Employee mobility


No one could have anticipated a world where overseas assignments aren’t coveted, or where the lack of physical mobility opens up opportunities to a decentralised workforce – yet here we are. In conversations with mobility decision makers, Lester Tan probes how the new talent mobility landscape is shaping up.

It’s been years since HR has shed its stereotypical image of being the company police, and constantly being blamed for referring to the rule book. HR leaders are now seen as far more empathetic to the employee cause, as well as true change leaders who bring solutions to the table.

In fact, no other function of HR has seen the rule book tossed out as hard as the talent mobility space which has been completely overhauled given the events of the past two years. Border closures, visa rejections, and assignee safety, were just some of the grave issues facing mobility leaders – issues that we’re only just emerging from in some parts of the world.

This is why, for this feature, we have reached out to HR leaders across Asia for their experiences and insights into this new talent mobility landscape. “Don’t become a ‘one-size-fits-all’. This is not the time to [cite] the rule book. This is the time to tell your employees, ‘Buddy, we are with you. In these difficult times, we will support you as much as we can’,” says our first interviewee, Vishal Sharma, Head of HR Asia, Aditya Birla Chemicals, part of the Fortune 500 Aditya Birla Group.

“This is not the time to talk about rules or policies. This is the time to think outside the box.” Thinking outside the box has become second nature to talent mobility leaders, as we find out in conversations on how they are overcoming challenges, and looking at the function with a new lens.


  • It’s time to throw out the rule book on employee mobility and treat such decisions with more empathy, situational awareness, and almost on a case-by-case basis.
  • You have to choose which role becomes a talent-mobility-fit role. Not every role would qualify (for talent to be mobile). You will need to continuously assess which role will or will not be qualified.
  • As borders start to come up, be prepared to deal with circumstances such as early repatriation, family-driven concerns, a boom in the job and salary market as demand picks up, and more.
  • Assignees – and those managing across cultures – must be equipped to bridge diversity to thrive. Evidence of an effective global DE&I initiative should be seen in the application of increased intercultural competencies by staff.

Hold on to your passports

“Employee mobility myths have been broken,” Sharma says. The concept of long-term assignments, for example, where talent leaves the home country, and spends a few years in the host country, is “completely gone”.

“The expectation that every talent is willing, and dying to go for an international assignment, has been absolutely shattered,” he adds.

He believes this could be attributed to many considerations, ranging from business needs, where several jobs and roles have been decentralised to become region-agnostic, to personal reasons. For the latter, he cites examples of families of talent who have become “less supportive of this transition than they were a few years ago” because of the pandemic.

As such, Sharma continues, talent has huge pressure to “look at family first, and then look at the career [next]”, a trend he foresees for at least the next two to three years.

Irene Goh, Senior Manager, Regional Strategic HR, Konica Minolta Business Solutions Asia, supports his observation, and adds the psychological element to the equation.

“Some assignees suffer from the fear of uncertainty,” she says. “For instance, there have been many queries on the changing immigration procedures, and of the quarantine period reducing from 21 to 14 days. Or which hotel they will be assigned to, which is something out of our control.”

Others, she adds, are concerned about the health services in the country they are assigned to. If it is, say, less developed, the company must be agile to react, and evacuate the assignee should the pandemic worsen.

In Sharma’s case, such concerns have been addressed head-on, where the organisation has created local support networks based on the assessment of the situation. For example, health facilities such as ICU beds and hospital rooms have been reserved for employees in anticipation of future requirements.

“We are going all the way to make sure employees feel safe,” he shares.

It’s not you, it’s business

In terms of the business perspective to employee mobility programmes, Goh names plenty of factors for consideration, from the availability of immediate successors to repatriation planning – but we will focus first on cost.

“Who bears the cost [of employee mobility]?” Goh asks. “Headquarters, host, or home country?”

The question might sound rhetorical to some, as based on Goh’s experiences, to achieve the objective of employee mobility, to groom leaders, and to exchange experiences and knowledge, the sharing of costs between the host and home countries is commonly seen today.

Sharma adds that beyond costs, mobility decision makers have to think hard about roles most suited for the move.

“You have to choose which role becomes a talent-mobility-fit role. Not every role would qualify [for talent to be mobile]. You will need to continuously assess which role will or will not be qualified, and which roles are going to emerge [as mobile] tomorrow,” he reveals.

As such, he urges decision makers to continuously assess what talent deficit they are facing, and which ones require talent mobility.

“Don’t take the burden off the entire organisation by thinking that everybody is fit for a role outside your home country. That’s a flawed strategy,” he says.

“Your repatriation engine has to be absolutely strong, and very well thought of. The problem which many don’t realise is when you send somebody on a three or four-year assignment, you need to have available career roads when the person [returns].

“So plan at least a year in advance if you’re bringing talent back to your home country. If you don’t, then you run the risk of not having a role available.”

Be aware of your surroundings

Even with decision makers paving the road ahead, there are surrounding elements to consider.

“The first is when the borders and the economy start to do well,” Sharma continues, “there will be a lot of demand for jobs in the home [or host] country. What happens then is, the same talent is being chased by you, and by many other organisations.”

With the demand for jobs, comes the demand for salary. “Once the economy is doing well,” Sharma explains, “the job market gets moving. So, the competitiveness of your compensation package runs the risk of getting diluted.”

In one hiring scenario, for instance, he shares that, in India, salaries have “absolutely topped the region”.

 “I have seen that – when I was hiring, people have multiple offers – the difference between India’s salary, and Thailand’s salary, or Singapore’s salary is not much. So, talent are asking - for this much of differential, why should I risk [and move abroad]?”

A new approach

To cope with these unending considerations, Sharma shares that mobility decision makers can contemplate utilising a hub-and-spoke model to their mobility strategy. Taking this concept of goods distribution into the world of mobility, he suggests using a centralised-hub approach for housing talent.

With that logic, talent can work for you without having to move across the globe.

“Let’s say, you’re looking for talent who is very knowledgeable in Europe’s food regulation process for the office here [in Thailand],” he says. “Now, one method is I send my current crop of talent to Europe to learn, and work. Another method is that I find a regulatory specialist sitting in Singapore, who has working experience with the European market, or who is a European and knows the ins-and-outs of the region’s regulatory landscape.”

These are, he finds, possible options that may alleviate certain challenges.

Talents are the priority

The approach cited above would, of course, only work for organisations with regional offices. Those without can still rely on offering “attractive remuneration packages”, or ensuring employees are “well-insured”. Even using conventional international assignments is possible, but the advice is to keep them short and simple – what Sharma calls “short-burst” assignments.

“For example, you go to Malaysia for a one-year assignment, and come back. That’s how talent can also get the required expertise,” he explains.

Doing so in today’s operating world, however, also requires employers to be mentally prepared for early repatriation in case of environmental instability or career detours.

“We’re not asking any questions,” he says. “If you’re not feeling safe, or if you feel that you made a wrong decision then come back. We are not putting pressure on assignees to complete six months minimum, for instance.”

Putting talent as a priority, he reiterates, is important because “otherwise, you’re giving the impression to an employee that wellbeing does not matter, but business matters. And that’s permanent damage you can do as an organisation to an employee”.

“Business will improve after six months, but the perception that the employee will carry will never improve”.

Goh matches her organisation’s approach to Sharma’s point.

“With employees’ safety and health as a top priority, we prioritise our leadership development. We have put on hold moving our younger potential leaders for overseas assignment physically. Instead, they are put into key projects utilising remote working with the advancement of the technologies.”

This has brought on the added benefit of opening up career opportunities to a wider group of talent, Goh says.

“For example, working mothers who were concerned about children’s education, or spouses who needed to forgo their current career when they were selected for overseas assignments, are now nominating themselves for global projects as now they are able to contribute instead of relocating for an overseas assignment.”

A diverse workforce

Goh highlights an interesting point: opportunities, a wider group of talent, working mothers, spouses. This puts diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) right into the employee mobility equation.

“That’s a very important part of employee mobility,” Sharma shares. “Until now, or until a few years ago, if you were working up the career ladder, you were more likely to be seen and recognised. But for those who were outside the
[career] picture, the recall of them is very low.”

So, can mobility support the cause of DEI? It certainly looks possible.

One way Sharma’s organisation does this is to run internal programmes to learn about, and remove, unconscious biases in the workplace. In addition, the company has initiatives, and has incentivised choices that specifically involve those who aren’t in the picture, or in focus – letting them know “our talent [mobility] strategy is not complete without you”.

Robert Line, Vice President, Global Talent Mobility, Cartus, agrees. “International assignments, executed well, and with the right approach to ‘difference’ provide an engine and mechanism for innovation and development unlike any other.”

As such, assignees – and those managing across cultures – must be equipped to bridge diversity to thrive.

“When these employees are attuned to cultural realities, recombining and redefining ideas, processes, and practices becomes second nature: innovation occurs and businesses see progress,” he says.

“In successful organisations, evidence of an effective global DE&I initiative should be seen in the application of increased intercultural competencies by staff.”

What other benefits does the infusion of a DEI-driven culture bring to mobility? Line paints a vivid picture: “Global teams are more able to end the exclusion of certain groups, along with unproductive, polite stand-off situations. Business units in multiple countries are better able to unite and collaborate. Centres of excellence assemble local knowledge, and turn it into global expertise.”

He also issues a note of advisory, saying “approaches can look different in practice depending on where in the world you are. Meanings and focus points vary, according to cultural context and local regulations; DE&I-infused programme roll-outs must, axiomatically, be diverse, equitable, and inclusive”.

Look beyond

At the end of the day, talent mobility is ultimately about “being flexible, and being supportive to the employee”, Sharma believes. This phrase should be the mantra, the key approach all organisations and decision makers should have – lest our raison d’être becomes a self-restricting “one-sizefits-all” approach which is considered an ancient policy in today’s workplace.

Related: 6 trends to watch in global mobility

This article first appeared in the Q1 edition of Human Resources Online's Southeast Asia e-magazine. View a copy of the e-magazine here, where you'll find power-packed features and interviews with leaders from Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, the US, and more.

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