Global Mobility: Adapting to Travel Uncertainty


Driving change for impact & improvement

Faced with extreme global challenges from changing travel restrictions to varying public health rules between regions and countries, mobility functions must not only be sufficiently agile and flexible to respond to local changes, but also hold sufficient influence within the organisation to lead on advising and making recommendations on how the organisation should react and adapt to minimise operational disruption while optimising workforce performance.

But inhouse mobility teams are often badged as administrative functions, focused on immigration processing. While the potential and capability is to be a valued strategic contributor to the organisation in what has become an area of substantial upheaval. In light of so much ‘unprecedented’ change faced universally, the opportunity is there for mobility teams to step in and provide much-needed guidance.

This makes senior management buy-in critical to enabling and driving change in mobility programmes. The message from the top that “this matters” will be vital for any progress to be made.

Of course, effective change management requires more than just a rubber-stamping from the Board. Respect will be hard earned and hard fought.

How can HR and mobility functions gain the attention and support of senior management, to optimise the value and contribution of global mobility to the organisation as a whole?


Barriers to mobility change: senior buy-in matters

There are many obstacles to mobility programmes operating with maximum impact.

Externally, COVID-19 has turned travel into an area of extreme uncertainty. Organisations are dealing with environmental volatility. There are more restrictions and regulations than ever, and these are subject to constant review and change.

The risks and costs of moving and hiring personnel across borders are growing, while the ability to deploy people overseas is no longer guaranteed. Global immigration policy is increasingly pro-domestic. Compliance requirements are highly stringent on employers – they change frequently, and vary from region to region. Global competition for talent and customers is fierce. International security issues are the norm.

Internally, organisations generally face resistance to change. There is typically a lack of understanding – and interest – of compliance duties (employees’ and employers’). Limited resources and budgets prevail. There are inconsistencies across local mobility practices. Collaboration and integration between functions remain the exception to the norm. Mobility lacks a consistent identity and position within organisations.

A compelling case to management will have to tackle how an effective global mobility programme will address these challenges, both strategically and operationally.


Aligning global mobility to organisational needs 

The key to winning management support is having clarity of vision for what global mobility should look like for your organisation. The vision has to resonate with management concerns. It has to align to wider organisational benefit and need.

Consider the following:

Corporate objectives

Understanding your organisation’s top level goals, both current and future, should determine the shape and form of an enhanced mobility programme.

Prevailing unpredictability and the increasingly dynamic nature of global business means organisations need more flexibility in the mobility of personnel, to support flexible working practices, and to have the right people in the right place at the right time – where local restrictions allow.

But this drive for movement doesn’t necessarily reconcile with the current focus on public health, and many governments’ pro-domestic labour stance. Immigration policies across the globe do not support agile working across borders.

A mobility programme that is geared to enable your firm to operate with the requisite degree of flexibility and agility against a backdrop of travel restrictions and shifting regulations will be a valuable form of competitive advantage.

For example, is the business planning to expand into new, emerging markets? What are the implications of immigration compliance, relocation services, employee support, repatriation etc? These factors should be considered at the formative stage of any overseas project to maximise the opportunity and mitigate associated risk.

Provide management with the foresight of mobility risks and opportunities presented by the organisation’s strategic direction.



Enhancements in technology have thrown open the potential for enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of global mobility programmes.

New systems are helping organisations to move away from managing mobility processes and data in locally-managed spreadsheets. We are seeing employers reconsider future-proofed technology solutions to support their immigration needs through automation, real-time updating and systems integration between functions such as mobility, HR, tax, payroll.

There is also increasing appetite within organisations for data to drive decisions, strategy and action. Accessing and analysing data across the mobility programme, such as information relating to assignees for compliance and risk-profiling, data relating to the processing of visa applications, the types of assignment being undertaken, can be utilised to measure and improve service performance, to identify risk and trends, and to enable informed decision-making by both management and the mobility function.


Risk management

Get compliance wrong, and it becomes an organisational issue. A management headache. Substantial fines. Negative publicity. Damage to corporate reputation. Impact on future immigration applications.

Global mobility touches on a whole range of risk factors – immigration compliance, international tax liability, payroll issues. Typically we see these elements being handled as silos – albeit the result of legacy rather than by design. This does however create compliance risks – process error and oversight, duplication of effort as the assignee is dealing with multiple functions for one end goal.

The biggest source of compliance risk is usually not the mobility function itself – it is your travelling employees. How is this being managed? Educate your workforce of their duties when travelling on business, and support and alleviate compliance demands on them throughout the assignment – not just securing their visa – think what do they need at border control? How can they extend a visit while in-country? What about repatriation of long term assignees?

Risks such as changes in local legislation (immigration, tax etc), can be addressed through technology – automation, real-time updates, GPS tracking, systems integration – as well as looking at the fundamental structure of the mobility function.

For example, a centralised, HQ-based team becomes the organisation’s centre of excellence, responsible for strategy and implementation of the mobility programme, and focused on managing compliance risks and cost control through enhanced administrative efficiencies.

Smaller, local teams undertake necessary on-the-ground functions, such as onboarding checks, and are charged with ensuring changes in local rules and legislation are incorporated into processes and communicated internally to HQ.

The objective is to create clarity of ownership and accountability for compliance duties, and to ensure a consistent understanding and application of processes, policies and procedures.


Reduce cost and increase returns

Cost will always be a core concern for management. So what are the implications of organisational mobility – past, present and future – in terms of investment, savings and returns?

What’s the situation now, and how are you advising this can be improved?

You need to paint a full picture of all associated costs. Who is bearing the costs?

Will changes in policies, procedures, systems or resources require investment? What are the expected returns – cost savings, resulting efficiencies?

For example, we typically see mobility costs being passed from department to department, eventually landing at HR’s door. A ring-fenced budget allocation, fully owned and managed by a centralised mobility function, will create a more transparent financial position for management purposes, through improved planning, accountability, and more effective supplier management and procurement.


Talent strategy

It is becoming harder than ever to retain and attract good talent. Used effectively, global mobility programmes offer the potential to enhance personnel recruitment and development for employees at all levels.

On a strategic level, mobility should tie into the process of anticipating and planning for the organisation’s future talent needs. What type of talent will the organisation need, where will they need it, and when?

Succession planning is another key area of talent strategy where mobility can add value. Identifying and developing future leaders, ensuring they have the requisite level of international exposure and experience to take on senior positions by offering a range of overseas assignments – job swaps, short term deployments – to meet both your needs and those of the employee.

International opportunities are also now recognised as a key differentiator and influential factor for employees seeking new roles. Millennials in particular place a high degree of importance in gaining professional experience within different cultures, at the employer’s expense. Employers that incorporate global opportunities within their development and even reward schemes are likely to appeal more to this cohort.

While long-term assignments are becoming less common, they do still have a part to play where exceptional talent is required for an extended period in another region. 12% of overseas assignments, however, lead to repatriating employees prematurely leaving their organisation. A scenario employers will want to avoid. A returning employee will want to know – in advance of their return – what is ahead of them? Is there progression within the organisation? A repatriation strategy, aligned to talent development, will be instrumental in avoiding high attrition rates among returning employees.



A final consideration is ensuring mobility aligns to the culture of your organisation. How will your core values be reflected in your mobility practices?

For example, if the employee experience is a primary focus within your organisation, how well does the mobility programme work to this? Does it take into account employee aspirations, expectations or experiences? Or is the focus process-driven, an exercise in ticking compliance boxes with minimal flexibility or adaptability? Or perhaps you operate different approaches for different profiles of employees or within different regions?

Whatever your stance, there should be a clear logic behind how this aligns to your organisation’s values.


Need assistance?

Building a truly sustainable and effective approach to mobility will depend on your ability to secure senior level buy-in.

Crucially, this will hinge on convincing management that mobility can and will pay. How will it contribute to corporate goals? How will it create competitive advantage?

There will be no getting around the real hard work of the implementation phase that follows – but organisations with globally mobile workforces should create a dialogue with management with the aim of articulating the purpose, role and contribution of global mobility within the organisation as a business enabler.

We are experienced advisers to businesses on global mobility strategy and corporate immigration compliance. To discuss maximising the strategic impact of your global mobility programme and gaining global mobility senior buy-in, please get in touch.


Last updated: 1 December 2020


Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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