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Mobilise into action: Challenges of a global workforce



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Priya Sunil brings to light the hard work leaders across Asia undertake in making mobility assignments a successful reality, as well as trends to watch out for this year.

Borders are blurring and employees are going global. In fact, a ‘Global Mobile Workforce Forecast’ report by Strategic Analytics revealed the global mobile workforce is set to increase to 1.88 billion in 2023, accounting for 43.3% of the global workforce.

So what do HR and mobility leaders have to say about this?

To find out, we picked the brains of leaders from Avery Dennison, IKEA Southeast Asia, Yanmar International Singapore and Gardens by the Bay. We present their insights to you as some food for thought in your mobility planning.

Barbara Lam, Senior Manager, Global Mobility, Asia Pacific, Avery Dennison

At labelling and functional materials manufacturer, Avery Dennison, about 30 employees are moving around on average every year in APAC, including long/short assignments and permanent relocation (local to local transfer). They are based in Hong Kong, China, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc.

Hong Kong-based Barbara Lam, Senior Manager, Global Mobility, Asia Pacific, Avery Dennison says the main objective behind this pace of mobility is to balance the business and individual needs when moving the workforce globally, while containing costs. Under the company’s core/flex global mobility programme, employee packages are tailored based on their individual needs, seniority and specific business requirements – an approach which both the management and employees find flexible, sound and effective.

“Most importantly, it helps to perform the objective of moving the workforce globally within the company and lower the cost for the business,” Lam says.

Challenges: The challenge for Lam as a mobility professional is the change in a country’s immigration policy/process, especially with lengthy processing times. She explains: For example, when the changes to the China immigration policy were implemented in late 2017/early 2018, it had a big impact on moving our talent for short-term assignments. The challenges included the requirements of additional supporting documents with unclear guidance. This resulted in much longer processing times and last-minute requests in a very short lead time to meet the requirements.”

To solve this, she decided to set up calls and communicate with the immigration service provider on a daily basis. This ensures that the company was well prepared to provide any potential information and clarify requirements to fully understand the end-to-end new processes and requirements for a high profile case. This intervention ensured the case was managed smoothly.

Forecast for 2019: This year, she and her team expect to continue to work with the key stakeholders and obtain feedback to improve the programme and processes as well as review the localisation process with the designated relocation service provider.

In my view, the traditional expat assignment will still be used for senior executives.
– Barbara Lam, Avery Dennison

“In my view, the traditional expat assignment will still be used for senior executives. However, we can see some trends to move them under a local package by providing one-time relocation support,” she says.

“Frequent business travellers will also be increased for short-term projects. Additionally, both immigration and tax compliance are the big things to watch out for in this arrangement.”

Tiang Ker Ying, Head of Reward, IKEA Southeast Asia

IKEA Southeast Asia (IKEA SEA), a part of the Ikano Group of companies, and the only IKEA franchisee owned by the Kamprad family that founded IKEA, operates in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Today, IKEA SEA has more than 30 nationalities across the region.

According to Tiang Ker Ying, Head of Reward, the company currently focuses on supporting one-way people movements from overseas into SEA, and within SEA.

At the same time, IKEA SEA not only does cross-border mobility, but also encourages employee movements across different functions, stores, centres and the service (corporate) office. This is part of the company’s belief in empowering its employees to take charge of their own career progression through open discussions on job aspirations with their respective managers.

Challenges: In moving employees in one direction, the company has faced challenges in attracting employees to developing countries. He says: “If we talk about moving employees one way, are we going to stick to the local packages? How are we going to attract our co-workers to places like Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, where the pay scale is maybe less competitive as compared to their original home countries?”

To address this, the HR team maintains a standard structure and framework across countries regardless of which country co-workers are moved to. That said, it makes sure to remain comparable with the local market practices, and in compliance with local regulatory requirements.

Aside from this, the company also deals with day-to-day operational challenges, where it then has to explore candidates externally to fill the competency gap and support IKEA SEA’s “aggressive growth”, he adds.

He refers to how IKEA SEA has grown from four stores since 2014, to opening its third shopping centre in 2019, and finally its eighth and ninth stores slated to open in 2019 and 2020.

If we talk about moving employees one way, are we going to stick to the local packages?
– Tiang Ker Ying, IKEA SEA

“We have been finding different ways to continuously attract and retain talent within and outside IKEA who believe and live our IKEA values, and at the same time, are interested in growing together with the company.”

Another challenge he talks about is ensuring its mobility policies and practices keep in line with IKEA’s values of simplicity and cost-consciousness, to support movement of the right employees to be in the right position at the right time, to secure both business needs and planned growth.

According to him, the team is looking at ways to simplify the current administration of benefits, and entitlements for individuals eligible for mobility-related benefits.

Forecast for 2019: Looking ahead, Tiang and his team will continue to ensure their current mobility policies and frameworks are in line with IKEA’s values of simplicity and cost consciousness, while remaining relevant and competitive in each local market.

Sharon Seet, Global HR Director, Yanmar International Singapore

Over at Yanmar International Singapore, which designs and manufactures advanced performance diesel engines, a majority of expatriates are from Japan, and make up 10% of each subsidiary in its companies overseas. Every three years, in April, these expats are reassigned to a different company to replace the existing expat.

In terms of its mobility policy, Sharon Seet, Global HR Director, Yanmar International Singapore says the company maintains a standard set of terms and conditions across all employees on assignment, so as to avoid any unfair or “discriminatory” treatment.

“Of course, we still have the necessary compensations based on the differing conditions faced in different assignment countries.”

The current policy was designed to be sufficiently, but not excessively, attractive to potential assignees, as well as to maintain Yanmar’s competitiveness in the global market.

“It will be applied for all permanent employees, irrespective of their home country, for all new assignments, and extensions to existing assignments.”

Challenges: Seet is no stranger to challenges faced in government regulations. For instance, effective 1 September 2017, the minimum salary for foreigners to qualify for Cat I passes in Malaysia is RM10,000 per month, while the duration of contracts has been increased to a ceiling of five years.

In Singapore as well, from 1 January 2018, the minimum fixed monthly salary required for Employment Pass and S Pass holders to bring in family members on Dependent Passes has been increased to S$6,000.

With the tighter criteria in place, Yanmar reviewed the job responsibilities of the Japanese expatriates needed in the host company to determine if it was a critical role that couldn’t be replaced by a local employee – be it for a job transfer of knowledge from the Japan HQ to the local company, or for on-the- job learning from the host country.

“We set specific criteria for our expatriates and developed detailed job descriptions for each of the expatriates as well. This is to avoid duplicate positions in the host country, known as ‘shadowing’ in Japanese terms. We also need to keep the number of Japanese expatriates to a minimum as our focus is still to groom local talent. Hence, we need to balance the workload and the learning journey.”

We also need to keep the number of Japanese expatriates to a minimum as our focus is still to groom local talent
– Sharon Seet, Yanmar International Singapore

Aside from tighter regulations, Yanmar has also faced resistance from host countries.

“The host country cannot say no to the Japanese expatriates assigned to their offices. They also do not have a say in determining or selecting the suitable candidate. Hence, it is a top-down decision, and ultimately, this will disrupt the operations of the host country.”

To address this, Yanmar is in the midst of designing a new global mobility policy to allow for communication between the host country and the home country before the actual assignment. “This will align the realistic objectives, outcomes and the roles of the assignment to ensure a win-win situation in both countries for the next three years.”

The final challenge she highlights is that of language barriers, with English being a second language for the Japanese. This was addressed by implementing an English training system to improve the language skills of these expatriates before and during the assignment. The team also specially assigned an English teacher to expatriates at the president level who needed private coaching in order to accelerate their learning at their own pace.

Forecast for 2019: According to Seet, Yanmar will devote more time to redesigning and structuring its global mobility system and the application flow.

“By 2020, we would like to ensure there is a selected talent pool with a robust selection process and criteria who is ready to work and contribute in another country to unleash their potential. This will also be one of Yanmar’s retention strategies to groom our current and future key talent.”

Phan Yoke Fei, Senior Director of Human Resource & Corporate Administration, Gardens by the Bay

One of Singapore’s most popular tourist spots, Gardens by the Bay, has nine expats with expertise spanning various fields of horticulture. Phan Yoke Fei, Senior Director of Human Resource & Corporate Administration, Gardens by the Bay, attributes this to the stability of the company’s workforce after more than six years in operation.

As such, focused efforts on developing local talent are undertaken, such as short-term stints between one to six months, for employees to gain knowledge and experience from renowned gardens overseas.

Challenges: “Gone are the days where hard and fast rules apply across the board for mobility assignments. We have to comply with new or additional regulatory requirements for the hiring and placement of expats, whether inbound or outbound,” Phan cites as a challenge.

To take an example of how prevailing government policies affect mobility policies, he talks about the tightening of quotas and more stringent requirements imposed by most jurisdictions on foreign labour due to political positions.

The solution? “Due to the latest macro-environment and sentiments, flexibility has become the buzzword for our mobility policy.” Additionally, he says, “planning way ahead will make a whole world of difference”.

Due to the latest macro-environment and sentiments, flexibility has become the buzzword for our mobility policy.
– Phan Yoke Fei, Gardens by the Bay

Forecast for 2019: One area that he feels has been underappreciated is the rising need of internal mobility of people whose jobs have been affected by IR4.0 and technological disruption. On how he would address this, he shares: “More efforts are being put in place to untrain and retrain employees in the organisation to face those changes. There are signs that the disruptions brought about in recent years may slow down in pace, evidenced by the tapering of growth in recent financial results of big players such as Apple, Amazon and Facebook. The next year is a great opportunity for laggards to catch-up or regroup to pick the best way forward for their organisations.”

With the insights gleaned from these leaders, we’re excited for what lies ahead in the mobility space. The role of HR and mobility leaders will only get more important as borders get thinner and the demands brought about by mobility become greater.



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