Fast forward to 2020 – The future of global mobility?

Inspired by a session at the Worldwide ERC conference in Boston, Fiona Murchie asked some leading global mobility practitioners for their perspectives on the current and future global mobility scene.

global mobility

2020 Vision

Looking through the programme for Worldwide ERC's 2015 Global Workforce Symposium (Boston, 7–9 October), the session Perspectives on Mobility 2020 caught my eye.

The complex, dynamic landscape of the global mobility industry has changed considerably in recent years. We have moved from a focus on classic international secondments to a more flexible mobility world that includes the use of short-term and commuter assignments and extended business trips – not to mention moving jobs to people and the increase in 'virtual' mobility. This rapid transformation looks set to continue.

Led by moderator Cecilia M Franchi, director of Global Consulting at MSI Hampton, and presenters David Schofield, director of Murray Court Consulting, and Laurette Bennhold-Samaan, COO of Aperian Global, the WERC session will look ahead over the next five years, from the perspectives of both corporate multinationals and service providers and what they can expect to see and experience.

It will examine the economic, political, personal, social and technological factors likely to impact global mobility, and suggest how corporate mobility leaders and service providers can best respond to these challenges.

Crystal-gazing

With this session in mind, I thought it would be interesting to ask some leading global mobility practitioners for their views on where the next five years would take us.

In the 21st century, technology is one of the fastest changing aspects of any field. I asked Alex Rubin, director of Mobility Technology Services at PwC in the US, how he saw technology shaping the future of global mobility.

Noting a shift in thinking over the past two years from "technology as an add-on to core mobility services" to "technology as an enabler of successful mobility programmes", Alex Rubin told me, "Linking all aspects of an international or local move cycle, from business need to successful return home, is where technology shines. The future will see workforce data analytics, including cost estimates, actual costs and demographics, used to make business decisions on relocating employees."

Worldwide ERC presenter Laurette Bennhold-Samaan believes that large and small companies will both contribute to technology, but in different ways. "The large organisations will provide more cloud services and will move away from technology services installed on site within an organisation to services being hosted and maintained by third parties.

"There will be more mobile apps and web-based services that have traditionally delivered assignee information. Expats will be able to access much more on mobile devices. The use of quick response codes or square barcodes to deliver virtual multimedia messages through mobile apps will increase."

Shaun Hinds, managing director, EMEA and APAC, at serviced apartment company BridgeStreet Global Hospitality, told me, "There is hardly any way of working that won't be affected by technology. Organisations will seek to use tech to unlock efficiencies and savings whilst empowering employees to do more self-serving.

"We are surely not too far away from the Uber for mobility. Some may already lay claim to that accolade. Companies will have to adapt their systems to connect with the emerging trends, while those trends will most likely evolve and change at a much faster pace."

Andrea Elliott, senior counsel at immigration consultancy Pro-Link GLOBAL, pointed out that technological products and innovations were already making it possible for people to work from anywhere. Companies that could manage and promote this new way of working would attract and retain the best talent.

"The bigger organisations may have the resources," she said, "but the first to market will dominate, and for that one needs agility – not a characteristic that one attributes to larger organisations with multiple approval levels."

Asked when technology would be more joined-up across mobility, HR and businesses, she replied, "Certainly not in the next five years, as the prevailing technology systems are not designed for integration or using the open-source concept.

"Mobility and HR use a certain licensed technology in house to manage their mobile populations that require privacy and data protection, as there is salary information, identification numbers and more, whereas suppliers would use a stand-alone product that is not designed to bridge into the HR technology."

Compliance focus to continue

I canvassed opinion on the thorny subject of compliance. Everyone knows it is important, but isn't there a danger that over-regulation will strangle innovation?

Shaun Hinds believes that innovation will be achieved by navigating the compliance landscape as effectively as possible, rather than trying to change it – a view endorsed by Andrea Elliott, who said, "Compliance is the guiding principle for doing things the right way. Innovation is creating new things, methods, laws and systems. They have a crossover, in that one has to be innovative with a view to compliance, rather than seeing one as strangling the other."

Alex Rubin emphasised that companies should look for ways of streamlining their processes to minimise the mobility administrative burden and focus on core compliance requirements.

"Compliance is a problem which can be solved in the next few years with the right systems and technology, but governments and authorities will be very unforgiving if mistakes are made," warned Worldwide ERC presenter David Schofield.

Reflecting a UK perspective was Gordon Kerr, director of the Employee Mobility Unit at Edinburgh law firm Morton Fraser and longstanding WERC member, who takes the view that compliance issues will continue to be core concerns for the relocation industry in 2020.

In his words, immigration services could be "turned upside down" if the UK referendum results in Britain's leaving the EU. There would, he said, be "huge amounts" of extra work for UK immigration firms as EU citizens became subject to British immigration rules.

"In the area of data protection," he added, "Safe Harbor status for US corporations may have disappeared. Increasingly sophisticated data-sharing technology produced by Silicon Valley may be limited in its global application, as it clashes with stricter EU rules on personal privacy.

"Bigger challenges to cross-border data-sharing will arise if more countries follow Russia's lead in insisting that its citizens' personal data must be held on Russian servers."

Gordon Kerr also believes that, in the run-up to 2020, more governments will view anti-corruption laws as a means of raising revenue from multinational companies.

Equality and diversity

My interviewees were united on the need for expansion of workplace equality and diversity. David Schofield said that, in 2020, businesses would be even shorter of talent than in 2015. What would really differentiate successful organisations was willingness to seek out talent in all parts of the world, and from all groups.

"Cut through the Gordian Knot of how to define your top talent cadre by viewing talent widely, as the pool of people in your organisation who have the skills to make a real contribution to business success," he said.

Shaun Hinds hoped for a world in which equality and diversity would be a natural part of the talent management process, rather than the product of quotas.

Andrea Elliott encapsulated the general mood. "The hope is that multinational companies will recognise the enormous value in diversity and continue to send assignees who may not have been viewed historically as the appropriate candidate. There is a wealth of knowledge, culture and experience to be gained by creating a diverse workforce."

More insights from the interviewees

Q: How far will the peer-to-peer economy or model extend to global mobility?

LB-S: The peer-to-peer model, coupled with social media, has already been extended to global mobility. There are now multiple websites in which expats can find each other, ask questions of each other, and support each other, virtually or face to face.

These groups are growing – and will continue to grow – around the world, as expats and families are often looking to connect with others who have had, or are currently having, similar experiences. This can help tremendously with both personal and professional adjustment issues.

SH: One key area will be the increased adoption of the Airbnb room- and home-sharing models. As companies seek to empower their employees to take more control, mechanisms such as lump sum will give employees the flexibility to make their own choices.

Professional hosts are essential, though, and currently there are still too many unknowns and risks in using these accommodation choices when relocating.

The emergence of more professional hosts, in other words professional hospitality-based organisations, will mean that the client will potentially have the best of both worlds, with increased choice, but with professional providers operating the service.

AE: Airbnb is a great example of the peer-to-peer model, but even here there are requirements for lock-boxes that historically had the owner waiting to greet you. It is a rapidly emerging opportunity, which might be of value for a significant part of the market, and thereby attract more people to the collaborative economy.

I believe it has yet to be determined just how far relocation services within this economy can get without the personal touch.

Q: HR is looking to be more strategic and influence decision-making across organisations, but how strategic are relocation management companies (RMCs) and suppliers?

DS: Global mobility leaders want to look good in the eyes of their bosses, so there's an opportunity for suppliers to advise those GM leaders on how they can position themselves as strategic talent managers and developers, and thus as real contributors to business success. Not many suppliers are taking this opportunity at present.

SH: Some organisations are embracing the opportunity to deliver strategic solutions. In the accommodation sector, BridgeStreet is helping companies understand the full value of the accommodation choices they are making, rather than the simple nightly-rate metrics currently adopted.

This type of analysis and consultation does not always cost extra when the full value of a service is considered. Professional providers must build it into their core proposition. More-sophisticated buyers will demand more sophisticated solutions.

AE: Being on the outside looking in, the RMC may position itself as a strategic partner. In practice, however, the examples we experience as immigration providers are, more often than not, that the RMC is actually a 'traffic controller'.

If the organisation requires this level of 'management', one can argue that the RMC is a strategic partner. Others may perceive it as a roadblock to successful execution of an assignment, through layering and opacity.

Q: Will global mobility be people-focused in 2020?

DS: In a word, yes! Such will be the demand for people who can work internationally that organisations will have to be flexible and provide mobility opportunities on individuals' own terms.

LB-S: Global mobility must remain people-focused; we are moving people, not widgets. Having said that, however, organisations will need to provide a broader definition of mobility acknowledging more experiences and requirements of the individual and their families.

Q: Are talent programmes ageist, and how prepared are organisations for the four-generation workforce?

LB-S: With Baby Boomers beginning their moves into retirement and Generation Z, the youngest generation, now entering the workforce, the needs and expectations of employees will continue to change. This will impact the global workforce tremendously, and organisations will need to leverage intercultural strategies and practices that engage employees of all ages and the strengths that they bring to the workforce.

SH: Much of the comment in this area seems to be focused on the younger generations and their working preferences. I'm not sure enough focus is being given to the ageing workforce, which ironically could become more critical as companies are slower to react to the various 'future of work' theories that are doing the rounds.

Q: At a recent European conference, Peggy Smith, president and CEO of Worldwide ERC, predicted that, in the future, winning CVs for HR would not be 'super soft', but would demonstrate fiscal and business acumen. Do you agree?

DS: I agree to a point. Organisations want HR people who are business-savvy and comfortable with figures, but the individuals who will really succeed will be those who combine business acumen with intercultural sensitivity and people skills.

For me, the best HR leader is a person who can talk to CEOs and board members and really sell the value the HR function can bring to the business.

AE: Peggy Smith is an astute businesswoman, and we would endorse her position wholeheartedly. That said, we also look for 'soft' skills, as cultural fit is more important to us than hard skills. We believe you can't change someone's personality, but you can teach them skills.

VIDEO

Click here to listen to what Bill Graebel, President and CEO of Graebel Group of Companies has to tell Fiona Murchie about key global mobility issues in the first of our new Relocate Perspectives series of videos.

For more Re:locate news and features about global mobility, click here

Click here to read the full digital issue of Re:locate magazine Autumn 2015

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