Blurring the edges: the flexibility of modern global assignments

30 March 2018

People don’t watch television any more. No – instead, they consume video. Our TV entertainment is now distributed via a myriad of different channels on different devices, viewed live or on-demand, via Wi-Fi, cable or 4G. But it’s not as clear-cut as it used to be.

In the same way, the modern world has blurred the definition of a global assignment.

Global mobility strategies were geared up to manage and optimize the effectiveness of a clearly understood model: senior expats being sent to far-flung corners of the business empire to offer their expertise for a few years (along with family, dog, and a lucrative tax-free package) and then being flown home – or onto the next assignment.

Today there are many more options. A combination of the globalization of business, better technology, lower-cost travel, and a lot of innovative thinking by global mobility departments has created a fluid spectrum where there used to be a binary choice of either relocating or not.

From mobility to value creation

It is increasingly recognized that the ultimate aim of global mobility is not purely to re-distribute people around the world, but to create value by putting skills in the place where they are needed most.

Global mobility professionals are not travel agents, but business optimizers. And with that objective in mind, they now have a whole spectrum of ‘assignments’ to choose from.

The long-term assignee

The classic arrangement is still sometimes the best option, especially for larger, more strategic projects. Expensive and complex to manage, these assignments come along with well-documented challenges of long-term accommodation requirements, full household relocation, local taxation and working visa issues, and many others.  

The short-term assignee

As above, but shorter. But this very definition is flawed. What is short-term? If an assignee stays for just a year, there are obvious differences to the “full monty” mentioned earlier. Does the whole family relocate? What about schooling and accommodation? What about the legal and visa requirements? How is remuneration organized?

The international commuter

Cheaper travel and the increasingly cosmopolitan and travel-savvy nature of global workforces have made these arrangements far more acceptable. A key staff member can be located in London, but work with the team in Frankfurt two days a week. Or three days a week. Or for two-week stints at a time, depending on the business requirements.

The difficulty for global mobility departments is defining such arrangements in terms of legality, tax, documentation, and compliance. How many days in a year can an individual work in a certain country without needing a working visa? How is his or her income taxed? What type of accommodation is most cost-effective?

The business traveler

Distinct from the above category only because of the more casual nature of their travel, this category is important because it may remove the need for an assignment. Why go through with a complex relocation when occasional ad-hoc business trips successfully make the required skills and people available in the required places?

The virtual traveler

Let us not forget the digital options. Why travel when hi-resolution, click-of-a-mouse, video conferencing makes it feel as if you are in the same room as your overseas colleagues?

The easy answer is because it never really feels the same. If it is worth the money, time and effort to improve collaboration with a bit of face-to-face, then companies will invest in it. But where is the line? 

A range of implications to consider

We have chosen five ‘categories’ for the sake of clarity. But where does one stop and the other begin? This is the challenge for global mobility departments. As you move through the spectrum, you reach critical points where decisions have to be made:

  • Specific expat remuneration package or regular salary + expenses?
  • Hotel or rented accommodation?
  • Family or no family?
  • Local taxation or home country taxation?
  • Work visa required?

And of course, there are other considerations too. The “international commuter” model enables workers to be substituted if there is a bad fit. To do so when an assignee is just a few months into a long-term engagement is both expensive and disruptive.

The blurring edges of traditional definitions

Fluidity is here to stay – until it all changes again. And the type of assignment is not the only definition that is being blurred. What is the difference between an expat and an immigrant, for example? It’s an important distinction for all kinds of reasons, but it is becoming more difficult to tell, and this is typical of the way that global mobility departments are being asked to think outside the box. Assuming, that is, they can still see where the box starts and ends…

 

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