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The Next Normal: the business case for better mobility

by | Jun 18, 2024

The ‘New Normal’ is a chance to hone the ever-growing portfolio of mobility options and double down on strategic intent. Which practices and approaches offer the best return on investment – including upskilling mobility expertise? Ruth Holmes reports.

This post-pandemic pivot to greater flexibility over where, when and how we work is a watershed moment for mobility. More companies are recognising that the ability to attract, recruit and retain international talent goes way beyond the scope of traditional long-term assignments and business travel. They also understand that well-managed cross-border moves are a source of value, competitive advantage and resilience. This is to the extent that mobility is communicated and understood as part of the business’s employer value proposition.

The rise of mobility on the business agenda is mirrored in studies from within the sector, as well as figures from the Global Business Travel Association’s latest Outlook Index. This forecasts significant growth in business travel this year, which builds on 2023, where spending significantly outperformed expectations. For example, the top three markets by value – China, the US and Germany – posted annual growth of 39%, 25% and 38% respectively in 2023.

The GBTA’s figures and overall sentiments align with what we know about today’s enhanced spectrum of global mobility. The data show the cross-over to the kaleidoscope of global mobility options available, including split-family and fly-in, fly-out moves, extended business travel, commuter, international remote work and ‘policies of one’. Both of these trends are why today global mobility expertise increasingly cuts across functions and has board-level representation in the people and finance functions or standalone.

Evolving mobility

 EY’s 2024 Mobility Reimagined Survey is one of a number newly released that offers a fascinating perspective on this pivotal moment for the role of cross-border moves in 2024 and beyond.

Its analysis of the experiences of over 1,000 mobility professionals across 21 global geographies helpfully identifies five drivers of evolved mobility functions. It also quantifies the outcomes, finding that there are direct bottom-line benefits and greater organisational resilience where mobility is driven by:

  1. strategic alignment
  2. talent linkage
  3. digital focus
  4. flexibility
  5. external expertise.

These outcomes are linked to the extent that mobility functions focusing on the five drivers are:

  • over twice as likely to say mobility helps organisational resilience and address talent shortages
  • one and a half times more likely to say it helps address talent shortages
  • 3 times more likely to offer positive return on investment (ROI).

Interestingly, it also shows that – counter to the expectation people going on an assignment will leave on repatriation – well-managed cross-border-move life cycles actually make it more likely they will stay. Two-thirds (64%) of employees report they’re more likely to stay with their employer after a long-term cross-border assignment. The quality of the experience is the most relevant factor.

Speaking to ‘Think Global People’, Gerard Osei-Bonsu, EY Global People Advisory Services tax leader, gave his view on this moment for global mobility and what it means for global businesses and their global people.

“Having an effective international mobility function and programme in place is critical to creating a dynamic and empowered workforce,” he explains. “I feel that now because organisations have got more levers to pull in terms of how they deploy all that talent into growth markets or individual cases, mobility is getting far more prominence and visibility than it has done historically. All this is fantastic because it gives so much flexibility to how companies can deploy their talent around the organisation.”

His experience chimes with the GBTA data in that he is seeing a reduction in traditional fixed-term international secondments. “But we are seeing a rapid increase in other forms of mobility. The mobility function now needs to ensure they have a framework, operating model, policies and supporting technology to be able to manage that effectively. It also brings complexity in terms of how the different compliance requirements for those different types of mobility moves are managed and administered.”

 

Managing risky business

 The scale of the challenge facing global businesses and mobility teams is obvious. Seven in ten (71%) EY survey respondents say cross-border mobility risks have increased in the last two years. Two-thirds (66%) are also expecting mobility’s scope to increase. Nearly all respondents (97%) are looking to manage costs more effectively. As telling is 95% of employers believe there are benefits to more closely aligning mobility to business and talent goals, but 60% still see mobility as isolated or siloed from other functions.

While the EY study evaluates the financial benefits of aligning global people strategically through digital and external-expertise-enhanced frameworks, a new study by International SOS in partnership with KPMG highlights the cost of getting it wrong. It adds significant financial weight to the business case for emphasising the global people agenda at board level.

According to the report, the cost of a failed international assignment can range from USD $850,000 to $1.25 million in higher tax jurisdictions, such as Canada, the UK, Denmark, France, Belgium, and Germany – also the most common destinations. These costs include compensation, relocation costs, ongoing assignment support and taxes. However, they do not cover the lost opportunity costs and the potential cost of employee attrition, or the often-intense wellbeing impact on the employee and any family members.

Managing mobility and cross-border moves more purposefully can help mitigate these risks throughout the lifecycle. It’s become a question now of not ‘if’, but ‘how and when’, says Gerard Osei-Bonsu, highlighting the need for a much more integrated approach to cross-border moves.

“Mobility teams can no longer stand on an island. For a long time there has been a lot of talk about how do we integrate mobility into the wider talent and or business agenda of organisations. That pivot is here. Just being able to move someone from A to B and doing all the transactional activities linked to that is not enough.

“Organisations don’t want that. They are looking for someone who can business partner with them effectively, advise them on mobility strategies, identify who is the right person and what’s the right type of move and how to get proper ROI from this transfer. This is where mobility functions need to step up and be able to advise and engage with their businesses. That’s a big pivot from what they’ve done historically.”

Expanding the mobility function for global people

 In the New Normal, global mobility is increasingly about the ability of the function and sector to change, develop and step into this strategic advisor role, or recruit people with different profiles who can deliver as a business partner. Over the past year, the number of employers regarding mobility as critical for business resilience has increased from 74% to 89%.

“There’s definitely a learning piece here about being far more strategic than transactional in nature,” agrees Gerard Osei-Bonsu. “Quite often, when I have this conversation with mobility leads, they say, ‘I hear you, Gerard, but we don’t have the time to do both. I don’t have time to manage moves and sit down with the business to work out what talent needs there are in three-five years’ time. I don’t have the resource or the capacity.’”

The reality is that businesses also don’t have the luxury of standing still and not evolving their approach to global people and cross-border moves, as the International SOS figures show. Fortunately, “we are seeing a definite shift in the more evolved, progressive mobility approach programmes where the mobility function tag is almost falling away,” observes Gerard Osei-Bonsu. “It’s all generally being managed within the talent function. This is a particular specialism, but it is embedded into a talent and career framework of organisations, and not viewed as a separate transactional function. I think that particular trend needs to rapidly increase.”

For Gerard Osei-Bonsu, the data show the value to the business of intentionally creating the capacity to deal with the reality of the New Normal. “It means being more selective and maybe smarter about what they handle internally within their function versus maybe what they deliver through their own shared-service function and external providers. It’s about really starting to move out the transactional aspects to create more time to sit down and speak with the business.”

Five actions to evolve mobility and support global people

 EY’s 2024 Mobility Reimagined Survey sets out five steps businesses can take to maximise the impact of global mobility on employee experiences, organisational resilience and agility.

  1. Act strategically
  • Embed and align mobility into the wider organisational strategy.
  • Reduce operational silos and improve data exchange across business functions to increase mobility’s effectiveness.
  1. Integrate with talent
  • Embed mobility into the wider workforce agenda, recognising its importance to developing future leaders.
  • Enhance the mobility experience.
  1. Focus on digital
  • Promote the use of new digital tools and ensure humans are at the centre of transformation.
  • Prepare for GenAI to become widely adopted, with the potential to transform ways of working and mobile employee experience.
  1. Build people-first mobility programmes
  • Build in flexibility to mobility programmes to enhance employee experience.
  • Create a people mobility strategy that enables compliant hybrid and remote work.
  • Put sustainable and inclusive thinking at the heart of mobility programmes.
  1. Develop resilient operating models
  • Proactively address the rising risks caused by the changing mix of work models and international regulation.
  • Leverage external providers to access know-how and take the pressure off in-house resources.

 

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