HR leaders are finding ways to adapt their mobility programs while keeping employee safety top of mind.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Talent mobility has long been a key business strategy for organizations facing skills gaps and labor shortages. Prior to the coronavirus, skilled talent and leadership moved fluidly across borders and mobility was leveraged as a development and retention tool for early-career employees eager to explore the world.
Now, the uncertainty of the global pandemic has forced mobility professionals to shift their practices and thinking. Worldwide travel bans, government-mandated quarantine requirements, and the June 24, 2020 U.S. presidential proclamation suspending the entry of people with H-1B, H-2B, L-1, and some J-1 visa types have caused organizations to implement temporary freezes on all relocation activities.
A new e-book from Corporate Relocation International (CRI) surveying 700 HR leaders confirms this trend. Results indicate that 92 percent of organizations froze or plan to freeze the majority of their international transfers through 2020, with many likely to continue the policy through 2021. And the impact will be long lasting; 81 percent expect their relocation budgets to be reduced post-COVID for anywhere between 24 to 48 months.
“The main challenge is a lack of certainty around employee health and safety,” says Anthony Horton, CEO of CRI. “Many firms have suspended employee relocation activity because the pandemic has brought about justifiable fears: fear of traveling, fear of public spaces, and employer fears about returning to normal operations too soon. This has led to delays in decision-making on relocation strategies as well as individual employee moves.”
In many cases, Horton says that organizations are reducing their relocation benefits to save on costs while continuing to hire new talent with the promise of an extended relocation offer at a later date. This creates a backlog of mobility opportunities that are authorized but not guaranteed to be fulfilled.
And those that have had to carry on with essential relocations during the pandemic face their own suite of challenges. Companies are now expected to implement additional safeguards to ensure the health and safety of their employees, rewriting their policies to include measures like:
- enhancing technology to minimize contact and improve the employee experience;
- increasing flexibility around the timing of a move;
- offering PPE, sanitization, and social distancing guidelines during household moves;
- developing health questionnaires and screens prior to travel;
- offering coronavirus testing when not covered by insurance;
- booking air travel and accommodations that meet CDC health guidelines;
- expanding temporary accommodation benefits; and
- managing real estate transactions virtually.
“Other areas of focus include understanding the environment at the destination location and what challenges it may present for the relocating family, evaluating travel options to minimize risk and address quarantine requirements, and modifying provisions for local/ground transportation to reduce or eliminate use of public transportation where feasible,” says Dave Marron, CEO of NuCompass Mobility.
To meet the duty of care in the midst of a pandemic, HR leaders need to reevaluate their existing benefits offerings and adapt their programs to the new realities of the world in a way that remains cost-effective. For example, Marron explains that rather than offering a lump sum benefits package, employers should consider a host of services that can more adequately support relocating employees and their families.
But Randy Wilson, president and CEO of NEI Global Relocation, cautions that organizations need to carefully consider the impact of benefits changes. “With new benefits, companies need to be mindful of the unintended consequences. Will the location that an employee decides to work from create a tax nexus issue for the company—causing an issue with their compliance for taxes?”
Moving into the end of 2020 and facing a potential resurgence of the virus, companies will need to be more cautious than ever, making shrewd decisions about which moves are truly necessary to their organizational goals and implementing alternatives to relocation when possible. Peggy Smith, SCRP, GMS-T, chief strategy officer at CapRelo, suggests that HR leaders take an individualized approach to these decisions, adjusting to employees’ risk tolerance level in a way that is mindful of their and their families’ safety concerns.
“Focus on assuring employee safety, providing supportive assistance and prudent decision-making to achieve cost-effective results,” says Marron. “Recognize that exercising flexibility and incurring a small increased support cost to assure employee health and well-being can result in reduced risk for the business and its employees.”
In addition to maintaining flexibility in the program, a proactive communications strategy can go a long way to helping employees feel safe and secure in their move. “It is critical that business leaders communicate key decisions and status updates across all levels of the organization—from HR business partners all the way down to managers and employees,” Smith says.
“If a mobility counselor is talking to an employee’s partner and is catching distress, then that needs to be relayed back to the employer,” she explains. “It’s an ecosystem. You need to ensure employee wellness by keeping a bi-directional communication channel open because people have independent tolerances for risk but also ambiguity.”
Actively seeking feedback about what is working and not working in a mobility program is another best practice that can make a huge difference for employees. According to Marrow, organizations should consistently reevaluate their approaches to ensure they are a good fit for the employee population. Answers to these types of questions can help:
- Do employees have enough of the right type of support?
- Is the well-being of the relocating population being considered?
- Is there enough effective communication being given in a timely manner?
- What type of feedback are employees giving and is it being addressed?
“Experience shows that companies are still moving employees to meet their business needs, and they are doing it with even more thought and planning than before to ensure the safety and well-being of their employees and the employees’ family members. Absent any borders being shut down to some or all, we have a roadmap of how to navigate through C-19 issues—with agility, innovation, and established solutions,” says Wilson.
Organizations that can be agile and adapt their programs to the obstacles of a global pandemic with an eye toward employee wellness and safety will ultimately be the ones to thrive post-COVID-19.
What will relocation programs look like once the world emerges from the current crisis? With the recent turn to remote work, it’s likely that mobility’s role will look very different. According to CRI data, 93 percent of organizations have adopted work from home policies since the start of the pandemic, and 89 percent expect that remote work will increase even once the economy recovers from the disruption of COVID-19. The quarantine period has taught employers that in many cases, employees can be productive without being in the office. Ultimately, this may translate to less demand for relocations, particularly among associate and middle-management level employees.
“What I anticipate is we’re going to see a shift to remote work for a period of time,” says Smith. “While I think it will ultimately calibrate back, remote work as a strategy will become a permanent fixture of a workforce model. The good news is that we were already leading down this path in mobility programs. Mobility programs have had to adapt to a more dynamic workforce model before, as companies were looking at a blended workforce of gig workers, full-time workers, and consultants prior to COVID-19. What this crisis has done is accelerated what was underway but also added a new element of virtual work, pushing our workforce model to one that is fully distributed for some length of time.”
Mobility leaders will need to learn how to serve each of the segments of the new workforce model, understanding what appeals to them and what benefits they expect from their employer. Those chapters have not yet been written, but Smith predicts that the importance of flexibility will become even more prevalent.
This will merely be the continuation of a long-present trend toward employee choice. Just as mobility programs have evolved from structured benefits packages to core/flex programs and now lump sum benefits, so will they continue to evolve to an ever-more individualized suite of benefits.
“We will continue to see an acceleration around choice and flexibility,” she explains. “In the past few months, organizations have to be far more flexible than they’d ever thought they’d need to be. This world is saying that people need choice because they have individual situations that affect their lives in and out of work. It’s only natural that once you introduce choice, the employee is going to want and need more. Mobility leaders will have to think about independent choice in a post-COVID world in a way that we haven’t thought about before.”