The Covid-19 pandemic has caused upheaval across the world, with the effects having wide-ranging implications for global mobility (GM). ECA’s Managing Mobility Survey investigated how organisations are adapting their mobility programmes in order to be fit for the future.
Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, the corporate view of international assignments is generally positive, with over three-quarters of companies seeing them as an important solution to host-country skills shortages, and 72% considering them as critical to company growth.
It is clear that technology has played a key role during the pandemic, perhaps most prominently by allowing staff to work remotely and to keep operations running. From a GM perspective, this also caused an increase in international remote working and the use of virtual assignments, as covered in our recent series of blog posts. The survey showed that 27% of companies currently use virtual assignments, although the most common reasons for using them show that the majority only see them as short-term solutions to pandemic-related challenges. In-person international assignments still have a major role to play, with only a minority of companies expecting to be operating in fewer countries in three years’ time.
Outside of remote working, technology in GM programmes is surprisingly under-utilised. However, the numbers of companies investing in technology has been increasing in recent years, and the Covid-19 situation has accelerated this trend.
Use of technology in GM programmes
use only spreadsheets
use multiple, unconnected tools
use an integrated assignment management system
increased use of tech (or plan to) due to pandemic
© Employment Conditions Abroad 2021
Less than 10% of companies are completely satisfied with their use of technology and although not being seen as a priority for the business and small mobile workforces are common barriers, lack of budget is the main obstacle faced when looking to implement additional technology solutions.
With cost management a particular focus for many companies in the current economic climate, it would seem that budgetary pressures are unlikely to reduce anytime soon. However, technology does enable efficiency gains, allowing for long-term cost savings as well as improvements in cost management more widely. At the same time, the assignee experience is quickly growing in importance. Technology can have a significant role to play in ensuring success in both of these areas.
The survey found that two of the top three challenges facing mobility teams relate to costs –measuring return on investment (ROI) ranked most challenging, with monitoring and controlling costs coming in third.
The most challenging area, measuring ROI, also saw the lowest rating for organisational response, with only 13% of respondents considering their company to have responded well or very well to this challenge. The response to the challenge of monitoring and controlling costs was slightly better, with around 30% considering their company’s response to be good or very good. With cost-related issues proving to be some of the most challenging things facing GM teams, but the response being poor, why is this the case?
Cost management for long-term assignments
always undertake cost estimates
always compare estimates to actual costs
© Employment Conditions Abroad 2021
There is an appetite for understanding costs before an assignment goes ahead, as the majority of companies always undertake cost estimates before any type of international assignment. However, it is much less common for companies to see how these cost estimates compare to reality, and even less so to measure ROI.
The low proportion of companies measuring actual assignment costs or attempting to measure ROI means it is also not surprising that most companies do not consider themselves successful at managing assignment costs. However, the survey results show respondents generally feel more successful in measuring assignment costs than in assessing the value of assignments.
Although only around a quarter of companies currently use technology solutions for reporting and analytics, the companies that do harness software solutions for this purpose are seeing the benefit when it comes to managing assignment costs. This is also an area of mobility technology with high potential for growth, as it has the highest percentage of companies planning to introduce it.
When looking to manage costs, the use of technology to power analytics ensures informed decision making. It enables GM managers to easily view how much their entire mobility programme costs in a particular month or year, as well as being able to drill down to specific assignment populations, based on location, policy type or any other form of demographic filter and identify the areas of higher relative costs that require attention. If a company is looking to introduce new, leaner policies, technology enables the GM function to easily analyse the impact and be proactive in addressing areas where assignees will be affected the most. It can even be used to track assignee outcomes and identify trends early on, such as assignments failing in a particular region more than others. However, without an assignment management tool in place, it is very difficult to be proactive – data is likely to be decentralised, and possibly stored across different systems and files meaning the quality or format of the data is less likely to be consistent. Even putting these issues aside, trying to analyse and interpret large sets of data manually is a significant task.
Technology is also key to GM teams achieving the widely-held goal of becoming more strategic. The survey showed that although many GM functions want to see their work become more strategic, 47% find achieving the balance between strategic and transactional work challenging or very challenging. Technology can be used to automate repetitive administrative tasks, which then frees up space for mobility teams to spend on value-added work without needing to budget for additional staff. Many companies are recognising this, with the survey showing that payroll, salary calculations, tax calculations and cost estimates are now some of the most commonly automated processes. In addition, ECA’s Global Mobility Now Survey found that companies which rate themselves as being successful at cost control are more likely than average to have introduced automation across all areas of their mobility programme.
The importance of tracking and compliance should not be forgotten. The pandemic has clearly highlighted a need for organisations to have systems in place to know everything from where their people are and how close they are to the end of their assignments, to visa and passport information, as well as tax and social security thresholds and obligations. Not knowing where your international workers are can pose compliance risks, and potentially costly penalties.
The assignee experience
There has been a natural progression from companies first focusing on user and customer experience, then shifting the focus to their employees generally, to the current situation where we are seeing a growing interest in extending this to the experience of internationally-mobile staff. There are good reasons for ensuring an optimal assignee experience.
On average, it is three to five times more expensive to have someone on an assignment than it would have been if that person had stayed in the home country. Additionally, assignee populations typically include key roles at high seniority levels and a set of skills that are deemed essential to an organisation. Assignments are huge investments for companies and a lot is at stake on the success or failure of assignments.
When assignments do fail, the survey found it is often down to expectations not being met - either the assignee’s performance not meeting the expectations of the business, or the role not meeting the expectations of the assignee. A substantial number of employers report that employees, or their family, can struggle to adapt to their change in living circumstances; there can be cultural issues, feelings of isolation, difficulties around language differences and children’s education, and concerns about security. Opting for policies and solutions that are designed with the needs of this vital population in mind reduces the risk of these issues.
Focusing on the assignee experience can also help companies retain talent post-assignment. 13% of long-term assignees leave the company within two years of repatriation, taking with them valuable skills, experience and other benefits gained from the costly assignment. This figure may actually be an underestimate, given that only a minority formally track employees’ post-assignment career progression or retention as a matter of policy, and many do not track these outcomes at all.
The most common reason for leaving the company is dissatisfaction with their new role or their career. Family concerns and dissatisfaction with pay are also commonly-cited factors. Putting the assignee experience at the centre of things may be the key to identifying these concerns earlier, helping to make the assignee feel heard and addressing them with improved support, communication and information sharing.
Given that enhancing the assignee experience has only become a priority relatively recently, it is perhaps not surprising that the use of technology for providing support and information directly to assignees is currently less common than the use of technology in other areas. However, the growing importance of the assignee experience is demonstrated by the significant number of companies planning to introduce technology for assignee support.
There is huge potential for growth in this area, with the use of technology in many areas set to double. This trend may have been accelerated by the pandemic - with face-to-face support frequently not having been possible, it has become increasingly important to find new ways to keep in touch with assignees that remained in the host location, as well as those working remotely all over the world.
High-quality communication and support form a key part of the assignee experience, explaining why online chat, explanations of compensation, cultural training and the publicising of the assignment policy are some of the areas where digitisation is most frequently being adopted.
However, many companies also recognise the power of self-service support. Adopting technology in this area empowers assignees to seek information as and when they want, giving them more agency and making them an active participant in the process. Digital access to country or destination guides is already provided by 25% of our survey participants, and another 15% plan to adopt this approach. Relocation checklists and FAQs are offered or are planned to be offered by just over 30% of companies. For example, clients who adopt ECA’s Expatriate Services provide assignees with access to our Country Profiles and Assignment Guides on a tailor-made website, via their company intranet.
Another growth area is assignee portals. These can incorporate features such as quick, on-the-spot temperature checks after some of the assignment process milestones have been met, providing live data and flagging any potential issues before they become too serious. As well as helping to ensure the best possible assignee experience, data like this can help to identify recurring problems and potentially result in cost savings in the process.
The skills and experience of GM functions are increasingly being relied upon, with most assignment types now falling under the remit of the mobility function. At the same time, the work in GM is expected to become increasingly strategic and the adoption of technology is key to freeing up GM resources to meet the challenge of finding the right balance between strategic and transactional work.
As ever, cost management continues to prove challenging, but almost half of companies see international assignments as an essential expense. Although a lack of budget is the most common reason for not implementing more technology in GM programmes, technology has a key role in managing costs and operating efficiently, making for a better experience for all involved. Senior management benefit from clear reporting and monitoring return on investment, GM staff benefit from the freedom to focus on strategic goals, and assignees benefit from access to self-service information and greater transparency.
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The Managing Mobility Survey provides insights into how companies are adapting their approach to global mobility management to ensure continued success. Free to survey participants, reports can also be purchased either individually or as a full set.