Exciting advances in virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and more are set to revamp the mobility industry.
By Christa Elliott
The phrases virtual reality, artificial intelligence (AI), and “mobile apps” have been buzzing around in TED Talks and business articles for years, but it wasn’t until more recently that HR caught up and started brainstorming innovative uses for this technology. Today, apps and AI programs run everything from recruitment processes to background checks, and now, the relocation industry has a seat at the tech table as well.
This shift is driven by the ever-rising costs of running a successful relocation program, as well as the need to keep up with the platforms and tools that relocation candidates and managers have come to expect. The result is a host of lower-cost mobility programs that implement virtual reality, augmented reality, and AI to keep transferees connected all around the globe.
“Ongoing pressure on cost while continuing to offer an improved customer experience is often the responsible factor for the inception of many of these new technologies,” says Patrick Kenning, intelligence hub director for Crown World Mobility. “Video services in place of pre-visit trips and local area orientations achieve considerable savings for the client organization by avoiding flight and hotel costs. Video consultations (for moving services quotes) remove the non-productive cost of the transferee having to be available during working hours for a face-to-face visit.”
The introduction of virtual reality technology to the market has generated excitement from a number of industries, and relocation services is no exception. Virtual reality refers to computer technology that uses special headsets or multi-projected environments to generate realistic images, sounds, and other sensations and create an imaginary environment or situation around the user. Although much has been said about its potential in entertainment, education, and design, the mobility industry has already begun to explore the new possibilities for virtual reality in their field.
Relocation managers have already found virtual reality useful in showing off real estate, giving assignees the opportunity to take virtual reality-enabled tours of foreign offices or housing before they leave for their trips. The concept of the virtual tour has been around for years, but virtual reality has made these experiences more immersive and realistic than ever before.
“Before virtual reality started to gain momentum, you could take a ‘virtual tour,’ but these tended to be restrictive. The major difference between a virtual reality tour and a virtual tour is that a virtual tour is a controlled video or a mass of pictures geared to show the best attribute of the property instead the complete picture,” says Rick Manfra, business development manager for American Relocation Connections (ARC). “The virtual reality mapping capabilities allow you to control what you are looking at in the room without physically being there.”
The capabilities of this technology can even expand outside of the walls of an office or apartment and allow assignees to explore entire metropolitan areas from the comfort of their home. This, according to Frank Patitucci, chairman of the board for NuCompass Mobility, will lead to happier transferees and less stressful assignments.
“The more the relocating employee and family can learn about their new destination, and the process of getting there, the less time and emotional energy they will have to invest in the process,” Patitucci says. “Reducing the time and stress of the relocation experience directly translates to a more productive employee on the job in the new location.”
Virtual reality may also forever change the way meetings and conferences are handled between people in disparate locations. Static, single-view video calls can now be replaced with virtual reality conferences. The difference? In a virtual reality call, participants can look around the room and speak to participants more directly, fully immersing themselves in the meeting.
Virtual reality has certainly taken center stage as the next game-changing technology sector, but augmented reality also has an incredible potential in the realm of mobility management. Unlike virtual reality, AR layers computer-generated enhancements or images on top of existing reality and allows the user to interact with those images as a result. The goal of augmented reality is to enhance the environment that the user is already in, not to create a brand new one. Summer 2016’s gaming sensation Pokémon Go is a prime example of augmented reality.
“Augmented reality is of great interest to familiarization tours or local area orientations,” Kenning says. “Instead of an assignee taking the day out of the office with the spouse rearranging their day, or in many cases travelling abroad or across country for the core purpose of a destination city pre-view tour they could achieve experiencing the local area and community through an augmented reality platform.”
With the help of augmented reality, transferees will be better able to imagine themselves and their families in the new location. It will even make tasks such as interior decorating easier than ever before. “Some agents utilize [augmented] reality to allow an employee to view an empty home with furniture and decor so they can feel more comfortable in the decision-making process,” adds Hazel Cormier, director of talent acquisition for Express Scripts.
In addition to the impressive advances in virtual reality and augmented reality, AI and specifically chatbots will soon allow relocation managers to offer 24/7 online support to transferees, not to mention updates on the status of their visa and other info. Kenning says that this technology, as it relates to mobility, is still in its infancy, but he’s hopeful about its potential.
“Chatbots and AI bots help to alleviate those limitations giving the transferee 24/7 access to their relocation policy entitlements or the latest status update relating to their relocation,” he says. “Bots in relocation remain fairly nascent today, so it’s fair to say that the bot’s emotional intelligence or ability to preempt forthcoming questions or mitigate issues in advance will not be as reliable as what we would expect our human relocation consultants are currently providing. That’s where machine learning comes in.”
With the help of machine learning, chatbots will become smarter and in turn, provide more “human” responses to a greater number of specific questions. “We experience machine learning daily, but when we look specifically at relocation we can envisage highly in tune, intelligent bots that will navigate assignees through the relocation assignment lifecycle; supporting planning, managing expectations and helping to adjust to cultural variances between home and host culture based on their experiences,” explains Kenning.
Cormier agrees that there is unmapped potential for mobility to use AI, but believes that machines will never fully replace the human touch when it comes to helping transferees navigate their relocations. Instead, she sees AI driving more and more efficiencies, particularly in screening and selecting mobility candidates.
“AI can come into play in relocation as data-driven decisions are becoming the norm. Are we relocating the right person, or are we sending the right individual on an assignment for the right reasons? These types of questions need to be supported by proper data if an organization ever wants to begin to measure their return on investment, and AI can provide that data” she says.
Much is still unknown about the purposes that virtual reality and AI will serve in daily life and business operations, but mobile apps have come to be ubiquitous in both of these areas. It is no surprise, then, that a number of apps have been or are currently being developed to assist relocation assignees and managers before and during assignments. Many relocation providers have their own apps that allow assignees to photograph receipts and submit expenses instantly and send push notifications to their cell phones for upcoming deadlines.
Integrating mobile apps into a mobility program allows managers to meet assignees wherever they are, offer round-the-clock convenience, and simplify data collection, leading to better reporting and fewer headaches. For example, ARC’s app allows transferees to snap a picture and upload a receipt for expense reimbursement, track household goods shipment in real time, and communicate with their relocation counselor.
At the end of the day, no two mobility programs are identical, so relocation managers must evaluate their program as well as the needs the organization and assignees individually when deciding when and how to incorporate new technology into the workflow. The best way to determine whether augmented reality, virutal reality, mobile apps, and other tech are right for the organization is to try them out. Start by having a few transferees and managers test it out, and then roll it out organization-wide if it is successful. According to Scott McCain, president of Paragon Relocation, these solutions will ideally serve all interests and provide convenience and cost savings.
“More and more transferees want to readily view options and execute decisions with their smartphone, as work activities continue to integrate with the rest of our lives. Employers want transferees to execute smart decisions to optimize productivity and cost. The best technology provides the functionality desired by transferees but within a vetted technology ecosystem that protects the interests of the employer at the same time,” he says.