Practical Steps to Prepare for the New Realities of Global Mobility

Olivier Meier
11 min readMay 29, 2020
Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

Here are seven practical ideas that will help you move your mobility management practices to the next level. These solutions reflect important themes for international talent management: breaking boundaries between functions, acquiring new skills, and leveraging best practices from other departments including marketing, IT, and finance to help HR teams become more strategic.

1. Implementing agile management techniques

When applied to global HR and international talent management, the idea of agility can refer to many things: agility in resourcing (finding the right mix of buying, building, and borrowing talent), in the way policies are setup (introducing a degree of flexibility), or in the use of technology. From a practical perspective, it can be about the adoption of Agile organization and project management approaches.

Learning from IT development best practices

The concept of Agile project management was initially introduced for IT development but has spread to other functions and across industries. Traditional project management relies heavily on planning, fixed roles, and sequential development. By contrast, Agile frameworks rely on adaptive methods with limited upfront planning and a focus on having a series of working deliverables brought to customers regularly to constantly improve and add new functionalities (incremental approach).

Agile teams are cross-functional and self-organize with the help of a facilitator (Agile coach / scrum master) to deliver solutions answering the needs of the stakeholders.

An Agile team perform a series of “sprints” — short periods of time during which the team focuses on developing deliverables that can be showed to stakeholders to gather feedback and constantly improve the solution delivered.

A new way to organize HR and manage projects

Agile frameworks can be introduced to:

  • Reorganize the whole talent mobility function and the way it delivers value to the business.
  • Improve the responsiveness and flexibility of the mobility team and especially the way projects are managed (e.g. policy development, technology implementation, and large relocation exercises).
  • Expand the toolbox of international HR teams by introducing elements of Agile management in their daily practices.

The objective is to reorganize part or all of the HR function into multidisciplinary teams to increase speed and adaptation, bring down barriers between departments (think about bridging the gap between talent management and mobility teams), and foster continuous improvement. Global mobility teams already include a broad range of competences and act as advisers or internal consultants for various part of the business.

Whether you are looking for tools to improve global mobility project management or considering a wider reorganization of the HR functions, the Agile methodologies provide tools that you need to be aware of. Introduce a dose of Agile, Scrum, or Lean management techniques into your mobile talent management practice.

2. Moving forward with metrics and analytics

The adoption of advanced analytics is accelerating in organizations, and its use is growing in the field of global workforce management and talent mobility. This trend is driven by the need to enable more talent mobility without increasing cost and complexity, which is whetting the appetite for process optimization, bringing to the forefront the real value of talent mobility and the importance of making more rational decisions about it. While talent mobility analytics has not reached full maturity yet, it is an increasingly important trend that should not be ignored.

Preparing people for analytics

From a people perspective, start exploring how to build up your analytics capabilities. This could imply upskilling HR teams, building a dedicated cross-functional team, leveraging existing analytical teams with your company, or partnering with an external provider. Lessons can also be learned from other departments within the organization that have already implemented analytics, such as marketing, client services, and finance.

Preparing data management for analytics

Effective data management requires rigorous auditing to understand what’s available, have clear definitions and labelling (data dictionary), as well as clear planning/mapping of the data (interaction between the pieces of information). This preparation work is time consuming and will determine the success of any analytical projects and the quality of the data.

Practical implementation

Ensure that the basics are in place: mobility metrics allowing you to track accurately all types of assignments, track costs, and assess potential compliance issues. You can then move on to more comprehensive analytics and ultimately predictive analytics.

Take it step by step and break down what you have to do into small steps to generate quick wins. Too many organizations start out with high expectations but stop after just analyzing basic assignment metrics due to lack of resources and visible short-term results, or they try to launch over-engineered projects that yield little value and are not sustainable.

3. Developing a clear mobility program branding

Global mobility and employer branding

Employer branding is a recruiting tool that is becoming more important in the context of war for talent. Interestingly, it is also an area where marketing and HR meet. Global mobility has a role to play when it comes to employer branding at two levels:

  • How can mobility impact overall employer branding? With the promise of an international experience that could attract high-potential candidates. How should mobility be positioned as part of your employer brand?
  • How to brand the mobility program itself? What are the career and personal benefits of your program? How is it advertised? Success stories and unique value propositions that help differentiating from competitors are important.

Developing an assignee Employee Value Proposition

Clear mobility branding implies developing a unique Employee Value Proposition (EVP) for mobile talent. An Employee Value Proposition (EVP) is the total value an employee receives from the company: compensation, benefits, career management, workplace/lifestyle, and employee pride. The EVP defines the commitment the company will make to develop the employee in exchange for the effort the employee puts in to benefit the company. Tell a story to explain what the program is about for the different assignees groups: young professionals (millennials), older employees, single parents, large families, etc.

Adopt marketing best practices

There is much more that international talent mobility can learn from marketing: assessing assignee advocacy rates (what proportion of assignees are promoting your mobility program), managing key influencers (which assignees or stakeholders have the most impact on the perception of your program?), checking your mobility brand consistency (discrepancies between the brand and the reality of mobility management), and using storytelling to promote your program.

4. Building up the talent pipeline to foster diversity

Solving a problem like diversity is not just about reaffirming principles. From a practical perspective it is about building a strong and diverse international talent pipeline. The objective is not just to increase the number of women and minorities on assignments but to leverage the benefits of international experience to build up the leadership pipelines for these groups and achieve diversity at the top managerial level.

Exploring untapped international talent pool

Widen your net to capture new and more diverse talent groups:

  • Re-joiners. Programs can help women (and men) who took a break for personal or family reasons to come back to the workforce.
  • Accompanying spouses. The inability of employees’ spouses to find work in the host location is one of the greatest barriers to global mobility. Spouses of assignees might have to stop or slow down their careers. Offering them a chance to work during the assignment or helping them rejoin the workforce upon repatriation is a win-win scenario for assignees and companies.
  • Returnees. Returnees are employees who lived and studied abroad and are returning to their countries of origin. This is major trend underpinning the fast growth of the emerging markets and constitutes a virtuous circle: highly skilled employees move back to help the economy of their country of origin grow. Their successes encourage more skilled individuals to make the journey back, thus fueling on-going growth and better integration of emerging markets in the global economy.
  • Another option is to explore talent without formal education or from countries where the credibility of diplomas is hard to assess. New ways of assessing objectively the potential of employees such as gamification are increasingly used by companies as they try to hire a more diverse international workforce that doesn’t share the same educational background as typical headquarter employees.

Rethinking competency management

Distinguish between essential skills and skills that can be built up through developmental moves and ad-hoc training. Review job descriptions to ensure that you are not unwittingly excluding potential candidates by modelling your requirements on a specific existing employee group (i.e., the perception of the “perfect candidate” could be unconscious bias).

Developing inclusive mobility policies

Review your policies to check if it meets the needs of all employee groups and is flexible enough to address specific requirements (e.g. single parents on assignments.) It pays off to mention explicitly that the organization is supporting all groups and to leverage role models and success stories.

5. Developing upskilling strategies

Upskilling is major challenge for HR and global mobility teams, as they should be agents of change within the organization and facilitate the upskilling of the workforce while also upskilling themselves to respond to new business and technological challenges.

Assessing the benefit of developmental moves

Mobility play an important role in the development of high-potential talent. In many multinationals, going an assignment is perceived as a pre-condition to reach top managerial levels. However, when digging one level deeper in the analysis, we can question the absolute value of mobility and ask ourselves what type of moves are really beneficial for an individual’s career: not all assignments are equal, and we often see a mismatch between the talent agenda of the company and the realities of talent mobility.

Mapping potential career accelerators with assignment destinations is a good exercise: working in select destinations or being on specific types of assignments could be identified as a fast track to reach top managerial levels while other destinations provide little career benefit.

Valuing lateral mobility

From a geographic mobility perspective, lateral moves are about moving employees between subsidiaries rather than from the headquarters of the company to a subsidiary. It also means that moves between emerging markets are growing faster than moves from developed countries to emerging markets. The rise of developmental lateral moves is a feature of globalization and a sign that global mobility is become more mature as well as an indication of the ever greater participation from employees from emerging markets in the expatriate workforce.

From a career management perspective, lateral moves are about moving between types of jobs as opposed to being promoted within the same job family (vertical moves). Lateral moves are important because they can ease the pressure by increasing the number of possible job options for employees. In a context of fast workplace changes and digitalization, they are a way to develop new skills and maintain employability. The future of work is about changing jobs and even career paths frequently as opposed to having a linear career progression. But this kind of flexible career path can only work if there is a greater degree of recognition and acceptance of lateral moves by both employees and management.

Evaluate the reskilling requirements of the mobility team

Addressing new business realities will increasingly require a mix of new tools, process, technical knowledge, and a new set of competencies that is not always readily available within existing mobility teams.

For HR and mobility in particular, becoming strategic or even staying relevant for the business going forward often means the need for more interaction with the other functions and moving away from siloed approaches; in other words, more interaction with the C-suite, finance, and line management. This means mastering new technologies not only to respond to the complexity of mobility tasks, time, and resources constraints but also to be able to provide more relevant input.

According to a recent Mercer survey, some of the skills becoming more important for mobility professionals include: mastering compliance issues, metrics and cost reporting, presenting compelling business cases, storytelling and mobility program marketing, statistical literacy, technology literacy, and broad reward skills.

6. Managing mobility costs: practical steps to achieve significant savings

Discussions about the costs of mobility focus too often only on direct costs and reflect a degree of subjectivity: how stakeholders perceive the value of assignments influences their cost sensitivity. It’s important to reframe the discussion and clarify if the issue with mobility is really about cost or about its lack of perceived value. Furthermore, remember that the real costs are not immediately visible: the greatest risks are losing high potential talent, low productivity, and missed business opportunities.

A wider talent pool means more choices

A limited pool of candidates is driving costs up. The cost of assignees may vary widely depending on their home country, current compensation package, family status, and personal expectations. It’s too late to complain about the costs once a candidate has already been selected.

Adopt a broader definition of mobility to have more options

Don’t be constrained by the traditional definition of mobility (which is too often synonymous with long-term assignments) and look for an alternative. Assess when other types of moves, such as commuters, frequent business travelers, or even virtual assignments can replace traditional expatriate assignments. Remember that mobility is as much moving jobs to people as moving people to jobs and that you can sometimes also take relocation out of the equation by hiring foreigners locally.

Segment your policies

Segmenting your policies is a good way to reconcile the cost control versus international expansion dilemma in a context of budget constraint by shifting budget from less essential moves to assignment that are critical to the business.

Managing assignment allowances

Make a distinction between core equalization package items (e.g. cost-of-living allowances and tax equalization) and flexible items that could be decreased (e.g. mobility premiums). Many companies find they don’t need extra incentives for all types of moves.

Avoid on-going cost commitments

Always bear in mind potential long-term consequences of compensation adjustments on the future cost of mobile employees before tampering with base salaries. Employees will resist future attempts to decrease what they perceived as core compensation — unlike relocation allowances, base salary increases are likely to be permanent.

Control exceptions

Create internal awareness about mobility policy exceptions and make sure a robust approval process is in place (preferably involving senior management). Clarify what is non-negotiable and keep exceptions in line with the core principles of the policies. If possible, suggest using predefined alternatives (e.g. an existing assignment category in a segmented policy) as opposed to ad-hoc deals.

7. Assignees versus international gig workers: managing a dual workforce

Many of the future expatriates you will manage may not even be employed by your company. One of the key trends of the future of work is that organizations will not just have to build (train) or buy (hire) talent, they will need to learn how to effectively borrow talent.

Mobility policies need to be adapted for gig workers

Managing an international gig worker is less about moving someone from one country to another and more about dealing with the consequence of a move that already happened. Highly skilled international gig workers are more likely to be either locally hired foreigners or on virtual assignments, rather than fitting in the traditional long-term assignment model.

Adapting remuneration packages

In a gig economy, organizations are increasingly paying for skills rather than for jobs as such. This implies understanding the relevance of the skills of potential candidates and their experience (skill depth). Furthermore, remuneration of gig workers is affected by the duration of the tasks performed, the business requirements (and urgency), and the global competitive environment (skill supply).

Remuneration options to consider include various forms of lump-sum payments to reflect the preference of gig workers for cash amount over benefits in kind. The per diem approach commonly used for short-term assignment can be tailored for gig workers on project assignments. If benefits are provided, the question of portability (i.e. transferability) of these benefits will be essential for gig workers.

Reconsidering career incentives

The sum of all gigs doesn’t always constitute a career. HR teams are not equipped to follow the careers and evaluate the performance of this new category of professionals. One of the main goals of gig workers is not to be promoted within the organization but to increase their employability and capacity to win additional gigs.

Compliance and liability: the risks of venturing into gray areas

The concept of a gig worker is not always well-defined and encompasses different realities that means that company risks operating in gray areas. Legal definitions and contractual agreements vary by country. If the contractual obligations have not been clearly defined or if the local employment law is subject to interpretation (due to rapid changes and new questions brought up by the gig economy), companies could find themselves facing legal complications. Do not automatically assume that gig workers are independent from the company or the company has no liability and duty of care towards them.

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Olivier Meier

Exploring trends about people management, workforce mobility, globalization, work from anywhere and the future of work.