We tend to look at mobility in simple terms of expatriates versus locals, the international assignment versus localisation, or the balance sheet approach versus the local plus approach.

As the global mobility landscape is fast evolving, the temptation is to follow the same thinking pattern and assume that the advent of the millennials and innovative technologies will simply replace old approaches and make mobility easier or that new types of assignments such as short-term and permanent relocation will systematically replace traditional long-term assignments.

This oversimplification underestimates the complexity of the changes taking place and ignores some of the emerging dilemmas that will challenge mobility management practices in the coming years.


Mobile Millennials: Beware the Expectation Mismatch

The increasing willingness of the new generations to relocate abroad goes hand in hand with increased expectations in terms of lifestyle, career opportunities, and flexibility.

The destinations favoured by the millennials include global hubs and trendy cities such as London, Dubai, Singapore, or Shanghai but might not include the low-cost hardship destinations where companies need them.

The focus of the negotiation will not be on the size of the compensation package but will include the experience, work-life balance, and career development perspectives.

Companies might have to offer a more integrated approach than just cash or vague promises about career perspectives. Millennials will not make mobility easier; they will not necessarily make it harder, but they will make it different.

Companies will need to adapt to their needs to avoid losing talent and develop synergies by aligning their mobility practices with the expectation of the new generations.


Job Mobility Versus Employee Mobility

The changing expectations of employees are leading companies to reassess the concept of mobility.

Traditionally companies have been moving people to jobs but are now increasingly considering moving jobs to people.

In other words, they are offering assignees a greater say in how and where they will be working. This implies flexible working conditions, an increase in commuter assignments, and making better use of frequent flyers and virtual assignments.

Technology development makes this transition easier. Not all jobs are mobile but the stereotype of traditional expatriates coming from their home country to a destination to support the local operation is being replaced by highly mobile expatriate gig workers bringing their expertise when and where needed.


Extended Business Trips and Commuters

Ten years ago, not all companies were able to track their short-term assignments accurately.

As more companies have become better at it, the focus is moving to extended business trips, commuters, and frequent travellers. These short-term types of relocating options present a host of challenges for companies from compliance, tax, emigration, and security perspective to cost issues.


Contractors and Self-employed Assignees – the Rise of the Expatriate Gig Worker

The growing complexity of global mobility is not just about having more short-term assignments or commuters.

Some of your future assignees might not even work for your company.

This trend has existed for many years in the oil, gas, and engineering industries where contractors and freelancers are used on a regular basis. The trend is now reaching many more sectors and types of jobs.

We are seeing an increasing number of highly skilled professionals willing to market themselves directly in the host location (“locally hired foreigners”) as opposed to being hired in their home location and relocated to the assignment location by the company.

In some cases, these highly skilled professionals are hired as freelancers rather than as permanent employees. This brings the rise of the gig worker, who goes from project to project for multiple employers and is part of the future of work.

The implications of this new way of working for global mobility and international assignment models could be profound.


Flexibility Versus Duty of Care

The preference of millennials for greater flexibility and the imperative of adapting host-based approaches (e.g., local plus) to specific country conditions are driving the need for increased flexibility in policies.

Some companies are considering having two parts in their global policies, one part covering global principles and a more flexible second part reflecting local conditions.

There is an increasing appetite for cafeteria-style policies that mirror the flexible benefits provided to local employees.

The limit to this flexible approach is the duty of care that companies have in hardship locations, companies might need to limit the flexibility given to assignees to limit risks. From a tax perspective, an absence of tax equalisation does not mean that a company can completely ignore the assignee’s tax issues.

Tax support and advice still need to be provided not only for compliance reasons but also to limit scenarios where assignees could make costly mistakes and turn against the company.

More generally speaking, the question of duty of care and minimum level of support can be expanded to encompass exchange rate issues, insurance questions, and pension decisions.

More flexibility, therefore, implies that educating mobile employees on financial and benefits decisions will increasingly play a significant role.


Older Expatriates – the Silver Revolution

While millennials capture the headlines, the population and the workforce are ageing fast, not only in developed countries but also in many emerging markets.

This is putting pressure on pensions but also affecting the way people work.

Aside from the ageing of the general population, other factors are driving the increasing number of older assignees. Employees in their 50s are potentially more mobile than younger employees with families and might be tempted to go on one more assignment before retiring.

They can also be tempted to offer their expertise internationally on a freelance basis.

Certain industry sectors have been relying on older workers and even brought back employees from retirement.

That was the case a few years ago in the oil and gas sector when companies had to bring back engineering from retirement to bridge the talent gap, and while investments in the oil sector have more recently dropped, the trend of bringing back or extending the career of highly skilled individuals with critical skills for the business is likely to continue.

The challenge is therefore not only to accommodate the needs of the millennials, but foster an inclusive corporate culture that also uses the expertise of older assignees, and considers their priorities (e.g., saving for retirement) and their specific needs, such as caring for elderly parents.

The Challenges of Diversity – Diversity in Non-diverse Locations

Fostering assignee diversity is allowing companies to tap into a new pool of talent and is becoming a significant advantage in the global talent war.

However, managing a diverse assignee talent pool when doing business in destinations where diversity might not be welcome is a challenge.

From practical questions about sending non-married couples to destinations where non-married couples are not tolerated, to serious concerns linked to the ethnicity, nationality, gender or sexual preferences of the assignees, the risks and potential barriers to mobility are numerous.

Employees might sometimes be willing “to take a chance” but companies have a duty of care and cannot allow this, without having all the facts. Sometimes facilitation, cultural training and careful planning can help but, in any case, issues need to be openly discussed and anticipated.


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