Reward Considerations for Business Crisis #5: Talent Mobility

2020 will be remembered as the year of COVID-19, the year we all had to work from home.

It will also be the year when global mobility practices see a major decline, just as it did following the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009. Back then, it was about cost, and traditional expat packages were challenged and largely replaced with local and local plus approaches. It was mainly about cost and oh yes, it was also about promoting opportunity for local talent.

This time, talent mobility will downshift once again. This time it will be about cost as well, but equally about the fact that sending a person from country A to country B (and their family, etc.) is unnecessary, now that we can work and manage remotely. Besides, how important can face-to-face be if we’re wearing a mask and keeping 2m apart?

When economies weaken, governments properly should protect local jobs, so there will be a tightening on foreign workers and foreign talent. Employers can, and must, retain their best people, upskill everyone, tap into subsidies and loans, and do their best to keep people employed.

The expats themselves are asking to go home in many cases, anyway.

In the broad sense, this is good and makes sense. In the short term, it will be very disruptive to the foreign workers and foreign talent who must return home. (I am awaiting my own Singapore Employment Pass renewal as I write this!)

Cost Justification and Local Development

Years ago, we used to focus at how much expats cost, as a multiple of their salary. A traditional “balance sheet” package could cost 2-3x base salary. Since the Global Financial Crisis, the metric changed. Now we ask how much an expat costs compared to a comparably skilled local talent. This too is generally 2-3x, where the expat price tag at a department head level or above is 2 to 3x the cost of a local comp & benefits package. With this cost ratio, can you justify the cost of the expat? The traditional answer is that the local talent may have the functional knowledge, but they lack company knowledge, soft skills, etc.. so we need to send Bob to Shanghai for 2 years.


The notion that a local talent with all the needed skill sets is unavailable will be harder and harder to prove, especially now when you can just select the best local talent you can find, and then match them up with the would-be expat who can manage and coach and develop them remotely. Remote management can be supplemented with inbound or outbound business trips or even short-term assignments (3-12 months with a per diem allowance and serviced apartment, unaccompanied.) But even business travel and STAs may be less frequent due to potential travel restrictions, quarantine requirements and the traveler’s own reluctance to get on an airplane with potentially sick people.

Maybe the job should move to the right person–wherever he or she may be, and not the other way around.

We will always need “expensive” global mobility, but we need to be selective, and must be able to cost-justify the value for money, and ensure local development and opportunity is part of the game plan, not a story of neglect.

Talent Mobility

A few of us have been using the term talent mobility instead of global mobility. Here’s why: you cannot justify the cost of global mobility merely on the basis of the expat’s value anymore. Mobility must clearly support one or more talent objectives, such as building global experience and mindset among high-potentials, local talent development and retention, inclusion and diversity, etc. Global mobility is, or should be, at the service of your talent management priorities. Cisco, Wal-Mart and many others have put global mobility under talent management long ago, for this reason.

HR leaders should view mobility as a talent management tool, and conversely all talent management practices – performance management, selection, development, coaching, etc. – should be done in a special way for mobile talent. Again, TM and GM merge into talent mobility.

Final thought. Even if you can cost-justify an international assignment, and it fits a talent management agenda, local governments may not approve it. And besides, maybe the intended assignee doesn’t want to go, because 2020 was also the year we learned once again to appreciate friends and family and that indeed there’s no place like (working from) home.

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