Will global mobility disappear in a (post-)Covid world?
About a year ago I entertained the idea of a dystopian post-Coronavirus world, a version of an ’online’ world, where we would rather upgrade our ZOOM and Google Meets licences than book business trips and plan relocations… Luckily, such a scenario may remain fictional, because global mobility appears to be here to stay. Yet, according to Santa Fe Relocation’s latest Global Mobility Survey (GMS), it is evolving and challenging everyone involved to embrace the change.
One of the central and perhaps less surprising highlights of the survey is that global mobility becomes ever more complex and uncertain. Indeed, as relocating employees becomes more feasible again, with lockdown measures lifting and people getting vaccinated, mobility professionals will experience more uncertainties in terms of immigration conditions, time and terms of relocation. As such, previously more structured and clear global mobility programs might no longer work, and instead call for more agile and case-based solutions.
Given the increased complexity of global mobility because of the Covid-19 crisis, global mobility professionals report an increase in visibility to their leadership and an expected restructuring of their roles. Although this trend was already highlighted in the 2019 survey, the pandemic seems to have accelerated the shift of the Global Mobility function towards the strategic and advisory domain, while outsourcing administrative and operational functions either to internal shared services or to external specialist Global Mobility partners. In line with the 2019 survey findings, both Global Mobility professionals and Business Leaders agree that Global Mobility teams’ should prioritize (1) advisory services to employees, HR business partners and line management, (2) strategic workforce planning, (3) risk assessment, and (4) advisory services to executive management. In general, these are also the job areas that both parties expect Global Mobility professionals to spend more time on compared to what they currently do. Further, possibly highlighting the impact of the pandemic and its related uncertainties, business leaders placed much greater emphasis on cost estimations and forecasting than the previous year.
The survey findings also highlight the increased importance of information and data. In comparison to the 2019 data, there seems to be an increased expectation for more value-based information from Global Mobility Programs. Business Leaders expect to know more about program costs, receive updates on immigration and employment changes, review talent management ratings and be well informed about policy exceptions. The expectation to provide more and better data naturally drives businesses to consider investing in technology. New technology seems to be a game changer also in terms of tracking internationally mobile employees and compliance with the respective immigration, taxation and health-related regulations. Indeed, 63% of global mobility teams plan to invest in new technology in the next 24 months.
In terms of taking care of internationally deployed employees, the global pandemic has naturally shifted priorities towards employees’ health and wellbeing. Given the volatile Covid-19 related conditions, be it closed borders, increased health risks or closed schools, considering employees’ personal circumstances has become more important. As such, greater flexibility and agility in terms of global talent selection and mobility types is expected. For example, virtual assignments—although being a growing trend over the past years already—have greatly increased since the pandemic hit the world. At the same time, short-term assignments, strategic long-term assignments and business travel as a form of mobility are expected to decline. However, I would argue that if travel continues to be restricted for longer, we might very well experience a renaissance of more traditional, longer-term forms of global mobility. This may be particularly relevant given virtual assignments cannot fully substitute physical mobility; after all, certain objectives related to management development, strategic talent placement, or cultural integration cannot be well achieved virtually. All in all, mobility remains a strategic priority in organizations. Yet, greater challenges of how to manage global mobility force business leaders and global mobility teams to approach each mobile work arrangement with a more careful understanding of its purpose, objectives and expected return on investment.