Expectations versus reality: How a pandemic changes the mobility game

Expectations versus reality: How a pandemic changes the mobility game

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What we expected at the start of 2020 is far different from what’s going on now – more so in the employee mobility space. Priya Sunil explores this in conversations with leaders from Henkel, AdNovum, and Diebold Nixdorf.

Who else is still trying to digest everything that has been going on in these past few months?

If you raised your hands (remotely – like everything else these days), you are not alone – so are we! In just three months, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which started out in late 2019, soon became a worldwide pandemic before anyone was able to fully understand the nature of it.

In the business world, companies were left with just days to adapt to continued measures and restrictions being introduced by governments – with among the biggest being movement control, where travel restrictions and bans were introduced. This, without a doubt, has had its impact on employee mobility – be it for short-term or long-term assignments – with firms having to put a hold on their plans.

Going back a few months, in a conversation we had with one HR leader very early on in the COVID-19 outbreak (when it was still considered an Asia-wide epidemic), we asked her about the No.1 employee mobility trend she expected to see in 2020 and beyond.

At that time, it was expected that short-term assignments would be in trend this year, versus one or two-year long assignments just a few years ago. Further, companies would need to offer such opportunities in order to meet the demands of the younger generation in the workforce, to ultimately retain and develop them.

However, with COVID-19 forcing businesses to rethink their strategies – will this still be an option, at least this year? We take a look at how leaders at AdNovum and Henkel are adapting. But before that, let’s jump straight into what Shandy Lay, HR Director, ASEAN at Diebold Nixdorf, first expected of the mobility space pre-pandemic.

Expectations: A rise in short-term assignments, demand among budding young talent

For Shandy Lay, HR Director, ASEAN, at Diebold Nixdorf, a provider of financial and retail solutions, the No.1 employee mobility trend in the new decade would be an increase in the number of short- term assignments taken in at companies.

Previously, she says, assignments used to last for a year or two, but in recent years, and what she foresees in the future, is a lot more instances of increased demand for short-term assignments. More specifically, ones that are three to six-months long, and created to address a business need or opportunity when a business might not want to hire a long-term resource.

She explains: “They may want to open up an opportunity for internal talent to fill the gap, while at the same time have a high-impact experience for the employees. I think that is a win-win both ways."

At the same time, because of the younger talent pool, where people are impatient for career growth and opportunity, there seems to be a lot of demand and interest in stepping out of comfort zones.

Additionally, expatriate assignments used to be more common, while now, in countries such as Singapore, there seems to be a decreasing trend in that, and an increase in local packages. Further, Lay adds that in order to stay ahead, companies should offer such opportunities to engage, retain, and develop budding young talent.

“If you really want to grow and retain the young and budding talent, I think companies need to consciously and deliberately create opportunities like this. And I think it’s also good because there’s a lot of transfer of knowledge; you retain the information within the organisation; you stretch your talent to put them into challenges; and you see how they grow within the organisation,” she says.

That said, looking at it from the compensation and benefits perspective, she believes it can be taxing and challenging to do so, something HR needs to indeed grapple with. As such, she adds, HR needs to regularly review the company’s mobility processes and policy in order to support and make this opportunity happen.

“I think there’s an opportunity for HR to look at our own mobility policy and practices right now to see whether there is more red tape and bureaucracy, and to see where we can remove such red tape and bureaucracy, of course, where budget permits, because we need to pay attention to the legal compliance and immigration considerations for sure. I think there’s no way we can overlook this, especially legal and compliance issues,” she says.

Looking ahead, how can HR leverage on the increasing demand for mobility among the younger generations of workers? Lay shares: “I think we need to make use of internal communications and marketing to make it visible that there are opportunities available within the organisation so that they can actually see it, and reach it, because previously, in certain companies, the opportunity for posting may not have been visible, or it will be very targeted to a certain employee. It may not be broadcasted.”

These days, she believes, companies do want to be more open and transparent – for those who are interested, they should feel free to express this interest on the opportunities the company has.

“We just need to be ready for a more mobile workforce.”

Reality: It takes one pandemic to change the game

At IT security solutions and services provider, AdNovum, employees have always been offered flexibility, and the firm views employee mobility (especially in the digital era) as a business strategy that should not be overlooked, and one that is vital to the success of the business.

“It leads to better processes, higher productivity and also more satisfied employees with a healthy work-life balance,” says Leonard Cheong, Managing Director, AdNovum Singapore. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, the firm has had to either defer or cancel its events, as well as overseas trips.

Locally, with Singapore’s risk assessment at DORSCON Orange, teams were first segregated into two, and eventually moved to full work from home, in an effort to minimise disruptions to operations, and to ensure that the business remained viable.

“We have been monitoring the situation closely – aligning to regulatory measures by the government, putting in place preemptive measures and taking decisive action as the situation evolves,” Cheong says.

Similarly, chemical and consumer goods major, Henkel, has implemented flexible work-from-home arrangements for all employees, and promoted its online tools and learning programmes to keep employees engaged, connected and motivated, shares Jarrod Patterson, Human Resource Director Southeast Asia, and Human Resource Business Partner for Adhesive Technologies Asia Pacific.

On how the team maintains communication across offices, with mobility stopped, he explains: “Henkel has a well-established crisis management team and business continuity plan to provide leadership and guidance during this uncertain period. In Singapore, our leadership team has been meeting regularly to review our internal guidance and ensure we comply with the government guidelines.

Across corporate, regional and local levels, we focus on providing regular updates and clear guidance to our employees. We want our employees to be aware and alert, but not alarmed by the situation.

Last, within the Singapore office, the availability of a virtual ecosystem allows employees to continue working almost per normal from their homes, attend online training, and receive updates through Skype sessions.

"It is also important to encourage virtual informal contact between our employees so that they still feel in touch and engaged," Patterson adds.


That said, not all is doom and gloom. This pandemic will end, and while businesses may take time to recover with the economy, they will emerge stronger and more equipped with the knowledge, empathy and resolve to move forward to better times.

In terms of employee mobility, with the newfound skills employees will pick up through this, assignments may even reach greater heights and see new forms of communication and engagement emerge across offices – virtually and physically. Change and agility could finally become the new norm. In fact, as Cheong puts it: “With many companies combating the outbreak by having employees work from home, and the move from reacting to mitigating the impact of the outbreak, strategies to rethink the way they do business and dust off policies for security, business continuity, and remote working come into focus.

Once remote work becomes more of the norm, businesses might enjoy real savings with efficiencies in operations and effective work practices. This might just be a game changer to employee autonomy in future workplace cultures.

Patterson concurs, adding that with the increased usage of virtual meetings arising from the pandemic, it is important for a firm to have leaders with an international mindset to lead virtual diverse teams.

“The best way to ensure leaders develop an international mindset is to provide opportunities to work and live in different environments.” With that, here’s wishing you strength and success in your post-pandemic journey!

This feature has been published in the March-April (Singapore) issue of Human Resources. Read this edition of Human Resources, Singapore:

hrsg mar apr20

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