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The status of mobility

Apr 10, 2019
Steve Jordan talks to Bill Graebel about the findings of his company’s State of Mobility Report 2018

Bill Graebel

For close on 70 years the name Graebel Companies, Inc. has been synonymous with the relocation industry. Today the company is recognised as one of the leading Relocation Management Companies (RMCs) with 15 office and service centres worldwide servicing 165 countries and managing approximately 80,000 corporate relocations a year.

As part of its investment in the industry, Graebel hosts three major industry conferences every year under the brand name insideMOBILITY®, one for each of the APAC, EMEA and Americas markets. It also hosts a series of smaller, round table meetings throughout the year. Each meeting is designed to explore the key issues that affect the relocation industry, identify global and regional trends and to help fuel strategic thinking amongst all participants.

Once a year the company provides a summary of its findings so, having read the 2018 report, that complied information from 242 mobility professional representing 207 companies in 18 countries, I took the opportunity to have a chat with Bill Graebel, the company’s chairman and CEO, to look in more detail at the State of Mobility Report’s findings and the conclusions that might be drawn from it. The Report can be found here.

Bill said that there were some common themes that applied equally across all regions, the first of which was the rise in and importance of technology as a tool for effective relocation management.

Technology for analytics

The Report concluded that technology plays an important role in the delivery of relocation services and this role is likely to increase with the demand for greater convenience from transferees and improvements in both the access to, and exchange of, information related to the relocation process. Dashboards, for example, that provide clients with a real-time snapshot of their current level of activity, have become expected. But Bill said that clients are increasingly turning to analytics to provide much more detailed and practical control over their programmes.

“Clients now want to use analytics to measure and evaluate trends such as whether relocations involving employees from one region are more successful than another,” he said. “How successful were they on the assignment, did they fulfil their objectives, how quickly did they get there and settled in, how much did the assignment cost, which policy works best for which type of assignee? Some companies even include this data within their performance assessments.” 

Bill said that this data is particularly important with clients that are actively competing for talent, such aspharmaceutical or financial services companies. “They are looking for every edge to attract and retain talent,” he said. “When people are mobilised there are inherent risks related to assimilation and integration, so we are seeing an increased level of sophistication in the way companies evaluate assignees’ likelihood of relocation success.”

I wondered whether the burden for providing this information was resting solely with the relocation companies. Bill said it wasn’t. “The relocation industry is providing operational analytics relating to money, time, exceptions and satisfaction with the process. But to co-mingle those outputs with the performance of the individual as evaluated by the supervisor requires the use of the customer’s HR or capital management system. Generally, the client will converge those two data sets.”

High-tech v high-touch

I asked Bill about how he felt the RMCs’ role would change with the changing opportunities technology provides for assignees to handle aspects of relocation themselves.  He said he saw that as a positive development that would help the transferee, but the goal should be to try to find the ‘sweet spot’ between a high-tech and a high-touch service. “I don’t think the ‘person to person’ contact will be entirely displaced by technology, nor should it, even though technology can be a great complement to better informing and preparing the transferee,” he said. “Finding the balance between providing technology that offers flexibility and autonomy for employees and human support and guidance is particularly valuable when a client recognises that mobility is a key extension of their employment brand. So, if a client wants to attract and retain a workforce, it will be keen to use technology when it can, but not replace a more personal service to support people as necessary.”

That said, Bill acknowledged that the ‘lump sum’ transferee was growing in importance with around 40% of relocations, for some clients, now being handled using that policy. However, the rate of growth is now slowing because there is a point at which ‘lump sum’ becomes inappropriate for senior employees. “There is an inflection point relating to the value of the time of the employee,” he said. “A supported programme would reduce the time top employees need to spend themselves on relocation logistics and for high-salaried employees there is a good trade off. Somewhere down the line there is a breakeven.”

The growth of Artificial Intelligence

Bill said that machine learning (Artificial Intelligence, or AI) was already making inroads into back office functions such as accounting, but that in the future AI innovations were likely to find applications for clients and assignees. He said RMCs might provide transferees with a digital assistant that would walk them through the early stages of a relocation and assess the practicality of their assignment, taking in cultural and political considerations, and  recommend policy types to meet their specific needs. “If, for example, a transferee’s circumstances created significant exceptions within a proposed policy, AI could suggest a switch to something more appropriate.” Bill said that this concept was in its early stages but everyone in the industry is thinking about it. “I don’t think anyone has totally nailed it, but there is exploration and experimentation going on in both the client side and mobility provider’s side. It will be interesting to see what are the most mainstream applications that emerge over the next 18-24 months.”

More focus on ROI

The State of Mobility Report notes 68 percent of mobility professionals say internal stakeholders expect their programme to deliver a Return on Investment (ROI). Bill says there’s a quest for quantification on ROI. In fact, mobility professionals ranked the collection and use of data as their fourth top area of focus over the next two years.

In the past, clients were keen to identify whether they were spending money in the right places or whether they should be redirecting funds to a different, more helpful, service for the assignee, without, necessarily, an increase in cost.

Another ROI question was to work out whether relocated employees perform at the same level, better or worse than their peers who were not relocated. Relocated employees might be more committed, more inspired or more inspiring to their team members so the team performs better. Conversely, they might be so distracted by the process that they were unable to function as well.  

“Now people are asking what does the right result look like,” said Bill. “How did the assignment increase the bottom line of the business, was it critical to rapidly expand into new markets, or did it allow us to out-perform expectations in some way? They are starting to correlate those business results with the investment they have made in people.”

Bill acknowledged that it was surprising that this hasn’t happened more in the past, however it’s only been since the Global Financial Crash that companies have begun to switch from seeing relocations as a tactical expense to be minimised, to an important part of their talent management that is essential to their business growth. Moving people makes them vulnerable to lapses in productivity and engagement, and open to poaching. “So, companies want to make sure the money they spend leads to the kind of business results they seek, and they have the ability to measure the results. They now have to look at relocation as an investment not an expense. Some companies find that easier than others.”

Brexit

Finally, Bill talked about Brexit.  The interview took place in late January so, by the time this story comes to press the position might be clearer (it might not of course!). The State of Mobility Report said that many companies were concerned about the uncertainty that Brexit was causing and Bill had some good advice. He said that, regardless of the outcome, companies should, as a minimum, compile information about where their workforce is, people’s nationalities and their work and residency status. “It’s surprising how many companies don’t have that information.”

The second step is to go through scenario planning to explore how their workforce will be affected, regardless of the outcome of Brexit. He said that in many large organisations, different functions such as mobility, immigration, business travel, etc. were handled by different departments. “There might not be the orchestration or vision to bring all these things together especially in the context of Brexit.”

One final thought was that Brexit might create an opportunity for some mobility professionals to be proactive and point out oversight and control gaps in an organisation, thereby elevating their own position and value within their companies.

Photo:  Bill Graebel

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