Innovative technology advancements are changing the global mobility landscape.
By Simon Kent
A recent report from the RES Forum shows that there is still huge untapped potential for the use of technology in aiding global mobility. The report suggests that areas such as pre-assignment support, payroll processes, and repatriation could all benefit significantly from digitalisation. The report’s author, Professor Benjamin Bader, senior lecturer in international HR management at Newcastle University Business School in the UK, says the sector is only just beginning to adopt technology and the future of the function is still up for debate.
“We’re not at the point of artificial intelligence (AI) yet,” notes Bader. “Rather, we’re discussing the use of robotic process automation (RPA)—using a computer algorithm to do the dull repetitive tasks.”
The RES Forum’s 2019 report, Shiny New World? Global Mobility in The Age of Artificial Intelligence and Robotic Process Automation, found that RPA technologies are more frequently used across the organisation than within HR. In fact, the report found that organisations are currently not leveraging RPA for global mobility.
What is unknown, says Bader, is what will happen as a result of the time and effort saved through the use of this technology. Will the new world order result in employees moving on to do more strategic things, or will they simply be made redundant?
Founder of RES Forum and global mobility professional David Ensor acknowledges the possible changes but also sees challenges to progress. For the time being, automation may be compromised by the existence of older systems that won’t play ball. For example, technology exists to automatically populate an online form with an assignee’s details, but if the platform behind that online form isn’t compatible with the form filling-bot, the potential efficiency is lost. That said, the RES report identified company culture as the current biggest challenge to leveraging new technology, suggesting it is businesses and people who will compromise progress rather than technology glitches.
“Mobility management technologies have thus far largely focused on the corporate user, [including] automating tasks such as compensation calculations, document generation, and vendor management to improve efficiency and accuracy,” says Kate Fitzpatrick, global mobility practice leader in the UK and Ireland at Mercer. “The employee experience with regard to technology has more commonly been left to the service providers; in particular, the tax and relocation companies.”
Fitzpatrick feels that current trends in global mobility technology are reflecting the increasingly complex nature of moving employees around the world. Technology easily supports the traditional long-term assignee/expatriate model, but with globalisation, diversification, and the “gig economy,” this simple model is almost the exception rather than the rule.
Added to this challenge are the high expectations of employees who receive a smooth, tech-led experience in practically all other aspects of their lives. “Mobility professionals and mobile employees are also now expecting a consumer-grade user experience when going through what is often a complex process,” says Fitzpatrick.
Amongst the areas where chatbots and AI are already making inroads for global staff are GP assessments; health, well-being, and other flexible benefits; and even virtual reality tours of hotels and serviced apartments. Fitzpatrick says that the responsibility for these technologies is being shifted in-house to give employees a unified and smooth experience with mobility services.
For Steve Black, co-founder and vice president of customer solutions at Topia, managing mobility efficiently should be seen as a key driver of workforce well-being rather than being treated as a special initiative. With companies working hard to retain employees, the chance to work in a different part of the world can be attractive even if it isn’t accompanied by extra pay or a new job title. From this perspective, global mobility has as much to do with succession planning and workforce motivation as it does with creating and supporting international business. “Mobility cuts across so many aspects of the HR umbrella that getting it right is important for everyone,” says Black.
For that reason, global mobility-supporting technology should be made accessible and beneficial to everyone in an organisation. “Of course you need the deep subject experts,” Black says. “In more complex cases you’d be lost without them, but through technology and a modern user interface you can empower a budget owner or an employee themselves to say, ‘I’m interested in this international opportunity.’”
Based in Prague, Lucie Sarsokova, HR service manager of global mobility at SAP, says that when she started in this field, the entire moving process was managed in spreadsheets. “Administration of a move took a lot of time and there was a huge space for mistakes,” she says. “Reporting capabilities were limited.”
Technology has altered mobility’s profile in the business. “Thanks to technology we implemented, we have become strategic partners to the business,” Sarsokova adds. “We are able to present the cost impact of different move scenarios with a couple of clicks. Technology is currently at such an advanced level that nearly anything can be developed. There are already tools in the market that are able to replace relocation providers. The question is always how much we want to automate so we do not lose the human interaction.”
Sarsokova hits on a point shared by many in the global mobility function. Ultimately, the question may not be what can be automated, but what should be kept as a human interaction. “Relocation is often a very emotional moment that might be accompanied by exceptional circumstances,” she says. “Human touch is important to make this a positive experience for the assignee.”
Ensor believes that technology is more than able to handle the run-of-the-mill, minor queries employees may have—what he refers to as “tier one” questions. Anything else may continue to need human intervention. To this extent, the role of global mobility employees may need to shift further.
Professor Bader, on the other hand, wonders if the future will hold “empathetic” technology to disrupt the mobility function further. “Over time, [this technology] will demonstrate some version of empathy. When you’re going across borders, it can be a harrowing time. If you replace Cynthia the person with Cynthia the bot, then the bot needs to be empathetic at the least,” he says.