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Types of Global Mobility Assignment (A Guide!)

To achieve the flexibility and agility required to respond to changing business demands while operating within a cost-effective and compliant infrastructure, organisations should explore different types of global mobility assignments.

With a varied global mobility portfolio, organisations can optimise the return and value of its mobility activity by ensuring the most appropriate and cost-effective type of assignment is utilised for any given need, such as duration of assignment (short term, long term, permanent?), location (developed or emerging nation?) and overall strategic aim of the assignment (overseas expansion, talent development?).

Types of Global Mobility: Business travel

Business travel involves short-term trips, typically enabling individual employees to carry out specific business-related activities, such as attending conferences and meetings, negotiating contracts and networking, in a different country for a brief period.

Compared with other mobility types, business trips may be less costly and less administratively onerous where employees travel without a work permit. However, for many organisations, the volume of business travel is such that as a whole, it acts as the biggest drain on mobility budgets.

Since business travel tends to occur without triggering any organisational global mobility procedure or support, it can be challenging for organisations to have an accurate understanding of the total financial outlay. This is further complicated by expenses, with reimbursement processes for globally mobile employees creating an additional lawyer of cost and budget management.

Business travel also presents a range of immigration and tax compliance risks for both the employer and employee.

Local immigration laws constantly change and current trends in global immigration policy are seeing a move towards more stringent monitoring and management of business travellers. Where employees travel without first checking against local immigration rules, any reliance on a visa not specifically designed for business purposes, or travelling without express, prior work permission for the intended activity, could see the employee detained at the border at the discretion of the immigration officials.

Employees who travel extensively on business could also become ‘accidental expats’ by involuntarily or unknowingly triggering legal or tax rules that re-classify them as resident in the host country.

In response, employers are advised to support their travelling employees through ongoing training and explore technology solutions to improve data collection and storage in relation to monitoring business travellers’ movements and managing the associated compliance with immigration and tax regulations.

Types of Global Mobility: Short-term assignments

Short-term overseas assignments can be a flexible approach to developing talent within your organisation, by offering key employees highly valuable international exposure and experience, with potential career progression into managerial, executive and leadership roles on their return.

Short-term assignments can also enable employees to gain first-hand insight and industry knowledge to bring back and use to improve performance and operations in their home workplace.

There are however various inherent risks of short-term assignments, including seeking the relevant immigration approvals, which can become onerous and costly given the short-term nature of the assignment.

You will also need to ensure that the employee is aware of the relevant legal and cultural differences to enable them to maximise their time on assignment, and avoid any adverse impact on the success of the assignment or falling foul of the law.

Types of Global Mobility: Long-term assignments

Long-term overseas assignments can support longer-term business growth objectives either by establishing a foothold in a new regional market or driving growth efficiency programmes through existing operations.

Deploying existing employees can also be a more effective alternative to recruiting overseas in achieving the commercial objective, where knowledge of the organisation is critical and timescales are challenging.

One of the main challenges in long-term assignments however is controlling costs and ensuring their commercial viability.

In particular, you will need to factor in relocation costs for both the employee and their family, operational costs of providing ongoing support for supporting the assignee and ensuring the compensation package is at a level, which offers an attractive financial incentive that will motivate the employee. When assessing the value and return on investment of a long-term overseas assignment, you will also need to consider the cost of repatriation at the end of the assignment.

Failure to sufficiently invest in the assignment, either from the outset or throughout the lifecycle, especially any failure to offer sufficient personal support for a long-term assignee during their time abroad, can result in expatriate failure, early repatriation and employee attrition.

As an employer you have a moral responsibility and a duty of care, not to mention a vested financial interest, not only to ensure the personal safety of an employee but also their overall wellbeing and happiness.

Indeed, ensuring that you maintain a supportive, open and communicative working relationship throughout a long-term assignment can mean the difference between retaining the services of an employee either during or at the end of the assignment, and losing their global talent to a competitor.

Types of Global Mobility: Permanent relocations

For employers, permanent relocation is increasingly being seen as a cost and resource-intensive option, which may be too rigid and long term for the organisation’s requirement.

Administering the move and preparing the employee and their family for relocation is a financial commitment from initial orientation, destination and arrival services onwards.

Pre-travel training for the employee and their family will also be essential, for example, to overcome any language or cultural barriers.

It does however provide a more secure alternative to hiring someone local who cannot offer the organisational insight and knowledge necessary to drive forward a specific business aim, such as a regional reorganisation programme or expansion strategy.

Importantly, local visa rules may restrict and determine the availability of a permanent relocation as an option for global mobility. This means this type of global mobility is generally not suited to anything other than to fill skills gaps and to manage operations. If you are looking, for example, to transfer expertise or develop new talent within your company or organisation, either short-term or long-term assignments or even frequent business travel, are likely to be viable options from an immigration perspective.

Managing a global mobility portfolio

Global mobility can offer many advantages but also carries risks, depending on the type of global mobility assignment involved.

Importantly, travel and work rights between the EU and the UK are likely to be overhauled following Brexit, and organisations will need to quickly adapt to maintain a legally compliant global mobility programme involving employee movement into, out of and through Europe.

When assessing the benefits and risks of the different types of global mobility, there are various ways that you can help to maximise the potential success of an overseas assignment. In particular, by planning ahead, giving assignees sufficient support, training and time to prepare for their trip, both practically and mentally, will be critical factors in the overall programme outcome.

More and more, employers are segmenting their expatriation policy, not just by assignment duration (long-term versus short-term) but also by expatriate assignment purpose (strategic assignment versus developmental moves or moves requested by the employees themselves) to achieve better alignment between the mobility programs and the business/talent needs of the organisation.

Policy segmentation is a way to address the limitations of the one-size-fits-all types of policies, reconcile the cost control versus international expansion dilemma in a context of budget constraint by shifting budget from less essential moves to assignment that are critical to the business, present options to management to understand the cost and business implications of sending expatriates, manage effectively exceptions into well-defined framework and process as opposed to one-to-one ad-hoc deals and reconcile talent management and reward.

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