Country Matters: Enabling Workforce Mobility

1 September 2005 Cris Collie

As globalisation progresses, more and more employees are undertaking international assignments. Cris Collie, executive vice-president of Worldwide ERC, delves into some of the main relocation issues.

When it comes to global business expansion, there seems to be no end to the opportunities and no end to the challenges encountered by companies recruiting and managing a mobile workforce. In major European and Asia-Pacific markets, business projections indicate sustained or increased international assignment activity. The many variables – based on different countries' tax and immigration laws, living cost and cultural differences, the types of employees to be moved and the levels of compensation involved – create an environment that is at once intricate, dynamic and often perplexing.

At the same time, benchmarking research reveals growing concern about the need to identify and attract the appropriate talent to fill the short- and long-term requirements of a global workforce.


Accurately predicting trends and providing the right global assistance to keep one's organisation competitive is a balancing act between cost containment and business viability. Some common challenges have emerged for those charged with building a global workforce, and though the challenges often outweigh the solutions, companies are increasingly savvy about the need to develop more relevant and, in some cases, more flexible assistance for those undertaking international assignments.

Most of these challenges can be addressed through the ongoing review and revision of global workforce mobility policies with an eye towards shaping the benefits package for the best global assignment outcome.

Benefits portability is cited as the most significant concern for companies managing global mobility, followed closely by the challenge to provide career management to the international assignee. Other areas that require foresight and planning for today's global organisations are detailed below.


The pressure to reduce and contain costs as well as the differences among countries (and in some cases, regional differences) mean that, whether companies embrace one global policy or multiple regional policies, the application of global mobility support must vary according to geography and business circumstances.


Many companies offer language training to employees and their families, and some companies offer cultural training to employees (which is also sometimes extended to the family) on assignment. A number of global HR professionals see a critical need for such training to be incorporated into a company's mobility plans.

One professional says: "The family's ability to assimilate into a new culture and country is directly related to the success of the global assignment. If the family is unable to embrace the new environment, there is a greater possibility that the assignment will be unsuccessful, even if the employee is effective in his or her work."


Provided resources are available, there are opportunities for companies to address family issues in a number of areas. For example, they might provide supplemental income to assist with private schools that offer education comparable to that which family members would have received in their home country.

"The globalisation of the workforce brings to it a mix of cultures, skills and needs unlike any we have seen."

Or they might offer financial assistance to accommodate visits to a family on global assignment by a family member who remains at home to study. Spouse employment is another significant concern, cited recently in one survey as the third most pressing challenge for global mobility professionals. Increasingly, the spouse of someone on a global assignment who is pursuing his or her own career faces career interruption, due to immigration laws that prohibit their employment at the global assignment location.

Companies can help by providing financial assistance for continuing education, identifying peer and business networks that help the spouse assimilate into the new environment and bringing to light volunteer opportunities that align with the spouse's business skills and knowledge.


Companies can provide medical support by incorporating emergency medical assistance into their policies, by developing a system to evacuate family members if an emergency medical need arises and local care is not viable.

Some companies provide supplemental or global medical insurance and identify referral networks that help families find medical services comparable to those they accessed in their home country.


The globalisation of the workforce brings to it a mix of cultures, skills and needs unlike any we have seen. Global expansion and increased offshoring and outsourcing means that mobile employees can be found at many levels in an organisation, creating an international workforce with a blend of executive, managerial and frontline employees.

The complexity of the labour force is daunting in itself, but there is an even bigger issue looming: an extreme shortage of labour and a scramble for talent that is accelerating at an alarming pace. The ability of employees to seek opportunities in several markets and countries raises additional retention concerns.


Financial scrutiny can drive reductions in benefits and other policy changes, leading to fewer high-cost and fully loaded expat benefits packages and a rise in short-term as well as commuter assignments.

In fact, many companies predict increases in the number of such assignments in their organisations, citing lower costs, management development programmes and employee preferences as the main motivators.

"Global workforce mobility increasingly demands that we adjust to diverse customers."


In experiencing the growing dilemma created by the need to reduce and control costs while developing policies that keep organisations competitive economically in a tighter labour market, those of us in the global business arena have much in common.

At the same, time global workforce mobility increasingly demands that we adjust to diverse customers and colleagues, gain a strong appreciation of (and emphasis on) intercultural and multicultural issues in the business environment and adapt to changing professional roles that require more extensive knowledge of other countries and cultures.

Above all, individuals and companies need to position themselves for the opportunities that free trade and innovative business partnerships bring.