Brexit strategies: how can mobility manage the challenges ahead?

Grant Thornton’s Relocate-award-winning talent mobility team manages mobility by testing assumptions and working with the business and assignees. We report on what this approach means during the post-EU-referendum uncertainty.

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See more features about human resources in the Autumn 2016 issue of Relocate magazine on our Digital Issues page.

The view from the eighth-floor meeting room at professional services firm Grant Thornton’s office is both arresting and inspiring. Taking in the rooftops of Euston all the way to the Shard on the South Bank, it is also a reminder of London’s world-city status.With the close-run Brexit referendum and the negative tenor of both the Leave and Remain campaigns still in people’s minds, the impact of the vote to leave the EU is being felt in workplaces across the country. A CIPD survey of employers carried out in the weeks after the referendum found “increased workplace tension and division” because of the referendum’s outcome. Data from the professional body for HR and personnel and development has also highlighted Brexit-related incidents of harassment and bullying in the workplace. More than one-in-ten employees said that they had experienced, witnessed or heard of incidents of harassment or bullying of a political nature, and just under one-in-ten mentioned incidents of a racist nature.The issues of uncertainty and division, and what Brexit could mean for talent development, attraction, retention and leadership, in the UK and internationally, are putting HR and mobility on the frontline of the issue and shaping the response.

Managing uncertainty

For Susan Gregory, who manages the talent mobility needs of the leading UK business and financial adviser, which employs 4,500 people nationally across 26 offices, the referendum result’s impact on the ease with which people can move around, and on the perception of the UK as a place to live and work, remains to be seen.“I’ve worked with people living in countries other than their own for 30 years, and I’ve seen the value their contribution can bring,” said Susan, who manages close to 200 moves a year with her team of three. “The issue now is how we deal with the fallout from what has happened.”Brexit has left many employees feeling uncertain. The CIPD survey reported 70 per cent of employers registering concerns from staff about job security or their right to work in the UK following the vote to exit the EU.At Grant Thornton, where around 10 per cent of the current permanent UK population is from overseas, with around 5 per cent EU nationals, responding to this understandable uncertainty has seen Susan Gregory and her team on a mission to reassure assignees.“At the moment, there is a lot of uncertainty because we don’t know what the terms of Brexit will be. For now, we’ve spent some time trying to explain to our inbound assignees, and indeed our local hires who are not UK or EU nationals, that they are unlikely to be impacted at this juncture. “We are also trying to reassure EU nationals that the UK has not yet left the EU. Even when the government invokes Article 50, we will not be leaving the EU the next day; there is a two-year discussion and negotiation period.“Until we know what comes out of that, there’s no point trying to second-guess what may happen.”

“Brexit is as much about the ripples as it is about the centre point where the stone dropped.”

Impact on talent planning

This uncertainty is likely to push talent and succession planning, and mobility as part of that, higher up the corporate agenda. For HR and talent management teams, it will be interesting to see how individuals will respond to uncertainty, and how organisations’ people strategies, in particular around training and career trajectories, will need to change in response to that.“There are a lot of EU nationals who have been working in this country for five years. I’m no immigration expert, but there are opportunities in these cases to apply for permanent residency – if the individual wants to, of course. They can also go for UK citizenship,” said Susan Gregory on this question. “There’ll be another swathe of people who want to come to the UK, and another group who haven’t been in the UK for that long. They will need to think about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it.”For now, Grant Thornton is very much following a business-as-usual approach, because no one knows what the terms of the UK’s exit will be. “We can guess, but there’s nothing against which we can validate any assumptions at the moment,” added Susan Gregory.“You could argue that there’s a limited impact, but you could also argue that there is more impact from exchange-rate fluctuations, which hit everyone, regardless of whether they are an EU national or not. So it’s as much about the ripples as it is about the centre point where the stone dropped.”

Managing the wider implications

“I think that, until we start having conversations with other countries, the debate may be quite polarised between those who wanted to remain saying ‘the sky is falling in’ and the people who wanted to leave saying ‘it’s a brave new world and it’s going to be great’,” continued Susan Gregory.“The likelihood is that the truth will be somewhere in between. So it’s about trying to be ready so we aren’t caught napping.”Already, there are anxieties in the medium and longer term over how the UK’s administrative infrastructure will cope with changes to work visas once the terms are negotiated, particularly around visas and immigration, a key plank of the Leave campaign.“My concern is how HM Immigration is going to cope with the need potentially to issue visas for EU nationals working in the UK,” said Susan. “For people on Tier 2 visas, it’s business as usual. But for everyone else, we don’t know. The Home Office is going to need a lot more people to manage.”Relocate put these queries to the Home Office, which replied, “UK Visas and Immigration staff are deployed according to demands on the service. Currently, all EEA [European Economic Area] applications are being considered within the published service standards.”It seems that at the Home Office, too, the business-as-usual approach is prevailing. However, the latest batch of citizenship and visa applications statistics (covering the April–June quarter), which revealed that net migration was still three times the government’s target, may shape the discussions around the terms of the exit and future UK immigration policy.For now, there may be more questions than answers, but what is certain is that, for mobility and HR, there are opportunities to be a voice in this critical debate – one in which politicians are preparing to hammer out the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU, and the country’s economic future.

Cutting through complexity

Though the complications of Brexit are adding a new perspective to the approach that won Susan Gregory and her team the Relocate HR Team of the Year award, increasing complexity has been a characteristic of mobility for the past few years.“We aim to move people as simply as possible – and we care. We interact closely with the business to deliver talent needs and thought leadership,” said Susan.

“For mobility and HR, there are opportunities to be a voice in the critical Brexit debate.”

From the business’s perspective, they have achieved their aims. Grant Thornton’s CEO, Sacha Romanovitch, praising the team for its Relocate Awards success, made the link between HR and mobility as business partners to support the wider company.“The way I like to look at mobility is as a three-legged stool,” Susan Gregory told me. “Assignments, transfers and exchanges have to work for everyone. Losing our best people is not an option, so we do what we can for them.“I cannot overstate the importance of the return phase. You will get a bad reputation as an employer if you don’t manage that. Equally, mobility has to work for the sending and host countries. We are in the middle, working to meet all those needs.”Many HR global mobility managers will sympathise with that.

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The following sections may also be of interest: Mobility Industry, Leadership and Management

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