Commuting: the alternative to relocation?

As the need for mobility continues to grow in response to competitiveness pressures, so alternatives to traditional relocation are increasingly being considered by employers and families alike. Sue Shortland considers the implications.

As the need for mobility continues to grow in response to competitiveness pressures, so alternatives to traditional relocation are increasingly being considered by employers and families alike. Sue Shortland considers the implications.Housing, dual career and education concerns have remained as barriers to mobility for many years, while more recent pressures such as the need to care for the elderly compound the problem. So are alternative kinds of assignment and relocations truly feasible? A decade ago, relocation in the UK raised the spectre of the so-called north-south divide. House prices in London and the South East made relocation from other parts of the UK a financial hurdle that few employees could jump without significant financial help from their employers. The Inland Revenue`s constraints on relocation assistance raised the costs still further, with employers considering grossing up` in order to compensate employees moving into high cost areas. For those in such locations already, the fear associated with relocating to a cheaper area raised concerns as to whether they could ever afford to return should the need arise. Added to this, rising property prices helped to fuel couples` concerns over the need for two incomes to meet their mortgage repayments.The late 1990s and the early years of the 21st century have also seen an increase of women in managerial positions, forging careers in their own right careers that they are increasingly loathe to disrupt when their partners are relocated. As more women enter the ranks of management, so too are more affected directly themselves by relocation being asked to move for knowledge sharing, to fill managerial and technical roles and for career development. Women international assignees, for example, now comprise around 17 per cent of the expatriate population, rising from around five per cent in the early 1990s. Dual career issues present another hurdle for relocatees to jump.Children`s education and concerns relating to children`s welfare also act as key inhibitors to mobility. It is therefore not surprising to see long-term transfers, both domestically and internationally, being reformulated as commuter-, business trip- and short-term-style assignments. The partner and family stay in the original home location, while the chosen employee undertakes the duties previously managed via relocation as an alternative, unaccompanied-style assignment.Short-term assignmentsThe success of short-term assignments internationally has bred interest in this form of unaccompanied working. Improved air and train travel has also resulted in the idea of weekly commuting becoming a reality for increasing numbers of domestic and international relocates. International research has shown that there is a whole range of emerging assignment types. For instance, traditional short-term, long-term, secondment and permanent transfer-styleinternational assignments are now being boosted by alternative approaches, such as short-term, long-term and permanent commuter arrangements, rotational assignments and cross-border working. The use of the web, video-conferencing and other technological innovations has led to a rise in remote or virtual working. For many, such technologies, when combined with multiple business trips, has replaced the need to relocate. Or has it?The need for face-to-face management has certainly not diminished, as an analysis of work permit and visa data indicates. The requirement for traditional long-term expatriation hasn`t gone away, either. Remote/virtual working is usually supplemented by mobility via frequent business trips, creating the new breed of so-called frequent flyer` or flexpat` assignees.Cost considerationsAlternative assignments are usually thought to be cheaper than the cost of moving entire families, lock, stock and barrel. Is this really the case, though? Figures currently being quoted are in the order of four times salary to relocate internationally versus twice salary to maintain a commuting arrangement. These might be figures that can be costed out via an analysis of a relocation package of allowances and benefits for a family compared with air travel and hotels for an employee only but it can be argued that these are not true costs, even when full account is taken of the need to ensure that tax, social security and work permit issues are taken fully into account. What about the social costs?Employees often think that some form of commuting arrangement provides an easy solution to housing, dual career, dual income and education concerns. Many are indeed quite insistent that they should adopt this lifestyle rather than relocate their families. For some this might be the right route to take but for others it could lead to disaster. Family separation and frequent travel are known to be causes of stress. Excessive travelling eats into working time and causes both fatigue for the traveller and disruptions in office routines and relationships with colleagues. All result in lower productivity. Family relationships are put under severe strain and frequent commuters and business-trippers frequently suffer broken marriages.Human resource professionals increasingly see the welfare of employees as a concern some describe these alternative patterns of mobility as a recipe for divorce. They question the degree to which they, as individuals, should promote these types of arrangements and whether they share part of the blame in family break-ups that can result. The recognition that employees should be counselled before engaging in these alternatives to relocation is felt acutely. So are they doing anything about it?The role of HREarly signs are that HR professionals are looking carefully at alternative assignments and are not regarding them as a panacea to mobility problems. ORC`s Dual Careers Surveys have begun to show a downward trend in the use of various alternative assignment forms for international mobility. The use of commuter assignments for international working, for example, rose from being in use by around 18 per cent of organisations in 1996, to almost 46 per cent in 2002. But this has now begun to fall back to around 29 per cent in 2005. The same picture or trend is in evidence for the other assignment types short-term, unaccompanied and extended business trips too. Even virtual working, which one would expect to increase as technology improves, is not demonstrating the exponential growth that one might predict. Yet despite these statistics, the rise in air travel for business purposes seems to be rising unabated. It appears that the use of virtual or remote working by itself is not a solution and has to be topped-up. It seems that there is no substitute for face to face contact.Real alternativesRegular commuting and frequent business travel do provide alternatives to relocation both domestically and internationally -but this comes at a price. Of course, this approach takes the form of allowances, travel costs, tax implications and time. But it also affects relationships both in the business community and in the personal lives of employees. Human resource management has increasingly over the past decade focused its attention on business partnering and having its seat and its say on the board. To do so it has had to speak the language of competitiveness. This is accepted as being necessary but the time has perhaps come for HR to return or at least to take account of its welfare roots. When concerns over productivity overwhelm employee and family well-being, then the strategies used to enhance competitiveness are doomed to fail. Those employers who have considered costs in both financial and human terms will be the only ones to prosper. © 2007. Article taken from pages 14-16 of the summer 2006 edition of Re:locate 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. 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