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Why global mobility needs to embrace automation

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a well-documented surge in the adoption of technology across nearly all business sectors, in many parts of the world. As supply chains were interrupted and workplaces closed, companies had to automate processes and adopt digital communication platforms almost overnight to ensure business continuity.

Before the pandemic broke, the global mobility (GM) function had been slow to embrace automation. Our Global Mobility Now Survey of almost 400 international companies in February 2020 listed 12 common GM processes and asked which ones they had automated or were planning to automate. The most commonly automated process (salary calculations) had been implemented by only 28% of companies. Although a similar proportion intended to automate this and many other processes, half of companies had not automated any of them and nor did they intend to. 

Will the Covid-19 pandemic change these attitudes? Despite the advantages of automation, some companies have been reluctant to press ahead with digitalisation because of the cost and effort involved in implementation and the disruption it would cause. Having now been forced down this route faster than intended, many companies are finding out that technologies they had to adopt in a hurry have improved productivity in ways they hadn’t expected. Mindsets are changing to become more open to the possibilities that rapid adoption of technology can offer.

Benefits of automation

The key benefit of automating GM processes is that it frees up more time to spend on value-added tasks. It is a common goal of GM teams to become more strategic than operational in nature and automating repetitive, administrative tasks is a good way of creating space to do this, particularly at a time when few companies are likely to be given the budget to take on additional staff. At the time of our Global Mobility and Covid-19 Survey in June 2020, 19% of respondents had already been instructed to reduce the costs of their mobility programme as a direct result of the pandemic, and a further 29% were expecting this to happen.

Lack of budget is also the primary reason companies give for not having progressed further with automation, yet ironically investment in this area can help considerably with cost control. 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 areas where there was the biggest difference between these companies and the overall sample in Global Mobility Now (calculations, workflow and vendor initiation/authorisation) give an indication of where automation can add the most value to mobility programmes.

It is notable too that companies which felt they responded well to the Covid-19 pandemic were also more likely to use technology in their GM programmes than those which felt they responded poorly. Having the right technology in place to centralise information and automate appropriate processes can help companies to work effectively in the future, should there be another outbreak of Covid-19, or indeed other pandemics or crises.

How Covid-19 is shaping the future

Looking at the processes that companies are planning to automate in the chart above shows us how global mobility may look in a few years’ time. While further automation is predicted across a broad range of areas, growth is particularly expected in the areas of tracking (such as monitoring key dates and active cases), reporting/analytics and workflow. Automation of these areas will become as commonplace as for calculations, which are currently the most commonly automated process. 

The pandemic appears to be accelerating the automation of these areas and adoption of technology more broadly. As the chart below shows, solutions for tracking assignee movements and assignment progress have been newly adopted by 12% and 11% of companies respectively since the pandemic began and more than 20% are now considering implementing them. The pandemic has clearly highlighted a need for organisations to put systems in place to know where their people are and how close they are to the end of their assignment to inform repatriation decisions. Our survey showed that companies which already had systems in place to track their assignees were more likely to feel their organisation had responded well to the pandemic, whereas those without would have struggled to locate all their assignees (and maybe even come across ones they hadn’t known about). Not knowing where your international workers are can pose compliance risks, not to mention an inability to fulfil your duty of care to them.

The pandemic has forced the rapid adoption of technology that enables teams to collaborate and communicate successfully while working apart from each other at home. As remote working continues for many GM teams, solutions that automate approval processes and the flow of work from one team member to another are increasingly valuable. No wonder then that 20% of companies have implemented workflow technology since the pandemic broke and a similar proportion are thinking about doing so. The economic consequences of the pandemic are inevitably leading to greater scrutiny of the cost of international assignments, meaning GM teams need to demonstrate a sound understanding of the figures involved to support the business case for any move. Many companies have therefore introduced cost estimate calculators or plan to, perhaps sooner than they otherwise would have done.  

The most common newly-implemented technology solution relates to assignee communication and support. As face-to-face support has frequently not been possible, it has become increasingly important to find new ways to keep in touch with assignees remaining in the host location, as well as those working remotely all over the world. High-quality communication and support forms a key part of the assignee experience, something GM teams are increasingly looking to enhance by providing solutions such as assignee portals, which make visible the resources and benefits available to assignees and which tasks they need to complete to progress their assignment.

Beyond the pandemic, more open and responsive attitudes regarding the potential of technology to improve GM mean automation is likely to advance in areas that many companies have yet to even consider. For example, robots can be used to automatically complete application forms for certificates of coverage (for social security) and risk assessment forms, potentially saving a lot of time in companies with larger programmes in particular, but for the moment this practice is not widespread. Few companies have started to consider the potential for using artificial intelligence to derive insights from their programme data or virtual reality to enhance the assignee experience, although the number of companies currently considering virtual housing tours or virtual look-see visits suggests this is certainly on the horizon. 

Although budgets are likely to be tighter than ever, companies have never been more open to the possibilities technology presents, not just for keeping operations going but for making them better than before. There is no doubt that automation has the potential to improve efficiency and compliance and generate valuable insight for the business through data analytics. Despite the turbulence and challenges Covid-19 has presented, it may represent a unique opportunity to adopt the technology you need to automate processes much more quickly than you’d imagined.


Statistics and charts in this blog were taken from our Global Mobility Now and Global Mobility and Covid-19 surveys conducted in 2020. Make sure you are signed up to receive alerts when our next survey opens to receive your free report!

Find out how you can optimise your global mobility programme with ECAEnterprise - the assignment management system that integrates processes, calculations and interfaces to deliver successful international assignments from start to finish.

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