Group moves: managing strategic choices

As UK-based organisations assess post-Brexit location options, global mobility professionals need to plan a strategic approach to change management.

With Brexit on the not-so-distant horizon, the media are increasingly presenting features and news stories on potential and impending major relocation exercises, in which the banking and finance sectors feature heavily.These reports highlight a range of attractive global cities, all competing to entice business away from the UK post-Brexit. In the Winter 2016/17 edition of Relocate magazine, David Sapsted’s article The Brexit Dividend: a Boost for Global Cities? spotlighted a number of European cities that appeared particularly attractive to business. These included Amsterdam, Dublin, Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Madrid, Milan, and Paris. Beyond Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore are also gaining attention, especially in the technology sector.Despite all the publicity surrounding organisations’ plans to exit the UK, London is a global centre for business and likely to remain so. As such, firms are likely to wish to maintain or institute a UK presence, as well as centres of operations within the EU.For global mobility professionals, this is likely to lead to the relocation of some teams/units into EU cities over the next few years, while other personnel are retained within or moved into the UK, thereby maintaining business operations from the current base.Handling such international group moves will require a strategic approach to change management, conscious of the effects of relocation on both those moving and those left behind. The first factsheet in Relocate’s Group Moves Toolkit contains advice on the principles of planning and communicating a group move applicable to both international and domestic large-scale relocations. It provides guidance on necessary process steps, including data gathering, staffing requirements, communications tools, and tips for developing a mobility culture.Underlining these aspects is the change management strategy – and this requires attention to be paid to strategic choice.
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Strategic choices in managing group moves

Change initiatives usually lead to employee resistance, typically because individuals fear the unknown, are suspicious of the reasons for change because they are concerned that they will lose out as a result of it, and/or misunderstand, or lack trust in, their management.Given these issues, as Kotter and Schlesinger state in their seminal Harvard Business Review paper Choosing Strategies for Change, a one-size-fits-all approach can lead to the failure of change programmes. The authors therefore recommend tailoring strategies to context and the concerns of different employee groups.So how can successful change management strategies be devised and applied to relocation and global mobility in a group-move situation? Kotter and Schlesinger suggest analysis of situational factors to assess the level and kind of resistance to change that might be expected and, from this, to consider the methods that might be employed to manage resistance.In relation to relocation, lack of information on where the organisation might move to, and when the move is due to take place, is especially unsettling. Media attention is unhelpful if the organisation cannot supply accurate information. For example, individuals may well be fearful if they think that the relocation will involve moving themselves and their families to a country with a different language, culture, education system, and so on. This fear may generate strong resistance to mobility.Dublin has been showcased in respect of having a common language with the UK, making it attractive to relocating English-speaking personnel. Nonetheless, cities such as Paris and Frankfurt are featuring particularly prominently in news reports of potential and planned group moves.To address potential resistance linked to language and cultural issues, skills training programmes and support with cultural adjustment can prove to be a particularly valuable intervention. Advice and assistance with respect to appropriate schooling will be necessary for assignees with families.

Addressing employee concerns

Given the uncertainty surrounding the terms of the Brexit deal and the UK’s trade links with non-EU nations, it would be surprising if employees were not a little suspicious of early announcements of the rationale for moving groups to particular destinations, since the outcome of any trade negotiations is so unclear at present.
  • Will the move go ahead as planned to the selected location(s)?
  • What if economic conditions change?
  • Will individuals’ and families’ plans to relocate be altered?
  • What employment security is there if the move is undertaken?
A strategy is needed to provide reassurances if the affected group of workers who will be asked to relocate are to be convinced of the business case. They will also need to know the likely effects on their own career prospects and on relocated partners and families. This might be a difficult call for global mobility professionals whose role is to effect moves.Good interpersonal skills and strong links with the top executives and HR colleagues will be needed to present a clear, coherent strategy on education about – and communication of – the organisations’ plans and logic for change. In this way, trust can be built, helping to support change initiatives.Although organisations make decisions in the best interests of their stakeholders, the various stakeholders in a business have both shared and competing interests. Kotter and Schlesinger thus suggest that ‘parochial self-interest’ can be a cause of resistance to change. They note that, as people focus on their own best interests, so they engage in political behaviour to encourage others to side with them and so help to develop and spread wider resistance through group action.

Decision-making and policy

Of course, organisational decision-making is taken at the most senior levels and, in UK firms, decisions made with respect to business location are not typically subject to employee consultation and participation initiatives. That said, to reduce resistance to change, encouragement of employee involvement and participation in relevant aspects of the move can help bring about a positive climate.This will be time-consuming, and any strategy devised must also take into account how sticking points will be dealt with. For example, what if employees make suggestions that cannot be implemented? Take care that any employee involvement initiatives that can increase grass-roots support are based upon sufficient expertise and understanding at the grass-roots level.A further aspect to consider in the strategic review of the change process is how to deal with those who believe that they will lose out from the move. Kotter and Schlesinger suggest negotiation and offering incentives for change compliance, but they do recognise that this can be expensive.Global mobility professionals will take a large share of the responsibility for advising on and designing an appropriate compensation and benefits policy. Here, it is advisable to consult appropriate stakeholders in the design stage – typically top management, relevant line management, HR professionals, and possibly employees and family members affected by the move.Relocate’s series of factsheets on policy design can help here. An effective policy takes views into consideration, but the business need and affordability will drive policy. As such, discussion and input can be welcomed, but on the understanding that the policy has to reflect the interests of all stakeholders and not be a licence to over-incentivise individuals.

A strategy for the non-movers

A strategic approach is also required to address the concerns and support those who decide not to relocate when asked to do so.For example, a policy may be required to reward those who agree to stay until the date of the move to ensure business continuity even if they have decided against moving to the new location.Consideration should be given to facilitate and support them finding alternative employment if refusal or inability to relocate results in job loss. Careful attention is required to ensure that this group does not become disaffected and engage in political action to undermine the relocation exercise.Besides considering strategies linked to different employee circumstances where the change process involves physical relocation, attention must also be paid to communicating the change initiative to those who will not be required to move. They may well share some similar fears and concerns to those who expect, or have been asked, to move.
  • What will the job security be for those left behind?
  • Will those remaining now, be asked to move at some unspecified point in the future?
  • Would it be wiser to change jobs now to a firm that has no obvious plans to relocate?
Once again, the change management strategy needs to address fears, self-interest and trust issues.

Timescales and implementation

The strategic approach to managing a group move also needs to factor in timescale. Kotter and Schlesinger suggest that fast change will need to be clearly planned but, given its short timescale, is less likely to include employee involvement.Coercion (while risky) potentially may be necessary if resistance is to be overcome. With slower change initiatives, there is more time for planning to take place along the timeline, potentially incrementally, thereby including involvement and participation. Action can be taken to attempt to defuse or minimise resistance.Global mobility professionals involved in planning group moves will need to consider their position along this continuum of fast to slower change. In so doing, they need to take into account:
  • The nature and level of likely resistance
  • The political strength of the stakeholders in supporting or resisting change
  • The information they need to design and disseminate change policies and interventions
  • The stakes involved if things do not go to plan
Analysis of the situational context and relevant stakeholders’ likely responses will be central to selecting the appropriate group move strategy and, as the strategy is implemented, continual monitoring and review will be required to ensure staying on track.Read more in the spring issue of Relocate magazine, which features more insight and analysis. Access hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online DirectoryGet access to our free Global Mobility Toolkit © 2017. This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Relocate magazine, published by Profile Locations, Spray Hill, Hastings Road, Lamberhurst, Kent TN3 8JB. All rights reserved. This publication (or any part thereof) may not be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of Profile Locations. Profile Locations accepts no liability for the accuracy of the contents or any opinions expressed herein.

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