Moving En Masse

By Lin Grensing-Pophal Feb 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, February 2005 Moving 50 employees instead of one does more than multiply HR's work -- it also adds new issues and complexities.

Think it can be challenging and even stressful to help an employee relocate? Then just think how much harder your job can become when you try moving eight employees at a time. Or 30.

Or 200. That’s how many employees were relocated when Boeing moved its corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago in the late summer of 2001. Although the move involved only a small fraction of the company’s more than 150,000 employees, it reflected many of the special characteristics of mass relocations, commonly referred to as group moves.

Group moves, unlike individual relocations, involve whole companies or business functions that move far enough away that employees and their families must pick up stakes, rather than simply alter their commuting patterns.

By their size alone, of course, group moves can strain a company’s relocation resources and can preoccupy a large portion of an employer’s workforce for a long period—even as the company tries to maintain its pace of doing business. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Such moves have their own dynamics that HR professionals must be sure to address, say experts.

Group vs. Solo Relocation

“The whole process of group moves is a lot different than a typical relocation,” says Joe Benevides, senior vice president of global business development for Paragon Relocation Resources Inc. in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

For example, employees in typical relocations are “on career paths in a management or sales capacity,” he says, but those who make group moves are more likely to represent “a broad range of employees” as well as upper-level executives and sales professionals. And unlike employees who get a new job and maybe a promotion when they relocate, employees who make a group move often get only a new business address, not the fresh opportunities of a new assignment.

“If you’re faced with an offer to move from Wisconsin to Dallas, where you’ll run an office or facility, and it’s a promotion, that could be a very exciting venture,” says Craig Caruso, senior vice president at Lexicon Relocation in Jacksonville, Fla. But “if you’re told, ‘We’re going to close your office in Wisconsin and offer you a move to Dallas, and if you don’t take it that ends your employment,’ it sets that whole process off on an entirely different tone.”

Group moves also can magnify the people issues that crop up in any relocation, particularly if a number of employees reinforce one another’s concerns or difficulties. Yet that group reinforcement also can work to everyone’s advantage, as some experts note. In a group move, unlike one-at-a-time relocations, employees can maintain many of their established social connections and thus can avoid the feeling that they are moving alone into uncharted territory.

“When you load everybody on a charter to fly out and stay at the same hotel, it’s a lot easier to commiserate and go through a situation where there’s a lot of people like you that are going through a similar experience,” says Jim Glickert, HR director for Boeing’s Chicago facility at its startup. “When we moved out here, my wife and I both made some new friends among the employees and spouses in the group. There’s a built-in support group.”

Nonetheless, the “group mentality” in large-scale moves must be managed, says Benevides. “You’re dealing with a large group of people who are all influencing each other.” That’s why, he says, it’s important to put a positive spin on the process from the outset and to have “a very cohesive communication plan so you can head off any negativity that might exist and get the retention rate up as high as you can.”

Logistics And a Lot More

HR professionals should never underestimate the complexities of a group move, advises Caruso.

“What makes group moves so challenging,” he says, “is just the intense amount of activity that takes place in a very compressed time frame. While you’re coordinating all of the activities related to the move, you’re still trying to manage your ongoing business and not drop the ball.” So it’s very important for HR “to allow sufficient time for planning and execution,” he says.

Benevides makes the same point: “Group moves are very time-consuming and require a whole different level of management and planning than a typical relocation program.” It’s also important to re-examine your relocation policies, some experts say, and make any needed changes so any shortcomings won’t be multiplied by the size of the group being relocated.

That might be a greater challenge for smaller companies, says Sally Wade, SPHR, director of HR and administration for Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc. in Pittsburgh, who managed a small group move. “Large companies that move people frequently are using these policies constantly and tweaking them as they go along,” says Wade. “Other companies may only do a relocation every couple of years, so they need to revisit the policies before they even start the process.”

Experts also suggest using outsiders to assist with a group move. Having a “neutral third party” involved when she moved eight employees from Atlanta to Pittsburgh was helpful, says Wade, particularly for employees who felt more comfortable speaking candidly with a third-party firm’s representative than they might have felt with company representatives.

Benevides recommends that HR make sure its relocation services providers have staff members experienced in group moves. They should be available to review or develop the group-move policy, plan the preview trips, do scheduling, arrange for all vendors and continually monitor all activities, he says.

While a successful group move requires careful preparation and logistical implementation, it also requires a lot of persuasion and communication. For example, says Caruso, companies may find “a city that’s willing to give them some tax credits or some very cost-effective space, and they think they’re halfway there. Well, not if they want to keep their talent and the people they’ve invested a lot of training and development in over the years. There are some critical steps that need to be taken in order to make employees willing to accept the move.”

Those steps, Caruso says, begin with site selection, budgeting, development of an action plan and possibly some surveys to determine if the company’s employees would accept a move to a particular location. Next, he says, there must be an effective communication plan, including employee briefings and orientation tours.

And last, Caruso says, management of the process must go on even after everyone has been relocated. You may be called on to help spouses find jobs or to help employees sell the houses they left behind and find new places to live, he says. “This doesn’t just happen in a month.” Boeing’s move, for example, took six months to complete, from announcing the decision to move, to picking a destination and relocating scores of employees and their families.

Friendly Persuasion And Communication

As Caruso and Benevides note, it’s crucial from the start of a group move for HR to communicate with employees and try to persuade them to come along.

At Boeing, the decision to move the headquarters went out to employees even before a new site had been selected. Glickert says that may have been a little too early because it set off lobbying among employees for various locations. “It would have been helpful for us if we had known the city right off the bat,” he says.

Nonetheless, Glickert would err on the side of communicating sooner rather than later. “My personal feeling is if a decision has been made to move, I’d let people start planning. Not only is that the fair thing to do for those relocating, but for people that aren’t going to make the move, it gives them the maximum amount of time to find something else.”

Says Wade: “We gave folks about seven months’ notice that we were going to move, and about 30 days to indicate to us whether they were going to relocate or not.” Bear in mind that some employees may not be able to move. They may have custody issues or family obligations, experts note, or an employee’s spouse may not be willing to give up a job.

And others simply may not be interested in the new location. In making your pitch to employees, “be realistic about where you’re moving folks to,” says Wade, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Workforce Staffing and Deployment Panel. “Unless you’re talking beaches or mountains, it may be a tough sell.”

Get Facts and Go Visit

Unlike solo relocations, group moves substantially increase the number of employees who need information. As a result, establishing detailed information and resources for all employees to share can be more valuable—and more practical—in group moves.

As soon as Boeing selected Chicago for its new headquarters, Glickert says, the company set up a relocation office at its Seattle headquarters. Next door was a room that became a temporary library of information on the Chicago area. The library also served as an on-site base of operations for a Chicago real estate professional who helped the relocating employees gain understanding of the Chicago real estate market. In addition, every Boeing employee who accepted the offer to move was assigned to a relocation specialist.

Another helpful tactic in persuading employees to relocate in a group move—just as it’s used in individual relocations—is to give them and their families a chance to see and experience the new location. Boeing arranged for charter flights to take groups of employees to Chicago to check out matters such as neighborhoods, housing and transportation options. The group trips also gave relocating employees a chance to share their impressions with one another.

To help employees see various neighborhoods’ relation to downtown Chicago, Glickert prepared maps that included real estate and commuting information. “People really liked that,” he says. “They could easily see how much it would cost to live in certain areas, and how long it would take to get to work. It was easy to see that if you were willing to commute an extra 20 minutes, for example, you could get a house for less money.”

Deal With Anxieties

Relocating is stressful. But at least in a group move, employees don’t have the added stress of worrying about starting a new job, right?

Wrong. In fact, relocated employees frequently find themselves in a new environment that can feel very much like an entirely new job.

Gale Baird, SPHR, can attest to that. Baird is business HR manager for a major segment of the Louisiana-Pacific Corp., a building products manufacturer that last year moved several administrative offices to company headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. The offices included not only hers in Portland, Ore., but also those in Idaho, Texas, North Carolina and Michigan as well as Montreal.

“One thing that’s difficult for some of the folks here is that our corporate headquarters is now located in a downtown area,” says Baird. “That’s not new for the Portland folks, but it is very new for those who came from North Carolina and Texas and some other locations. It’s a different place you drive up to when you go to work in the morning.” Moreover, she says, “it lends to the feeling that you’re working for a different company, in a sense.”

The stress of continuing to work in an office undergoing transition is another issue that HR must help relocating employees handle. As Baird points out, “Business has to go on.” When her company’s group moves to Nashville took place, she says, “it was a very busy year—the building industry was very hot for the entire season, and it didn’t let up. People still had significant parts of their jobs to manage, even if they were driving through cornfields as they headed to Nashville.”

One tool for helping employees handle relocation stresses is flexibility. For example, although the new corporate offices opened last July 1, Baird was able to postpone the completion of her move until late September, when the house she was building was ready to be occupied. “I didn’t want to move twice if I could help it,” she says, “and my manager was very understanding in being flexible with me on that.”

Although her manager made the move too, Baird says that was not why he was accommodating; he is by nature very understanding of employees’ circumstances. Moreover, she notes, “the program was designed to allow affected employees as much flexibility as possible.”

Because employees moved at slightly different times, communicating became a challenge, however.

“One of the things that was apparent to those of us who were at a different stage of the move is that right around the end of June, it seemed like people just dropped out of sight,” says Baird. “It was because they were driving cross-country to their new homes, and they needed to do that because they had pets, or they just loaded the kids in the car and off they went cross-country to the new location. But it seemed like we’d be saying, ‘Where is Dave?’ or ‘Have you heard from Susan?’ ”

Gradual Readjustment

For HR professionals, the implications and responsibilities involved with a group move don’t end once the affected employees have accepted the positions offered to them, or even when the last moving truck pulls away from the curb of the last relocating employee. It may be necessary for quite some time to continue communicating with the relocated employees, supporting them and encouraging them.

It’s not easy, but it has its upsides. Says Caruso: “You’re helping a family transition to a new location during one of the most stressful times of their lives. That can be very rewarding.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002) and is director of corporate communications at Luther Midelfort-Mayo Health System in Eau Claire, Wis.

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