What does global mobility look like in the new normal?

The world is now very different for international companies looking to collaborate across borders, say Benjamin Bader and Michael Dickmann

For almost two years, the world has been in the grasp of Covid-19. Because it seems that it isn’t going away anytime soon, it is inevitable that we should start thinking about living with it for the foreseeable future. This affects more or less all areas of life, private and professional, and global mobility is no exception. From the complete hold on any cross-border mobility or exploring alternative options, such as virtual assignments, through to restarting the international assignment processes, multinational companies (MNCs) now find themselves in a ‘new normal’.

For all their benefit, international assignments come at a significant cost, which is why there is a lot of value in rethinking global mobility. Even before the global pandemic, organisations were considering alternatives and the use of technology played a major role in this. The pandemic has only accelerated the move towards the mobility of work rather than the mobility of the worker.

Facing increasing uncertainty, virtual assignments and cross-border virtual teams may indeed offer alternatives to physically sending people abroad. However, there are already voices emphasising the need for human interaction and arguing that a fully virtual form of cross-border work has too many limitations. In other words, we find ourselves in a dilemma. On the one hand, the new normal holds a bright and promising future for international collaboration and cross-border work that is cheaper (just think of the cost of relocating a family to another country and back three years later), more efficient (real-time communication in teams dispersed all over the world), and, environmentally more sustainable (in the ideal case, business travel will be limited as well).

On the other hand, people are increasingly fed up with working online and the term ‘Zoom fatigue’ will probably make its way into dictionaries soon. The lack of human interaction, with watercooler chats and socialising with colleagues, is reported to be a great miss for many people. This is even more critical when we factor in the cross-cultural component we have in international work settings. 

A long-term strategic view 

So, how should we deal with this new normal? Clearly, we need viable solutions that allow for international collaboration when assignment flows dry up. However, thinking from the perspective of external constraints is not enough. The solution cannot be a return to the pre-pandemic situation. The change was too substantial and waiving the opportunities for global work that came with the organisational response to this change would be a waste. We need a long-term strategic view. 

The future is not defined yet. MNCs can (and should!) actually shape it. We are convinced that global mobility leaders have gained substantial experience and knowledge during the last months and they are in the best position to drive the change within their organisation. A good starting point is to make use of battle-proven tools, such as the SWOT analysis. In a RES Forum report, we’ve set out an industry-wide strategic view, as well as providing a template to help organisational leaders shape the future. 

By investigating the individual situation and the implications for their organisation’s global mobility, leaders can gather the information to set the sails for their company’s future. Combining the internal perspective of strengths (i.e. what are we good at?) and weaknesses (i.e. where is there room for improvement?) with the external perspective (i.e. which opportunities can we achieve due to our strengths or miss out on because of our weaknesses and which threats are we exposed to because of our weaknesses and how can we overcome them with our strengths?). This will help paint a clear picture about the current situation, as well as a useful prediction about what is going to happen in the future. Needless to say, this is an organisation-specific approach. 

In this regard, the new normal will probably be much more individual and specific. Just like no international assignment is similar to another, the outcome of the SWOT exercise will yield different results for different organisations. It may be tempting to picture the new normal by praising technology, advocating virtual or hybrid forms of assignments and proclaiming a future where everything is new. However, we believe that this would fall short of reality. In fact, we are convinced that the future of global mobility will be more like an update rather than a complete reboot. An evolved scenario, based on previous experiences, yet with a fundamental difference. We know that cross-border mobility cannot be taken for granted. Whether we are talking about a global pandemic or any other sort of constraint, leaders who factor in this important variable will be best placed to learn from Covid-19. What’s more, they can use this opportunity to re-think and refine their approach to global mobility to help ensure a more successful future for their organisation.

Dr Benjamin Bader and Professor Michael Dickmann are academic partners and strategic advisers to the RES Forum. Benjamin is deputy head of leadership, work and organisation and senior lecturer (associate professor) in international HRM at Newcastle University Business School, and Michael is professor of international HRM at Cranfield University School of Management. This article is based on their recent research.