HR & EDUCATION | , Singapore
Lee Quane

Strategic global mobility: unlocking the potential of cross-border programmes


Singapore’s job market is on the mend, with the economy expanding 4.6% in the third quarter from a year ago, according to advance estimates by the Ministry of Trade and Industry released in October.

Prime Minister Lee’s outlook for Singapore is optimistic too, with economic growth expected to rise by nearly 3% this year. Coupled with renewed internationalisation support from Enterprise Singapore, Singapore will soon see more businesses looking to expand overseas and diversify market reach. To achieve this, companies need to implement a strategic, long-term plan for global mobility.

Business leaders recognise the role global mobility plays in business growth, from improving performance and succession planning, to boosting employee engagement and retaining talent. Yet, the process of drafting mobility policies and relocating employees can be daunting, especially for companies embarking on global mobility for the first time or for those expanding into new markets.

All these become more complicated given the evolving profile of today’s expatriate, creating changes in the way companies approach employee mobility. Singapore, for example, still boasts one of the most generous salary and benefits packages in Asia-Pacific, yet the typical expatriate package for middle managers here has fallen to a five-year low at SGD 313,600 in 2017, according to this survey.

Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing international mobility landscape, companies now need to support diverse profiles of assignees and assignment types, and a greater variety of home and host country combinations. Relying on tried and tested approaches is no longer enough; companies have to be more strategic to make the most of their investment and unlock the potential of global mobility.

Invest in specialised global mobility departments
In a survey conducted this year, we found that more than 88% of businesses believe their global mobility functions need to be more strategic as opposed to transactional, yet only a dismal 13% think they are achieving this level of strategic input today.

The first step towards this strategic future is investing in a centralised team to manage global recruitment, so as to exercise more control over strategic hiring and mobility processes. A specialised global mobility team also comes equipped with the expertise to successfully plan, execute and manage a complex range of international assignments, thereby lowering assignment failure rates.

The ever-changing needs of assignees further cements the need for a specialised department. With short-term or commuter assignments growing in popularity amongst modern expatriates, compared to the traditional long-term assignment, one-size-fits-all mobility policies no longer work. In fact, we found that 45% of overseas assignments are now long-term (around three years), falling from nearly two-thirds in 2008.

A team dedicated to monitoring mobility expenses and compliance requirements, as well as allocating resources to build the best policies that suit their staff, lends itself well to accommodating diverse assignment types. It is no wonder that 77% of companies today have a centralised system in their current global mobility structure, and this figure is slated to rise amidst increasing overseas expansion.

Make smarter decisions with technology
As software solutions become more feature-rich and complex, companies can now track assignment-related information, including repatriated assignees, types of assignments, current and previous assignment locations, and length of time left on an assignment.

The case for IT investment is strong – technology helps mobility teams save time and resources on manual and repetitive tasks, reduce inaccuracies and calculation errors, and improve oversight and data on processes, costs and compliance. Yet, amongst the mobility teams we surveyed, a worrying 63% reported either no recent change in investment or reduced investment in IT solutions over the past few years.

Some assignment management platforms match employee talent profiles with positions available and conduct skills gap analysis, facilitating a more efficient workforce allocation. Others provide real-time updates at every stage of the assignment lifecycle, allowing mobility professionals to chart cost projections and estimates seamlessly, whilst swiftly calculating ROI for expatriates. This frees up their time to channel efforts towards making strategic decisions, evaluating business operations against costs, or identifying employees who should be localised or repatriated.

Furthermore, by investing in a single database that is up-to-date with the relevant regimes and policies, unnecessary costs can be avoided, both on the part of the assignee and organisation. For example, not updating an exchange or tax rate that has spiked could create undue financial burden on the expatriate, alongside emotional stress and low productivity. Likewise, companies stand to scale back on expenses by using software that closely monitors developments in the host country and adjust expatriate pay packages automatically when, say, there are changes to property prices.

Harness data analytics to measure success 
Measuring return on investment (ROI) can be an insurmountable challenge faced by global mobility departments, yet data collection and analytics are severely underutilised, with only 45% of companies analysing assignment data to track ROI. This is troubling, because measuring ROI allows companies to justify their hefty investment in mobility, and strategically identify potential areas of cost containment. 

One intuitive indicator of success is increased profits, but other often overlooked measures of success are retention rates, assignee satisfaction and welfare – over one-third of surveyed organisations do not measure these. Still, at the heart of every assignment is the employee themselves, and a happy employee makes for a successful assignment. When assignees don’t feel fulfilled – be it due to on-the-job stress and mismatch in expectations, or inability to adapt to the culture of the host country – they are more likely to terminate assignments early or leave the company upon returning home.

When this happens, the ROI of hiring, training and relocating the employee takes a nose dive, and companies will then have to re-hire or re-train new and potentially less experienced employees. Measuring retention rates, and assignee satisfaction and welfare are thus strategic tools mobility leaders can use to lay the groundwork for continued success.

In our increasingly borderless world, more companies are acknowledging that international assignments are critical to business growth, and are therefore allocating more resources to global mobility, whilst closely monitoring mobility spend. To make the best of their investment, companies ought to adopt a strategic, robust approach to mobility management, and balance the costs of mobility programmes with the rapidly growing demand for cross-border talent.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Lee Quane

Lee Quane

Lee Quane is Regional Director, Asia at ECA International.

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