Expats and global mobility: what’s in a name?

Expats and global mobility: what’s in a name?

Global mobility is not what it was – and that’s great news. 

The way that we manage the movement of people around the world for professional purposes has evolved for the better. We are more efficient, more technologically enabled and – although many might say there is work to be done – more inclusive. 

Yet, although the world of global mobility has been changing for some time, we still use the same language to describe it. Is it really “global mobility” or is there more to it?

Steve Brink, President and CEO of relocation specialists Air Inc, asked this question in his blog earlier this year. He argued that the function of global mobility is now much more comprehensive, since they routinely take on the task of handling compliance, managing remote working relationships and liaising with other areas such as compensation or talent development. 

Expats and global mobility: what’s in a name?

Talent deployment? Value fluidity?

Steve suggests it might be better described as “talent deployment”, which sounds like a more apt description of a role that has definitely grown. We raised a similar point on our blog in 2017 asking “Is it time to redefine global mobility?” 

Our suggestion was that the term “value fluidity” might also apply, since people no longer need to physically move; their value is simply applied in other areas of the world, thus reflecting the recent (and partly COVID-enforced) rise in remote working. 

Both terms reflect the fact that there is so much more flexibility in the way that this talent/value is made available. The classic traditional three-year global assignment is only one of a number of options open to global mobility teams, who might equally choose a shorter-term assignment or a much more flexible package such as international commuting.

Many of the skills of an experienced global mobility professional can be invaluable in ‘non-moving’ situations, such as providing cultural awareness training for participants in virtual assignments. Working online with teams from around the world is becoming commonplace and is a real alternative to physical relocation; yet the issues of cultural understanding are still important – and this is something that global mobility teams have become expert at managing over the years.

The point is that the way we make our people available and productive around the world has changed and we agree that the term ‘global mobility’ might not be as accurate as it was. 

All change for expats too?

But this question carries more significance when you consider the term ‘expat’. Is that term also due for a refresh? Technically, it simply means one who is outside their home country, but has come to denote one who travels on a more permanent basis than a casual tourist. 

But in the same way that the classic assignment has been replaced by a range of options, and the global mobility department does so much more than it used to, there’s now a new breed of expats, with a whole range of backgrounds, assignments and considerations. 

Also, consider that, for some, the term ‘expat’ carries a negative connotation – of privileged communities living in ‘expat bubbles’ with no desire to integrate with or appreciate the local culture around them. Such attitudes are gradually being replaced by a more culturally tolerant view, and a new generation of families with third-culture kids, who consider themselves more ‘global nomads’ than ‘expats’.  

Expats and global mobility: what’s in a name?

As the world of professional relocation becomes more inclusive, and more types of professional are given opportunities to travel, learn and develop in a global context. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the term ‘expat’ belongs to a different age

With increased international movement, driven by improved international cooperation and the increasingly global perspective of people and companies alike, do we need to distinguish between ‘expat’ and ‘migrant’? Are they the same? Or is neither relevant?

We don’t have the answers but we know that it is changing, and largely for the better. The business we (currently) know as global mobility has grown in complexity and strategic importance. The people we currently call expats are more influential, diverse and informed than ever before. With travel volumes widely expected to recover quickly following the current pandemic, they will also be in greater number. 

It’s all changed. So, shouldn’t we change the way we talk about it?


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