Mobility Professionals Take on HR-Like Qualities

Advising senior leaders on compliance issues and candidate fit are becoming part of the mobility job

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin October 18, 2018
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​Employee relocation—long viewed mostly as a logistical endeavor of shifting people and their belongings from one place to another—has been taking on a larger, more strategic role for many organizations.

New technology and a demand for a smoother employee experience are driving a global mobility transformation, as more employers shift the function from strictly administrative to part of their talent acquisition and retention offerings. Depending on the employer, global mobility incorporates not only shipping household goods, but also helping spouses and navigating housing, medical care, schools and other facets of living in a new country.

At the same time, changing immigration laws and the evolving nature of the workforce are changing the relocation business.

"HR, and mobility functions in particular, must adapt to the evolving needs of businesses. Most already agree the old, traditional approaches to international assignments and domestic relocations are no longer appropriate for all moves," said Andrew Walker, director of global mobility at consulting firm EY.

The mobility role traditionally served as an "order taker," helping to move specific employees chosen for defined roles in predetermined locations, but these plans didn't always make sense, Walker said.

"We have observed cases where the assignee was a wrong cultural or personality fit for the host office, challenging family circumstances would make settling in overwhelming, or the underlying business drivers behind the assignment were ill-defined or even absent," he said.

"Although I doubt it is yet the norm, more and more mobility functions are working hard to be more strategically aligned to the business," he said. "This goes beyond having more-strategic conversations about embedding mobility into the business and talent plans. It can involve actually restructuring the mobility function to optimally align itself with the decision-makers in each business unit." 

HR-esque Challenges

Peggy Smith, president and CEO of mobility industry trade association Worldwide ERC, in Arlington, Va., sees numerous mobility complications for HR. "First, there's rampant disruption in how and where and why we work and do business and how, going forward, we will attract and keep customers and employees," she said. "There are layers of demographic differences with multiple generations in the workplace, with a number of varied needs and preferences to be served."

There's also broad geopolitical ambiguity and "more nationalism, more immigration concerns and unclear workforce futures in many countries and regions," she said.

Strategic workforce planning is more complex than it has ever been, so HR needs to build strategic partnerships with mobility and other HR-related functions, including talent acquisition and learning and development, according to Smith.

The biggest challenge corporate mobility faces today is also an HR quandary, according to Taryn Kramer, vice president, global consulting practice leader, at Chicago-based relocation and moving services firm Sirva. Mobility professionals are moving from a purely operational role to a larger, strategic-partnership role that advises management, for instance, on why one candidate is preferable to another, or why a given location works better, based on the candidate's profile.

"We partner with internal mobility team members to ask, 'How can you be more efficient with what you do? How can you play a more strategic role within your organization?' " she said.

Sirva's 2018 Annual Mobility Report found that 36 percent of companies characterize their mobility policies as completely or somewhat misaligned or neutrally aligned with their business and talent objectives. Nearly the same percentage characterized their mobility service delivery model as completely or somewhat misaligned or neutrally aligned with their organization's strategy and objectives. Forty-six percent of companies ranked process efficiency as their top mobility challenge, the report found.

Strategic Partners

Mobility professionals won't necessarily select the final candidate for relocation, but they can get involved with the process early, Kramer explained. They might share with management, for example, the immigration, legal, logistical and housing challenges that a particular location may pose for certain candidates, noting that a same-sex couple or a family of seven might face unique obstacles in certain destinations.

Sending talent abroad can help spread corporate headquarters culture to far-flung offices, she added, and many companies are engaging relocation vendors with organizational culture in mind rather than a traditional client/vendor relationship.

Employee experience is becoming an important piece of the rapidly changing global mobility landscape, according to Ed Hannibal, global employer services leader for Deloitte.

"Employers want to deploy their employees in an elegant and simple and pleasing fashion, and for those reasons companies are looking at different service delivery models, and they're asking their vendors to enhance and achieve that employee experience," he said.

Moving people, animals and belongings and helping people connect with housing, doctors and schools in their new locations—"all of that is being digitized," Hannibal said.

Mobility now encompasses more than the traditional expat experience of a three-to-five-year overseas assignment, Hannibal noted. "Those are still very solid talent choices that organizations need, but now you're talking about a much broader definition around mobility" that includes moving people on more of a permanent basis and hiring internationally, and considering changes in the future of work, such as shifts toward a contingent workforce, he said.

A decade ago, EY supported 90 percent of its expat workers with traditional and expensive assignment packages based on home-country compensation and allowances for life in the host country, Walker said. Today, fewer than 10 percent of the firm's employees receive those packages, while the rest work under various terms designed to address their specific needs.

"I suspect most organizations have seen similar adjustments, introducing greater flexibility into their programs to support many different assignee profiles—eager volunteer, high-potential talent, knowledge conveyor, executive leader, to name a few," he said.

Kramer said organizations need to understand their overall strategy from a growth and talent perspective to shape their mobility programs. Younger employees are often looking for careers that will give them a global experience, resulting in global mobility becoming part of the recruiting package for some companies, she said. "The fact that an organization allows for individuals to take on global opportunities becomes a point of attraction for some of the newer workforce that's coming into play."

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a former Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires staff reporter, is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. 

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