, individualized workplaces, and flexible work arrangements make it difficult to create efficiencies, free up resources and reduce costs.
  • Need to satisfy diverse employee expectations that may clash with mobility policy guardrails amid a war for talent: Companies need to pay attention to the diverse needs of an international workforce, but they also need to follow policies and practices to guarantee a reasonable level of operating efficiency.
  • Evolving business and talent needs for cross-border moves in a compliance-heavy environment: Organizations must meet requirements for cross-border posts quickly and decisively while also satisfying complex, changing regulatory and compliance requirements.
  • Increased cost consciousness versus a growing need to incentivize moves: Mobility teams need to find intelligent ways to save costs while incentivizing assignments, especially for difficult locations.
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) aspects: DEI programs have great potential to increase fairness and attract new assignee groups. Global mobility teams must ensure that they incorporate these initiatives into their policies and processes.

The positive news is that using the right approach and tools, many organizations are rising to these challenges.

Flexibility is the secret weapon for solving these challenges

Flexibility is a key success factor in addressing these issues. From policy strategy to compensation and benefits, successful organizations are incorporating the employee perspective in a more agile way, while also considering the company culture and business needs, with initiatives such as the ones below.

Modifying international workforce strategies

Organizations are moving from a rigid one-size-fits-all or time-led approach to a purpose-driven approach while applying a new perspective to the talent agenda. Smart policy segmentation can enable flexibility. New segmentation approaches focus on the purpose to customize for the various aspirations and expectations of the business, HR and the employee. Companies are also recognizing the role mobility can play in helping them win the war for talent, manage a global workforce and improve the employee value proposition, leading to a growing appetite for embedding talent management into cross-border considerations and opportunities. Rather than target the same candidates, they are actively building and growing new talent for international assignments.

Rethinking compensation options for a diverse mobile population

Companies are embedding new forms of mobility, such as hybrid assignments. This might involve experimenting with how they can best combine a virtual assignment with a physical relocation to facilitate a move to a difficult locale or accommodate a specific family situation. And they may also allow flexible application of home- and host-based compensation tied to the requirements of a specific move type.

Assessing corporate culture and values

A move toward greater policy flexibility may require companies to relinquish their old habits. This could entail applying a principle-based approach to global mobility framework design or reframing assignments. Policies that traditionally involved more hand-holding or were headquarter-centric may adopt a more guardrail-based approach, offering greater diversity and choice.

Redefining the mobile employee experience

There is also an increasing recognition of the need to consider the changing priorities of the workforce. Mobility teams want to help individuals manage their lives while on assignment rather than making decisions for them through policy. As packages become more individual and less comparable on a global basis, they are encouraging employees to appreciate benefits such as personal development, working experience and living experience while on assignment.

Taking the basics into account

Of course, successful companies also ensure their programs are realistic and feasible in terms of addressing the prerequisites. They must continuously ask themselves what level of complexity is acceptable as they embrace greater flexibility.

Flexibility journeys at Boehringer Ingelheim and Novo Nordisk

Pharmaceutical companies Boehringer Ingelheim and Novo Nordisk are among the organizations that have recently addressed some of these challenges successfully.

We spoke to Annette Späth, Head of Center of Excellence Global Mobility at Boehringer Ingelheim, and Nicolai Wassmann, Senior Specialist in Rewards and Mobility Development at Novo Nordisk, Denmark, about how they have incorporated increased flexibility within their global mobility programs.

Q. What were the main triggers for introducing flexibility to your global mobility program, and what approach did you take?

Annette Späth: At Boehringer Ingelheim, our previous approach involved stratifying by length, with packages determined irrespective of personal needs. However, the company environment and the way we run our business changed dramatically. So we conducted deep analysis, such as customer interviews and surveys, to understand whether we needed to change our mobility framework and become more flexible.

On the business side, we discovered we needed to:

  • Mobilize employees at different stages of their careers to serve business and functional needs
  • Connect solutions to our underlying purpose to better steer the global workforce
  • Foster a global business intelligence mindset and enhance the employee experience
  • Bring all global cross-border solutions under one umbrella

For their part, employees:

  • Required flexibility in terms of tailored solutions to meet individual needs
  • Sought opportunities to develop interpersonal and professional skills, including abroad
  • Needed to fully understand assignment purpose and next career steps
  • Wanted to be part of an attractive global employer

As a result of this research, we set out to transform the overall global mobility framework, build a new strategy and more strongly link our framework with our talent management approach. Now our framework offers much more flexibility to the businesses as well as to our employees.

Extending the standard package

We decided to implement a new assignment management tool to help us manage this flexible approach. Using the tool, assignees now have a clear overview of their standard package and flexible options.

An example of an assignee might be a single parent with one child moving from the United States to Mexico to gain exposure to a dynamic market environment that will help them develop into a future senior leader role. On top of the standard package, the assignee can pick and choose from flexible upgrade options within specific ranges based on a clearly set budget that depends on defined criteria.

So, while individuals can customize their packages based on their needs, we can reduce exception requests and also enhance the assignment experience.

woman working at a desk with a child in her lap

Nicolai Wassmann: At Novo Nordisk, we have been moving for several years toward becoming more “flex-able” in terms of customizing how employees work, where they work and for what number of hours — not only in international assignments but also when people are moving within their countries.

This journey started in 2018, when we globalized HR and IT, with all HR people becoming part of one organization. That created demand for roles outside the typical placement of the organization. We implemented a new mobility framework in 2019, with one policy and standard guidelines facilitating issues such as corporate tax. This work was, of course, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Also in 2020, we had a global reorganization that led to even more demand for different working methods and positions beyond the traditional organization. In the same year, our new global HR strategy addressed our aspiration to be a progressive employer of the future. It became evident we needed to embrace virtual work as an ongoing opportunity for our employees, and executive management decided we needed to accelerate and strive for seamless mobility. Since 2021, we have offered virtual options as part of our mobility framework, handling this through a central unit in the mobility team.

We can set up virtual options in various ways, spanning typical hybrids, traditional long-term assignments, short-term options and permanent virtual options. This supports our flexibility journey and helps us further customize to the individual needs of our assignees. And we will continue this journey in 2022.

Q. Tell us how you worked on the design and implementation. Did you use any specific tools or approaches?

Anette: In the analysis phase, we worked with personas and surveys to understand the needs and unmet needs of our global workforce and leadership teams.

In the product design phase, we developed a customer journey with key stakeholders and employees at different levels of their careers and different global experiences. We conducted regular stakeholder workshops and technology implementation workshops, and for the implementation, we also ran boot camps for our HR global colleagues. So the whole approach was to use design thinking and co-creation and to involve many stakeholders.

The customer experience

We learned a lot from the customer journey we used for workshops with key stakeholders. We looked at the different features of the global mobility journey, comprising the global mobility discussion and offer, relocation, integration, next steps discussion, and next move at the end of the assignment. For all these steps, there are key moments for us and the employee.

We received lots of feedback that helped us learn more about the assignee experience and where we can improve our approach not just in the types of mobility we need but also across the various steps of the journey. It revealed often-small details that can be improved in our process and what kind of support works well.

Nicolai: Novo Nordisk adopted many of the same approaches. On the personas side, as part of our seamless mobility project, we decided not only to develop personas but also to use them to enhance the way we deliver new services and products.

Use of personas

We analyzed our mobility data from 2014 to 2021 and extracted data points covering criteria such as nationality, family status, assignment location and gender. We tried to map these data points to look for representative data and patterns that reflect our assignees and customers, combining various criteria. With assignees in more than 80 countries, we were sometimes able to focus on the top 10 to provide a representative customer base, evaluating, for example, our top 10 countries for family status. From a DEI perspective, we chose to include representatives from diverse age groups and generations. This analysis ended with six personas.

For all, we have a detailed description, where we put in demographic data and a name.

seven people seated next to one another

At this early stage, we are primarily using personas in our center of excellence. We want to use them when we develop new products so that, when we review assignee experience or service blueprints, we can test them using the personas. And, when we design the experience journey, we want to use the personas to test how this would work for each of these. We will also consider personas when we discuss changes to our mobility framework or propose communications.

We aligned with our talent management colleagues, who also use personas, to validate how our personas should look and to what extent we can develop personas for their needs as well.

Avoiding bias

When using historical data, we know we may also replicate to some extent the limitations of that data, which could be biased. DEI initiatives have increased during the past three to four years, so the fact that the data may not be representative is something to be aware of. But you also need quite a large database to draw on so there is a balance.

Q. Can you describe the benefits of your new flexible approaches?

Anette: Global mobility has always been an important part of our employee development and business success. We are a company that depends on diversity because we believe it drives innovation, and global mobility supports this diversity.

Our transformation took our global workforce management to the next level as we have built an infrastructure to manage and grow employees globally in a more flexible and transparent way. We now offer career opportunities to all employees at different levels, which is, of course, a benefit for the business. Due to our connected purpose, we can better see the mobility business.

Our flexible approach is a huge benefit for the company itself. It positions us as an attractive global employer and helps us develop key skills and expertise across regions worldwide. It also helps us attract and retain talent because we can offer a lot to our employees.

The way we manage the whole approach is very flexible and supportive thanks to a new assignment management tool that offers a clear process. We always have a clear overview about what we are offering and what step we are at in the assignment process, as do our employees and key stakeholders. So we have improved not only the assignee experience but also the customer experience.

This was not designed as a cost-saving project, but we have more efficient cost management due to reduced exceptions and clear budgets for different types of mobility, meaning we can better steer our investment. So, overall, we have received great feedback and benefit a lot from our new system.

Nicolai: Everyone wins in this new approach: our customers, our assignees, the families, our lines of business and even our supply chain. We are now able to offer employees more and facilitate how they prefer to work without being limited by how we, as a company, want to work. We are able to support much broader situations and be more agile.

These tools enable assignees to reach their full potential and help us drive an inclusive culture, where all assignees have a sense of belonging and equal opportunities to reach their full potential. So, from the assignee experience, it’s very important. And it also helps us manage risk, which is critical for the business.

Q. What were the main challenges during implementation, and how did you enable your organization to manage culture change?

Anette: The project took us a while, partly due to the pandemic. We had to deal, for example, with organizational changes, including changing stakeholders. Co-creating, making sure you keep aligning and communicating, is very time consuming.

Content-wise, the challenges have not been too steep, as we adopted a design-thinking and co-creation approach involving many stakeholders throughout the organization. So the businesses, stakeholders and employees contributed actively through all project phases and work streams. This means they appreciate the changes we’ve made, and, for me, it was the most important aspect of enabling our organization.

Nicolai: One piece of advice is to make sure you have the right team. For example, if you are a tax expert focusing on compliance issues, you need to find the right balance with colleagues and suppliers to address these aspects while facilitating your overall approach as a company.

Also, when you start to work much more flexibly, make sure you have the resources from a technological perspective to connect your systems. For example, when we set out to work with our talent attraction colleagues to hire a new position, it was difficult to find the right triggering point from a system and process perspective to allow both systems to work together. Looking into your systems while trying to automate them can take time and requires analysis.

a diverse team at work

It is really important to build a very diverse project team that focuses on project management but also includes representatives from areas such as HR IT, corporate tax and your HR business partners.

Q. And what were the most important lessons learned?

Anette: I would use design-thinking tools again because we learned a lot, but this process was time consuming. It’s not enough to just involve the stakeholders for one workshop because, in a co-creation project or a customer journey, you ask for feedback and ideas for improvement, so you need to communicate back what happened with this input. You also raise a lot of interest and expectation that you then need to manage clearly throughout the whole project. So the ongoing communication need is intense.

My three other tips are:

  1. Never start to adopt procedures without defining a clear strategy first. We always had our strategy in mind when designing the different types of mobility.
  2. Involve business and HR stakeholders as well as employees to get insights from everyone. Keep communicating with them, because this helps when you implement the new framework.
  3. Don’t ignore your company culture. You can’t adopt a copy-and-paste approach as your new approach must fit with your own culture. Only when you understand your culture, your needs and how you are driving the business can you transform mobility and introduce more flexibility.

Nicolai: My advice would be the following:

  1. Sprint approach: From a project management perspective, our colleagues in HR IT typically work in sprints, helping them deploy products more easily. Breaking up a project helps you deliver very fast. In contrast, mobility tends to use a waterfall method in which you work on a long project until you deploy with big releases. Using smaller sprints worked very well and was a huge eye-opener for us.
  2. Focus on the minimal viable product: Sometimes, you have a tendency when you work with projects to add areas you want to improve. But that impacts project delivery and volume. We focused on our minimal viable product and saved enhancements for a later stage in the project pipeline.
  3. User testing: We saw the value of user testing not only from a technology functionality perspective but also for our communication materials. You can use testing when representing changes to the business or employees. We engaged with our user experience team as part of our release to help us achieve this.

Q. Finally, what are your predictions for flexibility in the future global mobility landscape?

Nicolai: This flexible way of working will definitely continue and advance even more. We are being asked as a function to facilitate really creative things. For example, we are seeing not only hybrid arrangements but also positions split into two within one role, with one part hybrid and the other not mobility related.

The next wave I anticipate is flexibility on how we deliver services. We will use technology to adopt an agile service delivery model and personas to adapt to customer preferences. Artificial intelligence will help us serve the varying ways individuals want to receive support, from those who want fully digitalized services to those who want a mix of human interaction and self-services. We’ll meet our customers’ needs by combining lean processes and methods with agile service delivery.

Annette: Flexibility will be about much more than just offering flexible benefits or different types of mobility to the business. We have now had several crises to manage. We need more agile processes, tools and operating models to be able to react in this volatile and uncertain world.

We’ve had our system for a year and already have many ideas about how to further increase flexibility. Our journey has not finished, and we’re ready to take the next steps.

Do you want to learn more about the current market trends and practices among multinational companies? Order your copy of Mercer’s 2022 Flexible International Mobility Policies Report for a deep dive into the policy flexibility trends from almost 200 organization