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Energizing the mobile workforce and dealing with employee fatigue

By Olivier Meier, Mercer

The 2021 Mercer Global Talent Trends Study found that one of the biggest risks for HR in 2021 is employee fatigue. This should not come as a surprise after the shock of the pandemic. However, this trend is not entirely new and we need to look deeper at the roots of employee demotivation. The new world of work offers promises of flexibility and new forms of collaboration that provide opportunities for employees to thrive. It also comes with new risks for employees and organizations who fail to adapt to change. So how do we move beyond simple HR gimmicks to fight employee fatigue and truly re-energize the workforce?

Fatigued or energized?

We see, unsurprisingly, striking differences when analyzing the opinions of energized employees compared to their less energized ones. The negative perception of demotivated employees pervade many aspects of their work and not just performance.  There are less likely to embrace the reskilling agenda or new changes. Their perception of the competitiveness of their pay or career perspectives is skewed. Fixing isolated issues — for example with a salary increase — is not likely to be sufficient to re-engage these employees.

The effect of employee fatigue are not always visible. Less energized top talent might deliver a mediocre performance that is sufficient to retain their jobs but falls short of their true potential. Retention rates do not tell the whole story either, as less energized employees might not trust themselves to find another job and stay in the organization due to a perceived lack of options. The Global Talent Trends study identified other differences between fatigued and energized employees.

Characteristics of fatigued versus energized employees
Less energized employees Energized employees
More likely to share that they feel at risk of burnout; more likely to be unsatisfied yet more likely to stay (42% of de-energized employees are unsatisfied but stay due to lack of options). 5 times more likely to be thriving and 3 times more likely to say they want stay with the organization.
Less likely to know how their pay compares to those in similar roles or think they are paid under the market median. 20% of de-energized employees don’t know if their pay is competitively positioned (compared to just 5% of energized). 25% think they are below market rate, whereas  only 9% of energized employees think this. Believe they are contributing to a high performing organization 1.5 times more likely to work for a high performing organization (37% of energized employees work for a company exceeding performance goals.)
Less confident to embrace the reskilling agenda. 1 in 4 low energy (27%) employees say “I am concerned that I won’t be able to pick up the skills quick enough” compared to just 12% of higher energy employees. More likely to ask for a promotion (73% of energized EEs asked for a promotion compared to just 51% of de-energized peers).

Exploring the roots of employee fatigue

Employee fatigue stems from many reasons, including ones linked to personal circumstances that are beyond the concern of companies, but others stem from the work environment. Here is a short list of possible causes that HR should bear in mind.

Crisis aftermath

During the pandemic, employees had to face not only health concerns but also stress and social isolation. International assignees forced to repatriate at short notice or separated from their families throughout the pandemic have been particularly affected. The economic crisis is adding potential financial worries, and it is not just about the employee. Family finances might take a hit if the spouse is made redundant. Repeated workforce downsizing could also have a lasting impact on motivation and company culture. The pandemic may also have been a time for employees to reflect on new priorities. They work they do, or even some of the value of their employers, may no longer be aligned with their own aspirations. These workers might be less willing to expatriate or might request different forms of assignments.

Demotivated returnees

Managing repatriation and the subsequent career of international assignees is a perennial issue for companies. Many organizations use assignee retention as a benchmark to monitor the success of their assignment program. In reality, assignee retention rates are misleading. Companies cannot always guarantee returning assignees jobs that would leverage their newly acquired skills and experience. The assignees themselves might have lost their business network or become out of touch with recent business developments in their home country. They may suffer from reverse culture shock if they have been abroad for a long period of time. Demotivated and underperforming former expatriates staying in the same companies are putting their careers at risk and constitute a burden for their employers.

Change fatigue

HR leaders say that the primary barriers to transformation in 2021 are juggling multiple priorities (47%) and employee exhaustion (45%). Even before the pandemic, many changes were in the pipeline in most organizations: upskilling/reskilling programs, adoption of new technologies, reorganization to optimize costs, etc. Employee exhaustion in the face of constant changes was already noted as a key concern in Mercer’s 2019 Global Talent Trends Study. The pandemic has accelerated this trend. We should also not underestimate the propensity of new managers of suggesting change for its own sake, just to leave their mark or to justify their new roles, and out of “short-termism “ (frequent contradicting changes with no sense of direction). Change may be good, but HR teams need to ensure that all employees are on board and that the pace is manageable.

The two sides of the flexible working coin

Flexible and remote working have helped ensure business continuity and offered new possibilities for employees. In 2021, it remains at the top of the HR agenda, and mobility managers are exploring ways to allow different forms of remote working and virtual assignments. However, what constitutes a positive change for some employees can also become a nightmare for others. Single parents forced to juggle between childcare and working from home or remote workers struggling with the technologies and facing doubts from their managers about their productivity are exposed to additional stress.

Lack of inclusion and equity

Not all employees are equal in the new world of work or when facing the challenges of international assignments. Problems can be due to a lack of equity — gender pay equity but also equity between international employees performing the same type of jobs in different locations (remote working). Not all inclusion issues are visible: female employees or talent from minority groups might dismiss themselves and not apply for assignments or promotion due to the absence of perceived support, role models, or success stories.

Practical steps to energize the mobile workforce

The debate about re-energizing employees needs to lead to practical initiatives. Here are some steps to make real, lasting differences in employee engagement.

Identifying real motivation drivers

There are a lot of misconceptions about what truly motivate employees. Assumptions are being made about the expectations of the different generations and other employees groups. Not all of these assumptions are backed by research or applicable to all organizations worldwide. At a high level, there are indications that employees want their employers to promote responsible rewards, integrate wellbeing in their policies, and provide a greater purpose. Our Global Talent Trends Study lends further insight on this.

Employees prefer to work for an organization that is known for:
Responsible rewards 50%
Physical, Psychological and financial wellbeing 49%
Sense of purpose 37%
Concern for the environment and social equity 36%

The high-level conclusion is above all an invitation to broaden our view of what motivate employees and analyze rigorously what would work for a given group of employees in a specific organization. Excessive generalization and superficial benchmarking are not helpful.

Furthermore, the sums of all the small initiatives in an organization do not always translate to a consistent overarching story. Organizational purpose — and how it is put into practice through executives’ words, policies, and actions — has never been more scrutinized.

High-level principles need to trickle down to all policies levels including talent mobility: why do we move people and how does it contribute to the wellbeing of employees (in the wider sense of life achievement) and receiving countries? Does talent mobility foster inclusion? How do we integrate the carbon footprint of international assignment?

Setting a process to improve employee experience

Companies are increasingly using a mix of design thinking, segmentation approaches, and technology to better understand employee experience and come up with new solutions. This is a collaborative process. International assignees run the risk of facing inconsistent experiences if the different stakeholders globally do not share the same principles, and if processes are applied inconsistently. Assignees can be ambassadors of good practices or witnesses of toxic management styles. Leveraging their experience is important.

Top employee experience tenets
Journey mapping critical experiences for employees 56%
Conducting design workshops with employee to rethink the employee experience 51%
Deploying new technologies to streamline work processes 49%
Implementing continuous listening feedback platforms 48%
Equipping managers to own the employee experience 38%
Using employee personas to segment the workforce 24%

Provide practical and visible support

Following the experience of the pandemic, companies are expanding their health programs: 47% of companies plan to add emotional health benefits. Digital care delivery is playing an increasing role: 36% of companies want to enable digital check-ups to promote health goals. Only 23% of organizations provide financial education for employees, but the number is increasing — an important issue for mobile employees whose savings, benefits, and pensions can be affected by currency fluctuations or bad investment decisions. While many companies measure diversity and inclusion gaps and inequities, only 12% use analytics to identify the underlying causes of pay inequity.

Making flexibility work for all

Even if a job is flexible enough to be performed remotely, it does not mean that all employees are equally prepared for it. Flexible working can be part of an employee value proposition if practical support is provided and processes adapted to enable remote workers to succeed. This implies an assessment of the needs of the different employee groups/personas, an audit of the current processes, and training for remote workers as well as their managers and their on-site peers. Trainings should tackle a mix of practical issues (technology and organization) as well as cultural issues and virtual team building. Inclusion and diversity questions should also be included in remote working programs to avoid turning some of the international remote workers into perpetual outsiders.

Companies are also facing issues about the feasibility of internationally remote working.

Expectations from employees and management are high, but restrictions have to be put in place for compliance or practical reasons. The discussions will require pedagogy and clear communication with the stakeholders.

In a time of change and recovery, companies will be judged on their capacity to provide practical responses to employees’ hope and doubts. International HR professionals need to accompany employees on their journeys in the new world of work and seize this opportunity to demonstrate their capacity to combine technical expertise with a human touch.

More than ever, managing a globally distributed workforce will require talent mobility managers to show empathy, common sense, and a deep understanding of what mobile employees need and expect.

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