Operating internationally allows your organisation to gain commercial advantage and pursue new opportunities. But managing international employees brings risks and challenges.
The strategic role of global mobility
On an organisational level, global mobility has developed into complex programmes in support of internal demands and to meet external challenges or obligations. Programmes can now comprise different types of mobility such as:
- Internal mobility – between businesses
- External mobility – gig workers, freelancers, talent exchange
- Cross-border relocation – traditionally this type of working involved expatriate assignments, but more recently includes remote working
- Lateral moves across functions
- Vertical moves – promotion within the same business
- Moving jobs to people
Clarity of strategy is also critical to support effective workforce management across borders. What is the role of global mobility within the organisation and how is it delivering value in terms of commercial and people objectives? For example:
- Diversifying and rightsizing the international talent-pool – effective mobility talent management goes hand in glove with international workforce reshaping, resizing, and reskilling.
- Ensuring the correct leadership talent delivery method is in place
- Addressing fundamental shortages in skill in critical markets
- Encouraging and fostering talent diversity. For example, if you require international experience for roles within the business, you should expect under-representation of women and minorities in the expatriate pool to block your diversity initiative because they are less likely to have international experience. You should be able to quickly identify and adapt to that possibility
- Protection of key talents: tactically employing key talent from static markets and transferring them to more active ones.
- Enabling continued globalisation of business activities and functions.
Global mobility – no longer just A to B
Managing international employees has moved on from the linear way of thinking – moving employee(s) from A to B – towards one where employees are more geographically dispersed. Whether that is working from home or the office, and with different contract statuses such as those with permanent or temporary contracts, or on a freelance basis.
Pandemic travel restrictions have also resulted in mass adoption of virtual working as an alternative to international relocation and assignment.
Mobility also needs to be considered within the spectrum of promoting lateral mobility – moving employees between different types of jobs as opposed to promotion within the same job family (vertical mobility). Lateral mobility can be important when bringing international workers back into the fold, as businesses can and do struggle to guarantee them a role upon their return; lateral mobility guards against this.
Mobility can also encompass external mobility – offering secondments outside the company or lending talent to other businesses or companies in order to further develop them or their career or for retention purposes.
Temporary talent sharing such as lending employees to a host employer for a period time (similar to footballers moving between clubs on a loan basis), allows workers to return to your business with minimal disruption to their income and well-being. It also lets the host employer bridge their staffing gaps to address short-time spikes in demand.
Gig workers and freelancers are also likely to play a significant role in the global mobility workforce. Talent trend studies predict that gig workers and freelancers will substantially replace full-time permanent employees over the next five years. Being able to effectively manage the ebb and flow of talent will become a top priority for business.
International virtual working
Historically, businesses allowed some of their international employees who could not relocate to work remotely from their home country or other location. The Covid pandemic has turned work practices on their head, and remote working has become the norm for many employees and businesses. The concept of virtual working is likely to be here to stay, and it is worth investing time and effort into assessing its feasibility long term for your business.
Virtual assignments or international remote working can generally be broken down into two scenarios:
- An employee remains in their home country whilst performing their role and is also responsible for operations in a different location
- Allowing an employee to work in a third country of their choice that is not their home country or the location benefitting from the role being performed.
Challenges of managing a global workforce
HR and mobility teams should seek to remove the barriers to international talent matching by assessing the feasibility of the various types of mobility, ensuring compliance, containing costs, and improving employee experience.
For HR and mobility functions managing a cross-border workforce, the following will be key considerations:
- Look behind compliance issues – ensuring full compliance is essential for the smooth running of your business, but compliance alone cannot drive your business’s strategy. Many attempts to implement remote working fail because of cultural issues and inadequate processes.
- Define employee value – what does it mean in terms of employee experience? Are virtual assignments likely to open up international opportunities for employees who would not usually be mobile? Employers should refrain from making too many assumptions about what their employees want, preferences can be measured by using employee feedback surveys.
- Clarify the business case within your business context – an international virtual working strategy should be based on your business’s long-term goals rather than being driven by market circumstances such as the coronavirus pandemic. Think about how international remote working will fit within your global business strategy overall or your business’s HR framework.
- Understanding a country’s cultural norms and habits will help you create and manage a talent infrastructure aligned with your business. However, this is not an easy task and in the workplace the term “culture” has wide-ranging variations that translate into a list of “dos and don’ts”. For example, while German workers like to identify with their workplace and adhere to a set hierarchy, Indian employees expect guidance from superiors who demonstrate knowledge, a certain skillset, and are approachable. By the same token, a thumbs up in many countries signifies “okay”, but in Nigeria, the Middle East or South America, the gesture can get you into trouble.
- Managing a global workforce requires an in-depth understanding of employee’s expectations, and only then can your international management team set-up reporting structures that are readily adopted by employees that are accepted norms and are functional.
Tips for managing a global workforce
Ensuring your business’s international workforce is managed effectively include:
- Build an infrastructure – compliance issues, among others, abound inr elation to global workforce management. The organisation will need to rely on policies and processes that will support and ensure best practice and that all legal and regulatory requirements are being met, as well as commercial objectives.
- Global mobility strategy – takes time, careful thought, and teamwork. You’ll need to consider various aspects of global mobility like immigration requirements, procedural challenges – such as deployment workflows – to ensure that the process of global employment is seamless for each individual employee and reinforces your business’s strategy overall. But once created and implemented, you will find that as global employment becomes more established, it will make your business efficient, and consistent, and is the perfect way to start growing revenue in a new country.
- Be proactive & responsive – being flexible in your approach ensures changes are accepted and you can adjust your working practices according to location, culture, and employee suitability.
- Communicating openly – this helps to foster a sense of community within the workplace. BMW’s multinational team operates as a single unit, exchanging ideas via virtual collaborative technology and tools which bring added value to their work. Accessibility brings improved collaboration, ensuring your international workforce is included in all company plans and decisions.
- Cultural awareness – as mentioned earlier, cultural sensitivity and awareness are essential to bridging gaps and building strong relationships between management and employees.
- Utilising HR analytics – data is a key tool when making important business decisions which include management strategies. By making use of sophisticated HR analytics and data models, you can provide your business with innovative ways to simplify real-time collaboration, gauge the local market, and understand job search patterns in other countries.
- First-hand experience – if your business has an international workforce or you are planning on expanding, it is vital for you to travel to other offices and engage with workers on a first-hand basis. Only by immersing yourself in the cultural environment and its work ethics can you create a tailored workforce which can be efficiently and effectively managed. Getting acquainted with international markets allows you to develop your ability to steer your business through a rapidly shifting landscape and respond to dynamic changes.
- Talent brokering is about connecting businesses who are searching for skilled workers with talent sources. This may be via external recruiters or talent matching platforms who help companies find talent to fill vacant full-time roles, or gig workers for specific projects. Integrating mobility within a broader talent brokering framework helps reconnect talent mobility with its original objectives – addressing gaps in talent and fostering development and retention.Talent brokering can also exist within a business to match talent between businesses and functions across geographical areas. In practice, this can mean lending or temporarily transferring talent from one business to another. Historically, mobility has been about having the right talent in the right place for the right cost. Global talent brokering adds a new dimension by developing an agile, structured process which ensures that global staffing needs are met in an anticipatory and timely manner.
DavidsonMorris advises organisations on all aspects of global mobility strategy and international workforce management. To discuss the legal and HR implications of your global mobility programme, contact our specialist consultants.
Managing international employees FAQs
How do you manage a global workforce?
Tips to manage a global workforce include consideration of the following: an innovative approach, open communication, cultural awareness, use of HR analytics, and first-hand experience. This list is not exhaustive and should be tailored to meet your business’s needs and functions.
What is a global mobility programme?
A global mobility programme is essentially the method a business uses when sending employee’s overseas to work and includes such things as: rightsizing and diversifying the international work pool, addressing key skill shortages, fostering, and developing talent diversity, protection of key talents, and enabling continued globalised business functions.
Why is international mobility important?
International mobility is important because it helps businesses put the best talent on the job, wherever that job needs to be. Operating from country to country gives businesses an important insight into how other countries approach work/social life and is a great way to become more aware of how global markets and businesses operate.
What does international mobility mean?
International mobility refers to the ability of a workforce to seamlessly move from one country to another. When a business achieves true global mobility, it can navigate international workforce deployment with the highest levels of accuracy and proficiency.
What does a global mobility specialist do?
Global mobility specialists manage international employees, handling a variety of immigration related aspects of their movement between countries, and help them navigate unfamiliar legislative environments in which they work.
Last updated: 8 February 2021