Lessons from the pandemic for talent mobility management

By Olivier Meier, Mercer

HR teams face daunting challenges to mitigate the impact on the business of the Covid-19 crisis and manage the repatriation of a large part of their mobile workforces. HR will face fundamental questions about the future of talent mobility as organizations finally overcome the crisis. Will the number of international assignees decrease? Will some governments be tempted to restrict movements and further complicate compliance issues? How to manage mobility costs in the context of a potential recession?

These considerations are important and will have an impact on HR activities. But the crisis also offers an opportunity to reflect deeper on the talent mobility model itself and question how we manage and perceive talent mobility, its actual effectiveness, and its contribution to the resilience and success of the business over the long term.

The crisis reveals many shades of assignees

Talent mobility practices reflect the traditional opposition between expatriate and local employees. Over time, organizations have refined their approaches and come up with multiple assignee categories. Yet, the crisis reveals that these rigid policies seldom reflect the full reality of talent mobility. Furthermore, the purview of mobility management team doesn’t encompass the whole mobile workforce.

In theory, traditional expatriates are expected to return to their home countries. As the crisis forces an early repatriation, companies must now deal with the fact that many expats won’t have accommodations in their home locations. Their children will have left the local school systems, and many repatriated employees have no support networks in the place to welcome them home.

Then there is the question of how to deal with locally hired foreigners, who, according to HR policies, are not linked to a home country but will still need to be repatriated? Assignment contracts usually include no repatriation guaranty. Nevertheless, companies are now forced to deal with an unplanned emergency repatriation. This repatriation may be driven by governments or triggered by the employees themselves and forcing companies to react quickly.

Sometimes the “home country” of mobile talent might not be the one the company expects. Other assignees might refuse repatriation and argue that their assignment locations are their true homes – locations where companies might struggle to provide practical support and fulfill their duty of care.

The concept of global nomads has been popular for the past decade. The crisis shows that many so-called global nomads are not as international as thought. In times of emergency they understandably want to return to their true homes and be with their relatives.

The illusion of global nomadism dissolves quickly in the urgency of repatriation.

HR have to deal with many employees who were not on their radars: some mobile employees were not properly tracked, and many were not even considered as assignees in the first place. Duty of care trumps rigid company policies. HR teams might have to improvise support for a much wider population than what they thought.

And what about locals? It is morally acceptable to make a distinction between foreigners and locals?

This question is more relevant for crises triggered by war or natural disaster rather than COVID-19. In some cases locals have to be relocated domestically or internationally for their own safety or also because the organizations needs them at short notice somewhere else to maintain business continuity.

Building a more resilient model

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 should be part of the discussion when setting up a global mobility program.

Business continuity can be at risk when most assignees are leaving at once during a crisis.

In best-case scenarios, the disruption does not last long and the assignees return to 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.

Identifying essential staff and processes is a crucial step to ensure business continuity. In theory, organizations have organization charts and processes in place that helps understand the role of each assignees and their importance for business continuity.

The reality is more complex: employees cooperate among each other as a network and this informal collaboration are not captured by official org charts.

Network collaboration analytics are becoming more popular and for a good reason. Analytics help clarify the reality of employee interaction between employees and how disruption can affect business operations. Some employees are be very well connected, informing and supporting their peers. They play an essential role for the business operation. This informal role is seldom captured in their job descriptions. Other employees might be operating in silos and be isolated. They could constitute a weak link in the network in time of disruption. The conclusions of the collaboration analysis might highlight issues with current processes and encourage management to leverage existing informal forms of collaboration. Ultimately this makes the organization more resilient.

Building resilience also requires a better integration better the different teams.

HR, risk management, healthcare, compliance and other relevant topics are managed by different teams spread geographically and between business units.

Many mobility teams are rising to the challenge and leverage their international expertise to help the business.

However, they face issues that have little to do with their day-to-day tasks and often struggle to find the right contacts. Gaps between teams delay reaction time and ad to the general confusion.

At a strategic level, organizations will increasingly try to shorten their supply chains and that will influence 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.

We are missing more than just assignment ROI

In additional to a lack of short-term resilience, the traditional expatriate management model doesn’t always boost the capabilities of the host location business units over the long-term. The original goal of talent mobility was to replace expatriates with locals. This goal has not entirely successful due to persisting talent shortage and lack of systematic enforcement of original assignment objectives. In theory, international assignees move to a new location to grow the local business and train local employees. More often than not knowledge is not properly transferred. At the end of the assignments, expatriates have to be replaced by other expatriates.

Many companies still define assignment success based on short-term financial objectives (e.g. revenue growth for the current year) or defined it as an absence of premature termination of the assignment. International moves can be invaluable in many cases but there is not enough evidence that assignments can systemically benefit receiving business units over the long-term unless companies review assignment objective and rigorously enforce these objectives.

Assignment related objectives should aim to answer questions such as: Have several locals been trained to replace assignees? Are the processes and tools implemented by the assignees sustainable? Have client portfolios been successfully transferred to local teams?

Measuring long-term assignment objectives is different from calculating the Return On Investment (ROI). The ROI measures the financial return of an assignment by comparing its cost (direct and indirect) with the business value generated during the assignment. ROI is an important indicator but it doesn’t give an indication of the lasting impact of the assignment on the receiving business unit. The additional revenue generated during the assignment might be high and exceeds the costs incurred by the company but this is not a reliable predicator of the future performance of the receiving business unit.

We need a stronger alignment between assignment objectives and the performance of the host business over the long-term rather than focusing on the short-term performance of individual assignees. This won’t happen if assignment performance is only used as a tool to set a bonus for individual employees instead of being a key indicator for the business.

Moving from relocating expatriates to managing a distributed workforce

The COVID-19 crisis has to a dramatic rise in virtual working. Companies scramble to maintain business continuity while employees are forced to work from home and international assignees are repatriated. Virtual working – or “virtual assignments” in the case of mobile employees – will however require a different thinking from management, HR and assignees if it is to be become a more permanent practice.

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 workforce 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.

In other words, instead of relocating the employee from country A to country B, are we allowing the employee to move to a country C to perform the tasks that were meant to be performed in country B (effectively moving the job to the employee?)

Or, alternatively, are we allowing the employee to live in country C while commuting or flying regularly to country B?

Finally, we can simply allow the employee to remain in home country A and perform remotely the task meant to be performed in host country B.

This evolution doesn’t spell the end of some types of assignees (traditional expatriates) or the disappearance of existing policies and tools. Some categories of mobile employees might decline in relative terms (but not necessarily in absolute numbers) or some approaches become more popular (local approaches as opposed to home based). But moving jobs to people is not going to fully replace traditional mobility. It is one more tool in the growing arsenal that companies need to deploy their international operations.

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 diverse workforce in a more fluid and integrated way.

Managing expatriation

  • Expatriate versus locals
  • Individual moves
  • Clearly defined purview for mobility and HR teams/Fixed teams manage pre-defined groups/categories of employees.
  • Mobility teams collaborating with career management, benefits teams, risk, compliance and other HR teams
  • Tracking moves
  • Managing culture shock and expatriation/repatriation transitions

Managing an international distributed workforce

  • A mix of assignees, locally hired foreigners, third country/virtual assignees and locals with international responsibilities, working together Managing
  • Managing an international talent network
  • Mobility and HR as advisors for the company. Internal gigs/ad-hoc temporary teams (“flash teams”) to manage specific groups of mobile employees and projects.
  • Multidisciplinary teams
  • On-going monitoring of the situation of employees
  • Fostering collaboration, team building and addressing cultural issues in dispersed teams

Talent mobility has always been a work in progress. The COVID-19 crisis is exposing weaknesses and inconsistencies in current in mobility management practices.

It shows the limit of rigid organization models and policies.

It also forces HR teams to be more reactive, innovative, and agile to address the business’s needs and support assignees.

If talent mobility professionals can retain some of this reactivity and agility born out of the crisis, they will be in a good position to help organizations recover and become more resilient in the future.