Reality and expectations of the global mobility function

As the global mobility profession specialises increasingly in operational complexities, its desire to work more strategically is being left behind.

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Published by BDO and Santa Fe Relocation Services, two recent pieces of research, Bridging the Gap: Survey on the Future of Global Mobility and Embedding Global Mobility at the Heart of Business Strategy, suggest a gulf between the day-to-day role of global mobility professionals and how business leaders would like this function to operate.While global mobility staff are considered effective in their present roles and demonstrate added value through their current focus on assignee management, assignment administration, maintaining compliance and managing costs, top leaders believe that the function needs to change if it is to continue to demonstrate value. It must become more aligned to commercial objectives.Senior leaders seek an evolution in global mobility’s role, moving away from operational work to a greater emphasis on strategic thinking. Specifically, the desired future focus of the profession is linked to activities such as business succession planning, strategic workforce planning, talent development and ensuring return on investment from international assignments.An emphasis on growing high-potential employees and future business leaders through the nurturing of talent is envisaged as a key role for global mobility professionals going forward.Of course, the need for evolution extends to the wider organisation if these objectives are to be achieved. Nonetheless, global mobility teams have a role to play and should move away from being primarily transactional to becoming a more strategic, business-critical function. This will be especially important given top management’s increasing emphasis on the value of an internationally mobile workforce in securing future organisational success.

Functional evolution – or back to the future?

While business leaders see a strategic role for global mobility, those in the function today typically lament that they are not involved with leadership decisions relating to relocation: strategic HR decisions are made, and global mobility professionals implement them.Thus, there appears to be a significant disconnect between the reality of the job role, the expectations of senior executives and what global mobility professionals would like to do. This can be explained in part by the evolution of global mobility as a profession in its own right as it has branched away from mainstream HR activity.In the 1980s and 1990s, HR professionals were responsible for domestic and international relocation. As international relocation specialists became an organisational necessity by the turn of the century, a close relationship developed between international assignment managers involved in relocation policy design and review and their mainstream HR colleagues, who dealt with a wide spectrum of HR activities taking place organisationally. Specific input from international assignment personnel ensured that relocation policy and its implementation dovetailed with HR policy.In the second decade of the 21st century, the division between HR professionals’ job roles and those of global mobility professionals continues to widen. In recent years, there appears to have been a significant shift towards greater administrative specialisation being undertaken by global mobility professionals in response to growing employer concern with tracking mobile personnel to ensure compliance (tax, social security and immigration).While the specialised administrative role undertaken by global mobility teams is a very necessary part of managing a mobile workforce, this specialisation seems to have resulted in a separation of global mobility administration from the wider strategic HR remit of workforce and career planning. If global mobility professionals seek a voice at the top table, closer reintegration with HR strategy will be required.If those involved can maintain their operational excellence in compliance while building a strategic outlook partnering with HR, the future becomes very attractive indeed for the profession. Technology is an effective enabler, and harnessing it can help to reduce the administrative time needed for day-to-day tasks, allowing mobility professionals to focus on talent planning, deployment and development.

Organisational goals versus cost control

A further trend that appears to be taking shape is the creation of friction between agility and the cost of a mobile workforce. By using data effectively, cost control can be sharpened up. However, it is important to ensure, as policies are retuned across all segments of the mobile population, that cost reduction does not result in lowering of willingness to relocate by the very populations most needed by businesses to achieve their strategic goals.For example, it is very clear from survey research that the use of short-term assignments and business travel is increasing significantly and rapidly. Commuter assignments and one-way (either self-initiated or company-initiated) assignments are also on the rise. Graduate programmes are increasing in their usage, too.In contrast, the use of strategic long-term assignments is exhibiting a slight decline. These trends may reflect that alternative assignment types are generally less expensive and more flexible than traditional, long-term international assignments.Problematically, though, the administrative burden of managing business travellers and short-term assignees is high, tying up administrative time such that it is less available for strategic planning. This may be of limited concern if it is assumed that the flexibility of these mobility patterns not only helps to meet business needs by providing unique skills at short notice, but also makes them attractive to individuals who seek out such flexibility to manage their careers alongside family responsibilities.But paradoxically, research has demonstrated that such alternative forms of international mobility are disruptive to family lifestyles and are less popular with women assignees. They also hinder gaining depth of international experience and cultural capability.This means that decisions taken for commercial purposes (such as cost reduction) can work against other organisational imperatives (such as efforts to widen diversity and build international competencies to improve commercial outcomes). A careful balancing act is clearly needed if global mobility is to be embedded successfully within HR strategy.

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

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