International mobility: Current trends and predictions for the future

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Published on 2021-03-02 at 08:00 by Maria Iotova
The benefits of international mobility are great for organisations and expat employees who want to develop their career through international experience and come out of their comfort zone. Of course, global mobility comes with many challenges for all stakeholders involved. With the pandemic still in the picture, there's a lot of re-evaluation and adaptation to be made.

Post-Covid-19 international placements are expected to be more well-thought, both by employees and organisations, in order to overcome the complexities surrounding them. But one thing is sure; the need for global talent won't cease as long as ideas are born and solutions are needed.  

Benefits of expat employees for companies

Hiring an international workforce may not be as straightforward a process as hiring local talent. Still, the assets for your organisation cannot be ignored, and sooner rather than later, you will see that the effort of bringing expat employees was worth it. First, international employees can fill positions for which there aren't enough high-profile candidates in the country your business operates. For example, according to a prediction by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), China and India are expected to contribute by at least 60% to the G20 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) workforce.

Global talent is also a valuable investment if you want to expand your business outside its home country. To this end, you need employees who have work and cultural experience in the new markets you target. You want a team member who can overcome language barriers and has first-hand experience of the work ethics, etiquette, gestures, non-verbal cues, and customs in the country you set up your branch. If not taken into account, all communication elements mentioned above can have a detrimental effect on approaching new audiences and closing new deals. 

A homogeneous team made of people who have a similar background may be inadequate to induce a spirit of innovation and creativity in your organisation. Hence, hiring expat employees will diversify your company and may boost all your employees' problem-solving skills. The interaction among people from different walks of life will set the ground for knowledge-sharing and employees' participation across your teams. Engaged and flourished employees result in a fulfilling work environment, which will keep your workforce long-term. Having loyal and experienced members of staff is key to the reputation and competitiveness of your business.     

A shift in focus towards the employee 

Until recently, the main reason employers hired expats was for the company's best interest. However, according to a new survey by AXA Global Healthcare, priority has shifted to “building a global way of working and approach to business.” Now, companies cherish their employees' individuality and consider the benefits of working abroad for employees, such as professional and personal development. Thus, employers examine tailor-made benefit packages to support personalised needs and review promotions to cultivate a rewarding and caring working culture when managing international work placements. 

According to AXA, a reasonable explanation about this shift in focus is the personal experiences among decision-makers and team members who manage international work placements. In fact, AXA has found that nine in ten international assignment managers have worked abroad and therefore have an immediate understanding of expat employees' needs and challenges. This explains why the relationship between international employees, employers, and hiring managers has become more humane and flexible. 

Challenges for international employees

According to AXA's latest report, expat employees' greatest challenge is adapting to the new culture. Whether they arrive alone or with family in their host country, international workers who struggle to communicate in the host country's language and adapt to new cultural norms may even decide to terminate their placement early. Adjustment to the new lifestyle, lack of a familiar support network, and pressure to prove one's worth in a new role can test international assignees' mental health. Of course, one cannot predict how one will react to the new environment. Although resilience and flexibility are great characteristics for expats to battle feelings of isolation and loneliness, they are not an assurance that one will not be challenged.   

International assignees have observed that their mental health is most vulnerable during the first weeks of their placement when there's a lot of new information at work and out in the society to absorb and process. Organisations must predict and pinpoint the challenges international employees may face and offer timely assistance and support to individuals. One of the lessons Covid-19 has taught employers, and international mobility managers is that challenges may come unexpectedly and put a strain on everything that was taken for granted until then, such as office interaction. In such unprecedented situations, strong and healthy relationships with employees and trust among different stakeholders will help to overcome difficulties and move the business and employees' development forward.   

International assignments and companies' responsibilities

Organisations that employ an international workforce find it challenging to develop consistent benefit packages across different job levels and locations. According to AXA, 52% of organisations care about offering fair and attractive expat packages despite difficulties. As we discussed above, neglecting international employees' well-being can be detrimental to the organisation. Thus, offering healthcare and well-being services to expats whose mental health is more vulnerable should be a priority for employers. This kind of support may include online and face to face counselling, mentoring systems, access to apps, online forums, and expatriate support groups. International employees must be looked after equally throughout their employment timeline with career coaching, progression opportunities, and repatriation packages. 

Overall, international assignments are costly. According to Axa, the average cost for an organisation per international employee is USD 69,429. The USA pays the highest price for employing expats at a cost that reaches up to USD 125,000. In France, the expense is much less (about USD 50,000 per employee).

The future of international mobility 

Working abroad has changed due to the pandemic — from travel restrictions to an upsurge in remote work, things for international mobility aren't as we used to know them. However, Covid-19 doesn't mean the end of international assignments because their value outperforms the hassle of sending an employee abroad, even amid the pandemic. There will always be a need among organisations for diversity, new talent, and advanced skills, and for all we know, Covid-19 has intensified the need for expertise solutions around the world. One thing that may change though is the quantity and quality of expat employees and international assignments. Over the coming months or years, organisations may make the selection process more rigorous to ensure that the right person is assigned to the right role and that the proper support will be in place before and during the placement.