Tim O’Shea, vice president consulting services, Graebel Relocation, shares his thoughts on the biggest challenges companies face in relocation.
By Bill Hatton
As part of our special section on Global Mobility and Relocation, we asked Graebel’s Tim O’Shea to comment on the state of the relocation market.
What are the biggest challenges that companies (i.e., your clients and potential clients) face right now in international relocation?
Speed is the biggest challenge for all of us – speed to understand everything about a new location or changes in a familiar location and speed to ensure expats or one-way transfers are in place, productive and delivering value as soon as possible. It seems we’ve found ourselves in a hyper-responsive world where complex questions with far-reaching ramifications need answering immediately, either by corporate relocation teams or by RMCs and their industry partners. Senior leaders ask simple questions like, “When can these three expats be on the ground in Kuala Lumpur? Why don’t we already have all the answers we need? I need them there tomorrow!” Whether expectations are fair or not, that’s the challenge we’re facing. Patience is not an industry virtue.
I also think a huge challenge is to balance the need for cost-effective solutions with finding and satisfying the right talent. There is no doubt that an expat assignment of six months or more is expensive, and our industry continues to find the magic solution of the right amount of benefits for the right cost that make for a happy, focused expat who delivers real value. If it costs twice what you planned, it may not matter how good the expat was at his/her job; on the flip side, you may save 7 per cent organisation and find the expat desperate to come home eight months sooner than planned. This challenge of that cross-border sweet spot – that right combination of cost, effectiveness and satisfaction – remains front and center for everyone on both sides of the global mobility equation.
What is the one thing that surprises clients most often – something they don’t expect? Both positive and negative.
In truth, the goal for all is no surprises – there are few things worse than hearing the phrase, “We had no idea this could happen.” Part of our role as a third-party management company is to eliminate or at least greatly mitigate the opportunity for surprises on an international move – estimating the costs, coaching the expat and the family, providing a tether for constant support – all of those things are critical. But surprises do happen – household shipments get damaged, immigration paperwork gets delayed, neighbors in a high-priced neighborhood in London really love to play the bongos at 3 am. The trick is to fix, explain, learn and move on. For some, the most positive surprise is how many people are willing to take a one-way move to another continent with scant benefits to help past the transition. Companies are finding very willing employees to move themselves and their families to another country with no end date in sight. I think there is no one most common negative surprise other than tax costs for expats – no amount of preparation can always prepare some for the actual cost of paying taxes on behalf of an expat.
What do you think are the key trends in international relocation right now?
The biggest trend in international mobility is the move away from long-term expat assignments and towards one-way moves, localisations and “local-plus” approaches. These permutations are in response to the concern over cost.
I don’t think we’ll ever see the end of long-term assignments – there will always a need for key talent to be in a host location for a few years. But many companies want their junior employees to get global exposure – to learn how to work with colleagues in another culture and to gain valuable insight as they return to the home country and assume more responsibility. Do those employees need to be traditional expats? I think what we’re seeing are programmes that provide flexibility and cost containment and still move the right talent where it needs to be.
Whether a one-way transferee moves from Sao Paolo to Ireland with a plan to live and work in Galway forever or not, we have to make sure there are options to get that talent to Galway in a way that makes sense now.
Also, like in the US market, clients and their transferred people crave flexibility and the ability to make choices in mobility. Those two words can have many different meanings depending on the foundational existing program, but all talent and relocation leaders are looking for more creativity from their third-party management companies.
What are the biggest pitfalls and opportunities in international relocation?
I think compliance is a critical pitfall – tax and immigration rules per country, including days in country, intent of the trip – even how the employee is paid – are all vital issues to understand before the employee and the company find themselves in a pickle. From an opportunity perspective, I think the greatest opportunity for organisations is to give their employees global exposure – that is the greatest opportunity companies have – to get their employees living and working in other countries – those experiences break down barriers, improve communication, help increase understanding about approaches to the work and this makes for better, more informed global citizens. I think international relocation is what enables companies to really call themselves “global.” And while you did not ask all these pitfalls are avoided and opportunities realised by incredible clear communication channels amongst all parties (and there are many involved in a global relocation) across many languages, regions, time zones and levels within companies.