Multinationals expect to grow their expat assignments

21 December 2015

More than 40% of the multinationals expects an increase in expat activity in 2016, research by Mercer among more than 800 multinationals shows. Particularly short-term assignments and one-way transfers are popular.

To gain insight into worldwide labour mobility of professionals working for multinationals, Mercer recently conducted research among 831 multinationals, which together employ around 29 million people.

More workers on the move


Currently, 98% of multinationals offer a long-term spell abroad, with 81% of firms doing so for short-term placements, while one-way transfers are supported by 63% of the surveyed employers. Key reasons for expat-placements are, among others, a lack of specific technical skills locally, ensuring knowledge transfer, the provision of specific management skills and facilitating leadership development.

The survey reveals that across the mobility chain, the demand for working abroad is set to increase next year, with a rate that is above that of the previous two years. Short-term placements lead the pack with 56% of multinationals seeing an increase in these assignments, followed by permanent transfers (54%), development and training assignments (50%) and locally recruited foreigners (47%). “Companies are using a more varied range of assignments in order to respond to evolving business needs and changing patterns in the global workforce,” explains Anne Rossier-Renaud, Principal in Mercer’s Global Mobility Business.

Top obstacles

The majority of long-term assignees (66%) are those aged between 35-55, while most employees younger than 35 often are assigned to short-term placements (up from 43% in 2013 to 48% in 2015). With an average share of 10% and 7% respectively for long-term and the short-term assignments, the 55+ age category is underrepresented in international mobility.

From a geographical perspective, 41% of multinationals expect more assignments in distant locations. The US, China, the UK, Singapore and Brazil are the countries where most jobs are expected.

Asked for what the key barriers are for moving abroad, 37% of respondents cite ‘family issues’ and ‘dual career’ (the career aspirations of the spouse) as a large or very large obstacle for international labour mobility. The percentage is, however, down from 64% in 2012. The costs associated with moving are seen as the second main barrier, with remoteness of locations also giving professionals headaches.

One policy or more

To support professionals with their mobility, multinationals tend to have all kinds of procedures and processes in place. The report shows that 85% of companies have a policy for international assignments (up from 81% in 2012). The results also reveal a marked increase in companies with multiple policies (64%, up from 57%).

According to Rossier-Renaud, this is due to a trend of greater variation in types of assignments. “One policy is unlikely to fit all, and such an approach can lead to inadequate compensation which again can make it difficult to attract and retain talent. Implementing fit-for-purpose policies, to suit both different assignees and assignments, can be a highly efficient cost-saving initiative for most global mobility functions.”

Why international assignments fail

In practice, however, not all expats placements proceed satisfactorily. The researchers identified the main reasons for failing policies, both at an individual and corporate level. Poor candidate selection is the main cause for financial detriment, followed by difficulty to adjust to the host nation – the clear # 1 factor three years ago, poor job performance and spouse unhappiness, all on a joint second spot with 41 % of the respondents citing this.

Costs and ROI

The consulting firm also looked at how multinationals are keeping track of the return on investment (ROI) coupled with mobility assignments. The results reveal that 91% of multinationals have reviewed, are reviewing, or plan to review their international placement programmes. However, many of these programmes lack an approach to measure the ROI.

In particular the use of hard numbers, such as metrics, is lacking: 90% of multinationals do not make use of such metrics. In addition, the gap between projected and actual project costs is tracked by less than half (46%) of the organisations, all in all leaving significant grey areas in the management of mobility strategies, highlight the researchers.


Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

17 April 2019

Soft skills matter in the workplace just as much as technical expertise, writes Samantha Caine, Managing Director of Business Linked Teams.

For too long technical expertise has been seen as the marker of a strong candidate for development into a sales or leadership position. Sales and leadership candidates are tasked with demonstrating a diverse and wide-ranging set of technical skills, yet their aptitude in these technical skills or ‘hard skills’ cannot signify great leadership potential. This is why a healthy balance of soft skills and technical ability is required. 

So what exactly is the difference between technical skills and soft skills? In engineering, it’s crucial to demonstrate knowledge of physics as well as a strong grasp on mathematical equations. Yet, in any industry, it’s important for leaders to be able to interact with other people effectively with soft skills like communication, empathy and adaptability. 

Business Linked Team’s 2018 study into internal leadership development revealed that 69% of large organisations are prioritising the identification and development of future leaders from within the workforce. As more and more organisations begin to invest in sales or leadership development within their existing workforces, more focus needs to be placed on ensuring the right soft skills are in place. 

With those soft skills in place throughout the workforce, the business will benefit from a wider pool of potential leaders developing under their noses, and it should be the same where sales candidates are concerned. 

It’s not just about easier access to ideal candidates for these positions without the rigmarole of recruiting from outside of the organisation. The leadership development study also found that 89% of HR decision makers say succession planning has become a top priority. Those currently serving in leadership positions can’t lead forever and the same goes for those generating sales for the business.

Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

From people leaving for new opportunities or retirement, to people simply stepping aside to focus on other areas of the business, successful leaders and salespeople require experienced and capable successors that will be ready and able to confidently step into their shoes and pick up the mantle without the business experiencing any lapse in performance.

Soft skills make stronger candidates

When it comes to the soft skills required, a strong leader must be able to manage through clear communication and effective time management, coaching and goal setting. They must be able to demonstrate empathy and empower their teams to be successful, productive and fully engaged. And beyond simply giving direction, they must also be able to take direction from those above them and cascade the business strategy down through their teams. 

A strong sales candidate must possess the ability to communicate value to the customer, negotiate well and protect margin or the ability to increase the scope of a particular sales opportunity. 

With the relevant soft skills in place, the business will benefit from increased productivity, greater agility against changing market conditions and greater transparency. In turn, this will provide visibility on issues and inefficiencies while removing opportunity for miscommunication. All of this can transform the culture of a department, improving employee satisfaction and reducing staff turnover. 

Ultimately, developing leadership or sales candidates will require the business to strike the right balance between technical skills and soft skills, and this requires an effective and sustained learning journey.

A balanced learning journey

Facilitating and supporting the development of leadership and sales is best achieved by establishing training groups. By cultivating training groups, businesses are creating talent pools that will inspire and support each other on the learning journey. However, personal goals and learning objectives must be defined for each individual based on their own existing skillsets and the skills that each individual needs to develop. 

With the emergence of e-learning, businesses recognise the value of online-based learning activities, yet many make the mistake of opting for one-size-fits-all solutions which are solely focused on self-study. A development solution will only deliver true return on investment if it combines e-learning activities with group learning activities that provide opportunity for shared experiences and support.

A blended learning solution that combines self-study and face-to-face group learning activities will aid strong development of the talent pool through shared experiences. Through these shared experiences, those undergoing the training will organically develop a support network that supports the development of the group as much as it supports the development of each individual. 

The blended learning approach is supported by one of the seven principles of human learning that socially supported interactions aid the individual development of expertise, metacognitive skills, and formation of the learner’s sense of self. The strongest opportunities for development can be unlocked by blending workshops with online activities such as virtual sessions, peer coaching, self-study, online games and business simulations. But it’s crucial to provide a blend of one-to-one and group sessions too.

Beyond delivering a better learning outcome for the employee, the blended learning approach allows organisations to adapt their training quickly and easily to shifting business demands in an ever-changing landscape.