Remote working: Are the positives of global mobility unravelling?

A series of reports from companies such as KPMG, Mercer, and HSBC present varying approaches to the increase of home working as a result of the pandemic. David Sapsted explores the global mobility dimension.

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A new report from KPMG plays down the positives surrounding remote working, as a result of the pandemic, and highlights that – person interaction is vital to healthy, successful projects. It also warns that in the future home working practices could hamper efforts to recruit talent. Mercer sees fundamental changes in the way companies manage global mobility resulting in a patchwork of policies and practices prompting a reassessment of what it means to work globally. Meanwhile HSBC’s Explorer survey confirms that expats’ taste for hybrid working and moving abroad is not going away. It scarcely needs saying that, over the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound - and frequently tragic - effect on global health. Now it seems a coincidental by-product of the coronavirus could also have far-reaching consequences for companies’ global mobility policies.

Home working has become the norm for millions

For a start, the pandemic and its associated lockdowns have seen home working become the norm for millions of employees across the world, including those on corporate assignments overseas.There are now warnings, though, that however beneficial various forms of hybrid working could be for domestic staff, the long-term effects could be detrimental both to expat employees and to companies' existing systems of global mobility.

KPMG report: "in-person interaction is vital to healthy, successful projects and organisations"

KPMG's annual 'Global Assignment Policies and Practices Survey', based on the feedback from HR mobility teams across the world, plays down the positives surrounding remote working. While accepting that it has proved “functional” for overseas assignees during the pandemic lockdowns, it says that in-person interaction is vital to healthy, successful projects and organisations.  It also claims that, in future, home working practices could hamper efforts to recruit talent, especially among younger people who aspire to obtain international work and life experience in foreign countries as an essential part of their careers. “Further, it could deny opportunities for organisations to improve the overall diversity and social consciousness of their workforces through the cultural immersion of employees living and working in foreign locales,” the report says.
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Threat to inter-cultural and global business skills

Marc Burrows, KPMG’s head of global mobility services, told the New York-based travel industry website Skift that people interacting face-to-face with others from within an organisation generated innovation and creativity. “One of the points of mobility is to get the diversity of the global employee base really producing the great benefits that we know come from having diverse teams, in background, culture, and getting people working side-by-side from various parts of the organisation,” he added.“That’s the fuel that sparks those flames. Not having that creates an environment where you have less of that spark, that creativity, those new ideas, and that diversity of thinking and interaction. While remote working has been very functional, there are elements that are missing.”KPMG accepted that, even after the pandemic was finally consigned to history, some people working in professional services would want to continue working remotely for at least some of the time. However, the report warned that even this could result in employees developing “inter-cultural and global business skills” at a slower pace than required.The report said that although virtual meetings and collaborative tools had helped connect remote workers during the pandemic, the downside had been that the personal interaction needed to facilitate team-building, networking and a cross-pollination of ideas had been partially lost.

HSBC "Expat Explorer": hybrid working has become a high priority for many expat workers

However, this year's 'Expat Explorer' from HSBC suggests that hybrid working has become a high priority for many workers overseas. Based on a survey of more than 13,000 expats employed across the world, 68% regarded flexible working as an important factor of their lives abroad. This compared to such traditional factors as the 23% who said higher earnings were important and the 25% who regarded their assignment as vital to career advancement.More than a quarter (28 %) also believed that living in their host location gave them greater opportunity for flexible working than in their home nations.Cameron Senior, interim head of HSBC Expat, said: "As the world begins to open up, our study highlights how global mobility has not diminished - with borders reopening in several locations, expats are looking forward to exciting opportunities in the year ahead, so they can continue exploring and accelerating their careers."Our findings show how the majority intend to continue living in the same location for the foreseeable future and how priorities continue to shift for an increasingly dynamic and hybrid workforce. This, combined with more people beginning to move abroad again, opens up a world of possibilities and benefits for employees and employers alike."Global expats have shown real resilience during the pandemic, facing the same challenges as many of us, all while likely being away from friends and family. However, their continued optimism and appetite to continue their overseas journeys are admirable."

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Merging of overseas assignment practices with career mobility policies 

But Olivier Meier, product solution leader at Mercer, says that, as a result of the pandemic, there are fundamental changes in the way companies manage global mobility. Instead of traditional, complex relocation processes and packages, companies are now beginning to merge overseas assignment practices with the internal career mobility policies managed by HR teams at head office. "Attempts have been made to bring together the pieces of the puzzle by building bridges between departments and integrating the concept of mobility into a consistent business strategy. Progress has been real, but implementation has resulted in a patchwork of policies and practices in most companies," says Mr Meier."The consequences of the Covid-19 crisis are accelerating this evolution. During the crisis, rigid categories of mobile employees and the official purview of the mobility were not always reflecting the realities of the business. New forms of mobility and remote working have emerged."They are prompting a reassessment of what it means to work globally. Furthermore, cost containment imperatives and the necessity to build up business resilience are accelerating further the pace of change." These changes, says Mr Meier, require, above all, a change of mindset and operating models: instead of trying to fit assignees into pre-defined boxes corresponding to the concerns of mobility teams, the emerging objective is to manage a diverse, international workforce in a fluid and integrated way.

Opportunities to build back better

Similarly, a report from PwC says that the adoption of remote working by expat staff also presents future opportunities for companies as they reassess the support and care they provide to mobile employees in the wake of the pandemic.In a survey of more than 250 'people leaders' in more than 30 countries, some 27% said Covid-19 would have a fundamental impact on how their companies viewed workforce mobility and the need for international moves."By far the biggest growth in international ‘move’ types will be in international remote workers - 43% of companies expect this population in their workforce to increase," said PwC."While this brings with it the need for fundamental change in governance, policies and controls so that employees and companies can keep compliant when employees are working from locations other than where they’re employed, it also opens up a wealth of opportunities. International commuting and short-term assignments are the next biggest, predicted increases." PwC said that in terms of changes in the way companies run their mobility programmes, the survey's top responses were that there would be increased focus on who moves and why; on employee wellbeing and support; and on being cost effective."We believe workforce mobility has a moment in time to build back better," said the firm. "Opportunities for getting global exposure and international experience will be fairer and more inclusive."Workforce mobility will enable businesses to become more agile and thoughtful about where (and who) to invest (in). Companies will become more responsible about the impact of international travel on their people and the planet’s wellbeing. And there’ll be more focus on the balance between global moves and building local talent. 

British technology firms: creating "borderless teams"

British tech firms are increasingly hiring talent internationally and looking to create "borderless teams" amid severe skills shortages and ever-improving remote work technology, according to a report in December from professional recruitment company Hays.The report identified these "borderless jobs" as potentially key to solving the intensifying war for talent companies are facing. Alistair Cox, CEO at Hays, told the Evening Standard newspaper, “Remote working is here to stay and it will likely accelerate as businesses become more comfortable hiring people from further afield and their structures and technology allow it."There are potential barriers to this [borderless hiring] that organisations will need to overcome, such as cyber security, embedding their culture remotely, and ensuring they comply with local labour laws. But if these can be navigated, then the potential for accessing talent pools that encompass the globe is huge.”Isabel Fernandez Mateo, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School, added, "Due to the rise of innovative team-working technologies, we've seen a rise of companies recruiting globally - proving that talent can truly be found anywhere."The ramifications of the pandemic do, indeed, seem to possess a truly global mobility dimension.
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