Career

Empathetic Employee Engagement: Putting Yourself in Your Employees’ Shoes

21 August 2018
  • Andy Leung

    Principal – Career Business, Mercer Hong Kong

article-img
“Nine out of 10 senior leaders think engagement is important, and eight out of 10 organisations have a formal engagement programme already in place.”

For decades, organisations have recognised — and have tried to realise — the benefits of a highly engaged workforce. According to a recent study, DNA of Engagement: How Organizations Create and Sustain Highly Engaging Cultures, conducted by Mercer | Sirota in partnership with the Engagement Institute™, nine out of 10 senior leaders think engagement is important, and eight out of 10 organisations have a formal engagement programme already in place. Clearly, engagement is a vital area of focus: It’s estimated that organisations spend close to a billion dollars annually on promoting higher levels of employee engagement.[1] Despite this huge investment in employee engagement, and even with the many different approaches to driving employee engagement that are available, most organisations are still frustrated with their progress in overcoming their engagement challenges. In fact, results from the study show that only 50% of HR leaders feel that managers know how to take action on engagement survey data to help achieve their desired results.[2]

So what’s the problem? Is it a lack of relevant data and insights? An inability to hear employees’ voices and truly understand their concerns? Or is it that organisations are just sitting on data and neglecting to execute their well-intentioned action plans? In talking with many different stakeholders (including business leaders, HR leaders, frontline managers and employees), we’ve noticed that despite significant differences in how highly engaged organisations approach their people challenges and the myriad ways in which they choose to engage their employees, one thing remains the same: Highly engaged organisations anchor their engagement approach in a critical value— empathy.

But some might ask, “Aren’t we being empathetic when we conduct employee engagement surveys to better understand our employees’ experience at work?” Well, yes, to a certain extent — but in reality, the survey is only the first step. The principle of empathy should apply not only to the survey process, but to all aspects of the employee engagement journey, especially to post-survey-related activities such as action planning.

Be Empathetic by Adopting Design Thinking

An empathetic approach to employee engagement may sound fairly simple as a concept, but ensuring it’s executed effectively requires a major shift away from the more traditional methods that most organisations have adopted.

To better understand how to achieve the goal of an empathetic and highly engaged organisation, we have worked with leading organisations that are setting the standard for high employee engagement by adopting human-centred design thinking to address their engagement challenges. Although there are numerous frameworks for design thinking (devised by Stanford and IDEO, most notably), they all share three key stages of developing an employee-centric approach— exploration, generation and realisation. The three stages are outlined below:

  • Exploration Stage
    o  Learn more about employees, other key stakeholder groups in the organisation and the context of problem
    o  Synthesise learnings gleaned from discovery and from listening to various points-of-view

  • Generation Stage
    o  Conduct iterative ideation to push past stereotypes to get to breakthrough ideas
    o  Build prototypes to learn, providing a foundation for making ideas better
    o  Test ideas and prototypes with actual users, or in this case employees

  • Realisation Stage
    o  Implement the chosen solution and maintain a focus on continuous improvement
     

Exploration Stage
 

There are two phases in this initial stage: discover and define.

- Discover.
Using an employee engagement survey to collect employee feedback helps organisations explore the unique needs of their employees and discover what their people value. Employee engagement survey results serve as the foundation for providing the necessary insights organisations need to be empathetic and to design meaningful actions that not only meet business objectives, but also truly address employee needs.

Another important element of this phase is creating a compelling problem statement. A well-developed employee engagement survey identifies the core elements of the problem to guide the future direction. The core elements include the following:

  • Who — identifying specific demographic segments for which the problem/issue is most relevant
  • What — understanding the impact of the issue and/or problems caused
  • When — conducting multiple rounds of study to identify when certain workforce trends, whetherpositive or negative (attrition or turnover, for example), are happening
  • Where — pinpointing the geography (or geographies) where the issue is taking place
  • Why — using statistical analysis to identify key drivers of employee engagement
     

- Define. Organisations need to synthesise the insights they gather — this is how they make sense of what they’ve learned, identify patterns, find meaning and develop an overall picture of their own workforce trends. In this phase, organisations also begin to lay the foundations for an overall employee engagement architecture. By translating the findings into an employee experience story, they can identify the root of the challenge and clarify how to move forward. The story can be simple: for example, a technology company I worked with recently, successfully engaged its employees by providing them with a high level of autonomy and embedding an experimental approach into company’s processes. This resonated with employees who tended to be more motivated by having opportunities to innovate instead of by achieving financial rewards alone.

A key part of an organisation becoming more empathetic is by strengthening its analyses of the employee experience through journey mapping and blueprinting — to illustrate the journey of an employee over time. Other components are sometimes added, such as high points (moments that garner the highest reception from employees), breakdowns (areas that likely may receive varying degrees of receptiveness, leading to lower positive perception from some employees), emotions (employees’ psychological reactions to certain changes, which employers can anticipate by defining employee personas) and touchpoints (the connection between the various parts of a holistic employee experience within an organisation). This helps us understand the building blocks of engagement that are unique to each organisation, and reveal the processes that are delivering highly engaging experiences for employees. It also enables us to connect the various components of the employee experience to one another, from frontstage (involving direct interaction with employees) to backstage (including all the behind-the-scenes preparation required to implement a successful engagement programme).

An effective journey map and blueprint should be able to:

  • Provide a clear overview of the employee experience and the systems in place (like performance management, and learning and development)
  • Facilitate communication across dimensions (for example, total rewards versus agility) and related organisation groups (managers and employees, for instance)
     

Spot where certain things are not working, highlight opportunities for greater enhancement and support decision-making to identify the most suitable options

Generation Stage
 

While most organisations are open to listening to employees’ voices and needs, action planning is typically still a “closed door” activity and thus not truly empathetic. The generation stage is about the divergence and convergence of ideas, and about building on the outcomes from the exploration stage to identify possible solutions in a collaborative way. The three phases of this stage — ideate, prototype and test — function as an iterative cycle. 

- Ideate. To be truly empathetic in idea generation, highly engaging organisations are adopting a participatory design approach by involving employees in their action planning. These organisations recognise that employees have important insights to offer and can best articulate, when given the appropriate tools to express themselves, how their needs should be addressed. The ultimate aim is to prompt employees to tell their unique stories about their experience in the organisation. This serves as a core component of the design of an effective employee engagement programme and offers numerous benefits:

  • Enhances the potential for being innovative by going beyond existing solutions
  • Leverages diverse perspectives and the collective wisdom of employees
  • Uncovers unexpected knowledge worthy of exploration
  • Generates greater volume and flexibility in innovation options
  • Creates a sense of ownership of the ideas that are generated
     

There are many ideation techniques — brainstorming, mind-mapping, sketching, among others. But no matter which techniques are adopted during ideation, postponing the evaluation of the ideas that are generated during the ideation phase is critical. When employees know that the merits of their ideas will not be immediately evaluated, it allows their imaginations and creativity greater freedom, and also demonstrates an organisation’s flexibility in aligning employee input on engagement actions with its overall business strategy.

- Prototype. After ideation for employee engagement action planning is complete, building a prototype will be crucial — to avoid losing the potential for empathy and innovation while focusing on the most viable ideas, and to answer questions that will help bring an organisation closer to the best solution. A prototype for employee engagement action can take any form, as long as it encourages employees to interact with it: It could be a storyboard of a concept, a game employees play or a gadget they put together, or a role-playing activity, to name a few examples. The prototype can be simple — it need not be very detailed; it only needs to include a few points to describe the solution or outline the steps that need to take place. The key is that for a prototype to support the idea of empathy, it must be something the employee can experience.

Four principles should guide the prototyping process:

  1. 1. Get started — don’t delay. If you lack a clear picture of what to do about employee engagement or don’t have all the details in place, don’t let it stand in your way. Just having some notes and ideas is enough to get the process going.
  2. 2. Look for a clear indicator. A prototype is critical because it enables you to answer specific questions with certain variables (for example, whether to link performance ratings to salary increments or to a percentage of an employer’s contribution to employee pension funds). These variables will serve as the anchor to support the next step or action (whether it be further strengthening the variables or deciding to change direction).
  3. 3. Be ready to let go. A prototype is not meant to be a guaranteed solution. There are many different ways to engage employees: Organisations should not let themselves get too attached to any one idea or solution, and should be open to exploring other options.
  4. 4. Stay focused on employees. Continue to ask, “What do employees want?” The answer(s) to this question will help focus the prototyping by collecting meaningful employee feedback that can inform iteration and guide next steps.
     

- Test. To ensure a prototype can become a viable solution, it needs to be tested: eliciting feedback on the prototype from employees creates additional opportunities for empathy, reinforcing the focus on employee engagement. Testing is also crucial to supporting the iteration cycle and, of course, identifying the most suitable solution.

An empathetic approach to testing collects employees’ feedback during the iteration process to help shape the employee engagement action plan design. “Micro-piloting,” a hot choice and one of the latest market trends, is a great way to capture employee feedback. There are many different ways to conduct a micro-pilot — below are some examples drawn from my experiences in working with highly engaging organisations.

  • Crowdsourcing Campaign: A company might encourage employees to participate in budgeting decisions for its people programmes (for example, a company outing or a wellness programme) by asking employees to “vote” for a specific event or initiative by using a virtual token that has no direct monetary value, but instead has an internal currency. For example, if senior leaders have budgeted $100 per person for people programmes, they might issue a $50 virtual token to employees to enlist their help in identifying the most promising programmes and determining how much the company should allocate to these programmes. This engages employees by giving them the opportunity to show how they think the organisation should use its funding, allowing them to have a more direct influence on budgeting and to have a say in what experiences will deliver the best outcomes and most value.
  • False Door: A false door is typically a webpage that includes a simple call to action to promote an employee engagement initiative or programme — often employees are prompted to click a button to “understand more” or “sign up to participate”. Organisations can then track employees’ actions and responses to various engagement programmes, allowing them to determine, for example, which programmes have the highest click rate or most visits, providing organisations with valuable data that helps them understand what serves their employees’ best interests.
  • Wizard of Oz: In this scenario, employees don’t know that they’re participating in an employee engagement initiative; instead, their feedback is being collected behind the scenes. For example, in a retail company I worked with recently, employees wanted an enhanced training approach to improve their customer service skills and support their ongoing development, so the company designed a new online programme to test how the training could best be delivered — they wanted to more closely assess their use of technology to determine, for example, the optimal number of interactions for employees. As employees moved through the online programme, their behaviours and responses (for instance, how they navigated from one page to another within the programme) were guided, observed and recorded to help shape and refine the design and the delivery of the training. By testing against different variables and adapting the design of the training accordingly, the retail company succeeded in customising the training to fit their employees’ needs.
     

Realisation Stage
 

To maintain a strong focus on empathy in the execution phase of any employee engagement programme, deployment must be consistent and all stakeholders must adopt a continuous learning approach. Organisations that have been successful in the realisation stage understand that for an empathetic approach to have real impact, employee engagement efforts must not be built just for show — they must be authentic. And more importantly, employee engagement programmes must be “built to run” and “built to learn”.

- Built to Run. Being empathetic is not just about “branding” improvement actions; it’s about ensuring follow-through. Employee engagement must be managed in a holistic and enduring way. To achieve this goal, highly engaging organisations have defined a clear governance model to ensure their employee engagement action plans are executed in a consistent and empathetic way. When it comes to employee engagement, good governance is defined by six characteristics — employee engagement efforts should be:

  • Participatory: Employees are involved in the implementation.
  • Ownership-driven: It’s not only leadership and HR who have accountability for driving employee engagement; this critical responsibility is also delegated to more junior employees.
  • Transparent: Employees have a clear picture of all the different aspects of the employee engagement programme.
  • Responsive: The employee engagement programme is designed to capture moments that matter (for example, those involving communications around bonus awards, promotion decisions or departures from the company).
  • Inclusive: Employees feel they have a stake in the organisation’s engagement journey; no one feels excluded.
  • Rules-based: A fair policy framework is put in place to enforce actions, with incentives and consequences, to help ensure the identified employee engagement actions have been properly implemented and the desired impact is achieved.
     

- Built to Learn. Iteration with the goal of continuous improvement is a key aspect of adopting a design thinking methodology and a lab mind-set in promoting employee engagement: Indeed, employee engagement is not a one-off initiative, but an ongoing journey. To excel in this journey and ensure they keep learning, highly engaging organisations adopt the mechanism of progressive survey design in their employee engagement studies.

What is progressive survey design? High-engagement organisations do not issue an employee engagement survey as a one-time exercise; instead, they conduct engagement surveys regularly to chart progress and ensure employee voices are continuously heard. Because the number of survey questions is often limited to ensure a better survey experience, selecting the right questions to reflect the current moment is crucial. Each survey questionnaire should be designed to align with the overall strategy, keeping longer-term objectives in mind, while mirroring the natural evolution of change within an organisation. If senior leaders want to understand how an organisational transformation is impacting their employees, survey questions must be designed to reflect and capture employee responses to progressive change. For example, survey questions might evolve as the organisational transformation unfolds, moving from initially asking questions about employees’ awareness of the change to later posing questions in subsequent rounds of the survey about employees’ understanding of and commitment to the change.

In Closing
 

It’s clear that an organisation that succeeds in engaging its employees in this age of increasing disruption creates a competitive advantage. And to win this increasingly competitive war for talent, organisations need to reinforce and model the principle of empathy by adopting design thinking to design employee experiences that are meaningful and enriching. When organisations truly empathise with their people and literally put themselves in their employees’ shoes, and when they take an iterative approach to employee engagement initiatives with a focus on continuous learning, they succeed in building a thriving workforce — and a thriving business follows naturally.

 

1 Mercer | Sirota and Engagement Institute study, DNA of Engagement: How Organizations Create and Sustain Highly Engaging Cultures, 2014.
2
Ibid.

MORE IN CAREER

Didintle Kwape | 14 Nov 2019

Africa's youth employees are a valuable, ample talent source that multinational companies can tap as they expand their operations throughout the continent. Record numbers of teenagers and young adults in Africa are either unemployed or underemployed but are willing to work if given the chance. In South Africa alone, where the unemployment rate is expected to grow beyond 30% this year, two-thirds of the jobless are between 15 and 24 years of age.1 Realizing the Untapped Talent Pool   "We are very much alive to the fact that youth unemployment is indeed a national crisis," stated South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in June 2019.2 Governments across the continent are now rewriting labor laws and breaking down bureaucratic hurdles to make hiring youth less cumbersome for both multinational corporations and local small businesses. They are also teaming up with nonprofit organizations to nurture young talent and teach necessary workforce skills. Alliances are being forged to aid these efforts, such as the International Labour Organization's (ILO) partnership with the African Development Bank, the African Union Commission and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Together, they hope to address youth employment at regional and national levels. To better prepare youth for work, the ILO provides employment services, skills development and labor market training — with a focus on technical and vocational education, apprenticeship and job placement services for disadvantaged youth.3 In June, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the Young Africa Works program, a public-private partnership for youth employees between the Mastercard Foundation, the Kenyan government and the private sector. Within the next five years, the program aims to groom and place five million young Kenyans in "dignified and fulfilling work." 4 The MasterCard Foundation, along with two Kenyan banks — Equity Bank and Kenya Commercial Bank, as well as their respective foundations — will provide about $1 billion in capital, business development services and market linkages for the program. The aim is to create these jobs for youth employees, which will also help over 200,000 micro-, small- and medium-scale enterprises strengthen their productivity, sustainability and creation growth.4 The international hotel industry is one sector that's nurturing the development of the continent's youth, as hoteliers expand into Africa's emerging markets, according to Jan Van Der Putten, Hilton's VP of Operations for Africa and Indian Ocean.5 Hilton now has 46 hotels open across Africa, including sites in Morocco, Kenya, Zambia and Botswana, with plans to more than double that amount in the next five years. Expansions in tourism and hospitality will not only boost socioeconomic growth, but it will also provide meaningful employment opportunities. As such, it's paramount to foster an environment to help African youth workers succeed. Training the Youth of Today   In addition to basic workforce skills, the emerging digital economy also requires youth employees to learn the skills of digital fluency, creative thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, empathy and adaptability.6 Simbarashe Moyo, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, notes, "Although countries like Rwanda and Kenya are already making considerable progress in preparing their youth for the digital economy and the future of work, more African countries are yet to take meaningful action to address the yawning skills-gap and digital infrastructure inadequacies bedeviling the continent."7 Moyo advises that African nations need to equip youth for the future of work. First, they must create responsive education systems that will equip the youth with the proper skills and a sense of responsibility. They also need to develop a nationwide digital infrastructure to improve interconnectivity between nations. In addition, to keep stakeholders in check within the expanding digital economy, they need to formulate proper regulatory policies. Lastly, they need to optimize public-private cooperation to support digital training initiatives on a larger scale. "Collaboration between governments, multinational development banks and the private sector will create room for innovative financial models which promote upskilling among Africa's youth," Moyo writes. "This will also reduce inequalities caused by duplication of efforts, especially when establishing digital infrastructure in African nations. Public-private cooperation will therefore enable more young Africans to access training programs and digital infrastructure." Empowering the New Workforce   Employers can also take advantage of the rising use of mobile phones among Africa's youth by providing training and development programs via mobile apps. Workers in South Africa echo the sentiments of those in other countries who rate opportunities to learn new skills and technologies as the number one way they can thrive at work, according to Mercer's Global Talent Trends 2019 report. The survey also shows that workers like to learn independently, and they want their employers to provide platforms enabled with access to curated knowledge and expert sources. A combination of both employer- and employee-driven training can give people more control over what and how they learn while tying their development directly to organizational goals. Mercer's research also reports that 99% of companies are taking action to prepare for the future of work, and they're doing so by identifying gaps between current and required skills supply, developing future-focused people strategies and adapting skill requirements to new technologies and business objectives. For multinational organizations interested in expanding in Africa, these steps will prove critical to upskilling, enabling and empowering the youth workforce. By taking the time to understand what Africa's youth employees need and developing integrated people-centric strategies for them, multinationals can be at the forefront of developing the continent's workforce. This will allow them to meet stakeholders' needs today, while also building a bigger, better and smarter workforce for tomorrow. The long-term benefits will result in a completely reinvented Africa — with engaged workers as far as the eye can see. Sources: 1. "Africa's Youth Unemployment Rate to Exceed 30% in 2019: ILO," 7Dnews, 4 Apr. 2019, https://7dnews.com/news/africa-s-youth-unemployment-rate-to-exceed-30-in-2019-ilo. 2. D, Sourav. "Youth unemployment a 'national crisis' in South Africa, says Ramaphosa," Financial World, 18 Jun. 2019, https://www.financial-world.org/news/news/economy/2276/youth-unemployment-a-national-crisis-in-south-africa-says-ramaphosa/. 3. "Youth Employment in Africa." International Labour Organization, https://www.ilo.org/africa/areas-of-work/youth-employment/lang--en/index.htm. 4. Mbewa, David O. "President Kenyatta launches program to tackle Kenya's youth unemployment," CGTN, 20 Jun. 2019, https://africa.cgtn.com/2019/06/20/president-kenyatta-launches-program-to-tackle-kenyas-youth-unemployment/. 5. "Exclusive: An interview with Hilton's Jan van der Putten on expansion in Africa," Africa Outlook Magazine,7 Apr. 2019, https://www.africaoutlookmag.com/news/exclusive-an-interview-with-hiltons-jan-van-der-putten-on-expansion-in-africa. 6. "World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work," The World Bank Group, 2019, https://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/wdr2019. 7. Moyo, Simbarashe. "4 ways Africa can prepare its youth for the digital economy," World Economic Forum, 29 May 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/4-ways-africa-can-prepare-its-young-people-for-the-digital-economy/.

Michael Braun | 14 Nov 2019

We outlined six challenges in connection with international project assignments in part 1 of this article. To extend the overview of issues to be considered when administering international project assignments, let's dive deeper into another obligation for companies and their global mobility managers: the duty of care. Challenge 7: Duty of Care   Companies are obliged to ensure the employees' safety, health and well-being abroad. Appropriate location information, safety briefings, security trainings and health insurance need to be provided when transferring project assignees internationally, especially if they are transferred to hardship locations. Mobility managers should consider synergies when setting up such health and safety programs. Travel insurance, for example, can be offered to both business travelers and international assignees staying abroad for less than a certain amount of days (usually 90 days). Furthermore, a group insurance for the remaining assignees ensures a cost-efficient funding. You also profit from security and assistance programs offered by many health insurers, in addition to their core insurance service. And did you know that security providers usually extend their service beyond the medical service? They often provide information about the security situation in a given location and make tracking solutions, as well as security updates, available. Some providers even offer practical assistance in case of an evacuation. Employee Protection   The mobility of employees in global business life has become "borderless" in many respects. In order to take this development into account, the forms of insurance are constantly changing and expanding. The increasing number of projects, for example, which occur with a different frequency depending on the industry, represents a special challenge insurance-wise. The assignment period, the home country and the desired scope of coverage play a major role in the choice of an insurance solution. In the following, we will examine health, disability and death cover options available for international project assignments and other types of international assignments. Medical Cover   To minimize complexity, we focus on business travel assistance and international private medical insurance/expat health insurance for long-term assignees. Business Travel Assistance   International insurers offering business travel assistance use their existing global networks to master the challenges of global coverage. Compared to traditional travel health insurance, business travel assistance offers a number of advantages. Employers can, for example, extend the number of covered travel days to up to 1 year and significantly increase the number of potential benefits to include, such as the following: ·  Flat amounts are paid in the case of an accident and for surviving dependents. They are regarded as immediate aid for direct costs incurring and are intended to pre-empt the company accident insurance which offers higher benefits but also requires longer examination processes. ·  Liability insurance is necessary in certain countries as an obligatory requirement for obtaining a visa. ·  Compensation for loss of luggage and/or travel delays is an additional goodie for travelers. If these aspects are covered by insurance, any claims will be addressed directly to the insurance company — reducing the administration effort in your company. These additional benefits are tailored to the specific needs of business travelers and international project assignees. However, the main part of business travel assistance and its risk premium remains the medical emergency including some assistance services. Existing assistance agreements have to be harmonized with business travel assistance and transparently communicated. Processes, reimbursement practices, cost management and the collection of recourse claims have to be clearly defined to effectively reduce administration. The payment of benefits within business travel assistance is linked to so-called "unforeseeable" events. This excludes any pre-existing condition or the reimbursement of regular medication. Individual registration is not required for such a group plan. Though unusual in international project assignments, accompanying family members can also be covered by business travel assistance. Medical Solution for Long-term Project Assignments   If an international project assignments is planned for a longer period of time or improved coverage is required for individual reasons, we recommend using an existing expat health plan or obtaining an individual solution. Precautions for safety, health and integrity are the hallmarks of a company, especially when working on projects in hardship countries. A number of globally active and specialized international providers are available. The benefits of a robust expat health plan are comparable to those of a comprehensive global private health insurance plan. Use the criteria described in this article to choose the most appropriate insurance solution and a provider offering the period of coverage as needed. Ideally, the level of coverage provided for an international assignment or an international project assignment is outlined in the company's policy guidelines. Disability and Death Cover   Though medical insurance is of major importance for international assignees in most companies, disability and death cover should also be considered. For employees who are no longer covered by their home-country's social security system, there is a risk of gaps in the benefits coverage regarding disability or death — that is, securing an adequate long-term income for assignees in case of permanent disability and for their families in case of death. The potential gap is even bigger if supplemental home country plans are simultaneously discontinued. Even if employees join the host country's social security system, you should note that these systems often include waiting periods for death and disability coverage. If such waiting periods do not exist, for example, due to European agreements, be aware that the benefit levels can still significantly differ to what has already been accrued in the home country. Employers need to identify and close gaps, either through local coverage or supplemental global risk coverage plans. Gaps also exist for so-called "global nomads," those assignees going on numerous consecutive assignments. Global nomads are facing benefits fragmentation at its worst, especially gaps in state and supplemental pension benefits due to not being enrolled in local plans or not reaching local vesting conditions. In addition, those employees typically do not have access to suitable long-term financing vehicles that allow for building up adequate private retirement savings with the flexibility to contribute from multiple locations. Companies with a larger global nomad population can use offshore International Pension Plan arrangements to close this gap. As the market has developed significantly over the last decade, streamlined products are available today also for smaller groups of assignees and with limited required administration. Conclusion   These are demanding and challenging times for mobility experts. The number of international project assignments is increasing and calls for special arrangements. However, these are also great times to demonstrate your expertise. To make things easier, look at what you already have: Some solutions are already available for internationally mobile employees in your company and can be used for international project assignments, as well. In the long run, mobility managers should focus on finding and implementing appropriate international project assignment solutions to ease the initial pain mainly caused by the additional workload. As is often true in global mobility, there is no-one-size-fits-all approach, but many options to tailor your (almost) perfect one. If you'd like to learn more, click here to get in touch with a Mercer consultant.  

Juliane Gruethner | 31 Oct 2019

International project assignments are one of the current hot topics in global mobility management. A quick poll in conjunction with our Expatriate Management Conference in 2018 showed that, in an increasing number of organizations, the mobility function is responsible for the administration of international project assignments. Nearly 90% of the responding mobility managers confirmed that their organizations have international project assignments, and 80% of respondents are responsible for their administration. With this trend, new challenges are emerging. Let's take a look. Challenge 1: Common Understanding of Terminology   There does not seem to be a common definition of an international project assignment. Mercer's poll showed that about 40% of the responding businesses define an international project assignment as simply an international assignment to a project, regardless of its duration, while 60% specified a period of time. Some organizations also differentiate between project assignments for an external client and internal projects. Apart from the lack of clear definitions, most businesses (73%) do not have any formal policy or regulations for their international project assignments. If they exist, they often overlap with those for traditional long- or short-term assignments. No matter how you approach international project assignments, make sure that your company has a precise definition and corresponding guidelines in place that allow for consistent handling and fair treatment of all internationally mobile employees. For this discussion, we define international project assignments as assignments to client projects abroad, whereas assignments to projects abroad within one organization are called international assignments. Challenge 2: Fair and Equal Treatment   Determining an individual compensation package for an international project assignment differs from traditional forms of international assignment compensation. Some employees may have been hired especially or exclusively for project work. Others are assigned to work on international projects based on short- or long-term assignments or commuter packages. Those differences can lead to inconsistencies in compensation between the assignees — depending on where they come from and how their project assignment is defined in the home country. Clear internal regulations differentiating target groups and assignment types increase the transparency of the mobility program and ultimately increase its acceptance among employees. Challenge 3: Determining the Return on Investment   In Mercer's 2017 Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices, the majority of respondents stated that a business case is required for an international assignment (62%) and that they prepare corresponding cost estimates (96%). However, only 43% track the actual costs against budgeted costs, and only 2% have defined how the return on investment (ROI) of an international assignment is quantified. It is often linked to a mid- to long-term perspective and not easily expressed in pure economic figures. That said, it is possible to track success by means of faster promotions or higher retention rates of expatriates. The ROI of international project assignments, in contrast, is easier to measure. Actual costs can be compared to the original estimate and the price paid by the client. This transparency leads to higher cost pressure, which calls for a greater flexibility with respect to the applicability of existing internal rules and regulations to be able to offer projects at a competitive price. In conclusion, the short-term business value (winning and conducting the project in a profitable manner) and the mid- to long-term value of international assignments (for example, filling a skills gap in the host location or employee development) have to be balanced diligently, which can be achieved by a thoroughly segmented international assignment policy. Challenge 4: Management of Large Numbers of International Project Assignments   Depending on the industry sector, the number of international project assignments in an organization can be extremely high. One of the respondents in the conference poll indicated that they handle about 23,000 international project assignments per year. Therefore, the resources needed in the mobility function will have to be increased or resources reallocated once mobility takes over the responsibility for international project assignments. You should also review the service delivery model, as well as individual procedures, and if necessary, adapt them to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the international project assignment administration. Using the right technology can also help streamline processes and make a large number of international project assignments manageable. Challenge 5: Deployment to Unknown Places   International project assignments take place not only in the company's regular assignment destinations but also in new locations at client sites. The company, therefore, may not have any resources in or knowledge about the location. Client resources or external vendors can be used to obtain necessary information or perform necessary services, such as immigration or payroll. In addition, if employees perform services in hardship locations, their safety and security need to be considered. Challenge 6: A Matter of Compliance   When it comes to international project assignments, mobility is regularly asked to deliver results even faster than for traditional international assignments, because requirements tend to come up or change at short notice. However, compliance is as complex as for any other international assignments and needs to be evaluated individually. This is true for external as well as internal compliance issues. Although compliance is regarded as one of the most important aspects by many mobility managers, we have seen that compliance is just the tip of the iceberg, and the list of challenges presented in this first part of the article is not exhaustive. We continue our considerations with the companies' duty of care and possible solutions in part 2  of this article. If you'd like to learn more, click here to get in touch with a Mercer consultant.

More from Voice on Growth

Didintle Kwape | 14 Nov 2019

Africa's youth employees are a valuable, ample talent source that multinational companies can tap as they expand their operations throughout the continent. Record numbers of teenagers and young adults in Africa are either unemployed or underemployed but are willing to work if given the chance. In South Africa alone, where the unemployment rate is expected to grow beyond 30% this year, two-thirds of the jobless are between 15 and 24 years of age.1 Realizing the Untapped Talent Pool   "We are very much alive to the fact that youth unemployment is indeed a national crisis," stated South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in June 2019.2 Governments across the continent are now rewriting labor laws and breaking down bureaucratic hurdles to make hiring youth less cumbersome for both multinational corporations and local small businesses. They are also teaming up with nonprofit organizations to nurture young talent and teach necessary workforce skills. Alliances are being forged to aid these efforts, such as the International Labour Organization's (ILO) partnership with the African Development Bank, the African Union Commission and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Together, they hope to address youth employment at regional and national levels. To better prepare youth for work, the ILO provides employment services, skills development and labor market training — with a focus on technical and vocational education, apprenticeship and job placement services for disadvantaged youth.3 In June, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the Young Africa Works program, a public-private partnership for youth employees between the Mastercard Foundation, the Kenyan government and the private sector. Within the next five years, the program aims to groom and place five million young Kenyans in "dignified and fulfilling work." 4 The MasterCard Foundation, along with two Kenyan banks — Equity Bank and Kenya Commercial Bank, as well as their respective foundations — will provide about $1 billion in capital, business development services and market linkages for the program. The aim is to create these jobs for youth employees, which will also help over 200,000 micro-, small- and medium-scale enterprises strengthen their productivity, sustainability and creation growth.4 The international hotel industry is one sector that's nurturing the development of the continent's youth, as hoteliers expand into Africa's emerging markets, according to Jan Van Der Putten, Hilton's VP of Operations for Africa and Indian Ocean.5 Hilton now has 46 hotels open across Africa, including sites in Morocco, Kenya, Zambia and Botswana, with plans to more than double that amount in the next five years. Expansions in tourism and hospitality will not only boost socioeconomic growth, but it will also provide meaningful employment opportunities. As such, it's paramount to foster an environment to help African youth workers succeed. Training the Youth of Today   In addition to basic workforce skills, the emerging digital economy also requires youth employees to learn the skills of digital fluency, creative thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, empathy and adaptability.6 Simbarashe Moyo, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, notes, "Although countries like Rwanda and Kenya are already making considerable progress in preparing their youth for the digital economy and the future of work, more African countries are yet to take meaningful action to address the yawning skills-gap and digital infrastructure inadequacies bedeviling the continent."7 Moyo advises that African nations need to equip youth for the future of work. First, they must create responsive education systems that will equip the youth with the proper skills and a sense of responsibility. They also need to develop a nationwide digital infrastructure to improve interconnectivity between nations. In addition, to keep stakeholders in check within the expanding digital economy, they need to formulate proper regulatory policies. Lastly, they need to optimize public-private cooperation to support digital training initiatives on a larger scale. "Collaboration between governments, multinational development banks and the private sector will create room for innovative financial models which promote upskilling among Africa's youth," Moyo writes. "This will also reduce inequalities caused by duplication of efforts, especially when establishing digital infrastructure in African nations. Public-private cooperation will therefore enable more young Africans to access training programs and digital infrastructure." Empowering the New Workforce   Employers can also take advantage of the rising use of mobile phones among Africa's youth by providing training and development programs via mobile apps. Workers in South Africa echo the sentiments of those in other countries who rate opportunities to learn new skills and technologies as the number one way they can thrive at work, according to Mercer's Global Talent Trends 2019 report. The survey also shows that workers like to learn independently, and they want their employers to provide platforms enabled with access to curated knowledge and expert sources. A combination of both employer- and employee-driven training can give people more control over what and how they learn while tying their development directly to organizational goals. Mercer's research also reports that 99% of companies are taking action to prepare for the future of work, and they're doing so by identifying gaps between current and required skills supply, developing future-focused people strategies and adapting skill requirements to new technologies and business objectives. For multinational organizations interested in expanding in Africa, these steps will prove critical to upskilling, enabling and empowering the youth workforce. By taking the time to understand what Africa's youth employees need and developing integrated people-centric strategies for them, multinationals can be at the forefront of developing the continent's workforce. This will allow them to meet stakeholders' needs today, while also building a bigger, better and smarter workforce for tomorrow. The long-term benefits will result in a completely reinvented Africa — with engaged workers as far as the eye can see. Sources: 1. "Africa's Youth Unemployment Rate to Exceed 30% in 2019: ILO," 7Dnews, 4 Apr. 2019, https://7dnews.com/news/africa-s-youth-unemployment-rate-to-exceed-30-in-2019-ilo. 2. D, Sourav. "Youth unemployment a 'national crisis' in South Africa, says Ramaphosa," Financial World, 18 Jun. 2019, https://www.financial-world.org/news/news/economy/2276/youth-unemployment-a-national-crisis-in-south-africa-says-ramaphosa/. 3. "Youth Employment in Africa." International Labour Organization, https://www.ilo.org/africa/areas-of-work/youth-employment/lang--en/index.htm. 4. Mbewa, David O. "President Kenyatta launches program to tackle Kenya's youth unemployment," CGTN, 20 Jun. 2019, https://africa.cgtn.com/2019/06/20/president-kenyatta-launches-program-to-tackle-kenyas-youth-unemployment/. 5. "Exclusive: An interview with Hilton's Jan van der Putten on expansion in Africa," Africa Outlook Magazine,7 Apr. 2019, https://www.africaoutlookmag.com/news/exclusive-an-interview-with-hiltons-jan-van-der-putten-on-expansion-in-africa. 6. "World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work," The World Bank Group, 2019, https://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/wdr2019. 7. Moyo, Simbarashe. "4 ways Africa can prepare its youth for the digital economy," World Economic Forum, 29 May 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/4-ways-africa-can-prepare-its-young-people-for-the-digital-economy/.

Michael Braun | 14 Nov 2019

We outlined six challenges in connection with international project assignments in part 1 of this article. To extend the overview of issues to be considered when administering international project assignments, let's dive deeper into another obligation for companies and their global mobility managers: the duty of care. Challenge 7: Duty of Care   Companies are obliged to ensure the employees' safety, health and well-being abroad. Appropriate location information, safety briefings, security trainings and health insurance need to be provided when transferring project assignees internationally, especially if they are transferred to hardship locations. Mobility managers should consider synergies when setting up such health and safety programs. Travel insurance, for example, can be offered to both business travelers and international assignees staying abroad for less than a certain amount of days (usually 90 days). Furthermore, a group insurance for the remaining assignees ensures a cost-efficient funding. You also profit from security and assistance programs offered by many health insurers, in addition to their core insurance service. And did you know that security providers usually extend their service beyond the medical service? They often provide information about the security situation in a given location and make tracking solutions, as well as security updates, available. Some providers even offer practical assistance in case of an evacuation. Employee Protection   The mobility of employees in global business life has become "borderless" in many respects. In order to take this development into account, the forms of insurance are constantly changing and expanding. The increasing number of projects, for example, which occur with a different frequency depending on the industry, represents a special challenge insurance-wise. The assignment period, the home country and the desired scope of coverage play a major role in the choice of an insurance solution. In the following, we will examine health, disability and death cover options available for international project assignments and other types of international assignments. Medical Cover   To minimize complexity, we focus on business travel assistance and international private medical insurance/expat health insurance for long-term assignees. Business Travel Assistance   International insurers offering business travel assistance use their existing global networks to master the challenges of global coverage. Compared to traditional travel health insurance, business travel assistance offers a number of advantages. Employers can, for example, extend the number of covered travel days to up to 1 year and significantly increase the number of potential benefits to include, such as the following: ·  Flat amounts are paid in the case of an accident and for surviving dependents. They are regarded as immediate aid for direct costs incurring and are intended to pre-empt the company accident insurance which offers higher benefits but also requires longer examination processes. ·  Liability insurance is necessary in certain countries as an obligatory requirement for obtaining a visa. ·  Compensation for loss of luggage and/or travel delays is an additional goodie for travelers. If these aspects are covered by insurance, any claims will be addressed directly to the insurance company — reducing the administration effort in your company. These additional benefits are tailored to the specific needs of business travelers and international project assignees. However, the main part of business travel assistance and its risk premium remains the medical emergency including some assistance services. Existing assistance agreements have to be harmonized with business travel assistance and transparently communicated. Processes, reimbursement practices, cost management and the collection of recourse claims have to be clearly defined to effectively reduce administration. The payment of benefits within business travel assistance is linked to so-called "unforeseeable" events. This excludes any pre-existing condition or the reimbursement of regular medication. Individual registration is not required for such a group plan. Though unusual in international project assignments, accompanying family members can also be covered by business travel assistance. Medical Solution for Long-term Project Assignments   If an international project assignments is planned for a longer period of time or improved coverage is required for individual reasons, we recommend using an existing expat health plan or obtaining an individual solution. Precautions for safety, health and integrity are the hallmarks of a company, especially when working on projects in hardship countries. A number of globally active and specialized international providers are available. The benefits of a robust expat health plan are comparable to those of a comprehensive global private health insurance plan. Use the criteria described in this article to choose the most appropriate insurance solution and a provider offering the period of coverage as needed. Ideally, the level of coverage provided for an international assignment or an international project assignment is outlined in the company's policy guidelines. Disability and Death Cover   Though medical insurance is of major importance for international assignees in most companies, disability and death cover should also be considered. For employees who are no longer covered by their home-country's social security system, there is a risk of gaps in the benefits coverage regarding disability or death — that is, securing an adequate long-term income for assignees in case of permanent disability and for their families in case of death. The potential gap is even bigger if supplemental home country plans are simultaneously discontinued. Even if employees join the host country's social security system, you should note that these systems often include waiting periods for death and disability coverage. If such waiting periods do not exist, for example, due to European agreements, be aware that the benefit levels can still significantly differ to what has already been accrued in the home country. Employers need to identify and close gaps, either through local coverage or supplemental global risk coverage plans. Gaps also exist for so-called "global nomads," those assignees going on numerous consecutive assignments. Global nomads are facing benefits fragmentation at its worst, especially gaps in state and supplemental pension benefits due to not being enrolled in local plans or not reaching local vesting conditions. In addition, those employees typically do not have access to suitable long-term financing vehicles that allow for building up adequate private retirement savings with the flexibility to contribute from multiple locations. Companies with a larger global nomad population can use offshore International Pension Plan arrangements to close this gap. As the market has developed significantly over the last decade, streamlined products are available today also for smaller groups of assignees and with limited required administration. Conclusion   These are demanding and challenging times for mobility experts. The number of international project assignments is increasing and calls for special arrangements. However, these are also great times to demonstrate your expertise. To make things easier, look at what you already have: Some solutions are already available for internationally mobile employees in your company and can be used for international project assignments, as well. In the long run, mobility managers should focus on finding and implementing appropriate international project assignment solutions to ease the initial pain mainly caused by the additional workload. As is often true in global mobility, there is no-one-size-fits-all approach, but many options to tailor your (almost) perfect one. If you'd like to learn more, click here to get in touch with a Mercer consultant.  

Juliane Gruethner | 31 Oct 2019

International project assignments are one of the current hot topics in global mobility management. A quick poll in conjunction with our Expatriate Management Conference in 2018 showed that, in an increasing number of organizations, the mobility function is responsible for the administration of international project assignments. Nearly 90% of the responding mobility managers confirmed that their organizations have international project assignments, and 80% of respondents are responsible for their administration. With this trend, new challenges are emerging. Let's take a look. Challenge 1: Common Understanding of Terminology   There does not seem to be a common definition of an international project assignment. Mercer's poll showed that about 40% of the responding businesses define an international project assignment as simply an international assignment to a project, regardless of its duration, while 60% specified a period of time. Some organizations also differentiate between project assignments for an external client and internal projects. Apart from the lack of clear definitions, most businesses (73%) do not have any formal policy or regulations for their international project assignments. If they exist, they often overlap with those for traditional long- or short-term assignments. No matter how you approach international project assignments, make sure that your company has a precise definition and corresponding guidelines in place that allow for consistent handling and fair treatment of all internationally mobile employees. For this discussion, we define international project assignments as assignments to client projects abroad, whereas assignments to projects abroad within one organization are called international assignments. Challenge 2: Fair and Equal Treatment   Determining an individual compensation package for an international project assignment differs from traditional forms of international assignment compensation. Some employees may have been hired especially or exclusively for project work. Others are assigned to work on international projects based on short- or long-term assignments or commuter packages. Those differences can lead to inconsistencies in compensation between the assignees — depending on where they come from and how their project assignment is defined in the home country. Clear internal regulations differentiating target groups and assignment types increase the transparency of the mobility program and ultimately increase its acceptance among employees. Challenge 3: Determining the Return on Investment   In Mercer's 2017 Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices, the majority of respondents stated that a business case is required for an international assignment (62%) and that they prepare corresponding cost estimates (96%). However, only 43% track the actual costs against budgeted costs, and only 2% have defined how the return on investment (ROI) of an international assignment is quantified. It is often linked to a mid- to long-term perspective and not easily expressed in pure economic figures. That said, it is possible to track success by means of faster promotions or higher retention rates of expatriates. The ROI of international project assignments, in contrast, is easier to measure. Actual costs can be compared to the original estimate and the price paid by the client. This transparency leads to higher cost pressure, which calls for a greater flexibility with respect to the applicability of existing internal rules and regulations to be able to offer projects at a competitive price. In conclusion, the short-term business value (winning and conducting the project in a profitable manner) and the mid- to long-term value of international assignments (for example, filling a skills gap in the host location or employee development) have to be balanced diligently, which can be achieved by a thoroughly segmented international assignment policy. Challenge 4: Management of Large Numbers of International Project Assignments   Depending on the industry sector, the number of international project assignments in an organization can be extremely high. One of the respondents in the conference poll indicated that they handle about 23,000 international project assignments per year. Therefore, the resources needed in the mobility function will have to be increased or resources reallocated once mobility takes over the responsibility for international project assignments. You should also review the service delivery model, as well as individual procedures, and if necessary, adapt them to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the international project assignment administration. Using the right technology can also help streamline processes and make a large number of international project assignments manageable. Challenge 5: Deployment to Unknown Places   International project assignments take place not only in the company's regular assignment destinations but also in new locations at client sites. The company, therefore, may not have any resources in or knowledge about the location. Client resources or external vendors can be used to obtain necessary information or perform necessary services, such as immigration or payroll. In addition, if employees perform services in hardship locations, their safety and security need to be considered. Challenge 6: A Matter of Compliance   When it comes to international project assignments, mobility is regularly asked to deliver results even faster than for traditional international assignments, because requirements tend to come up or change at short notice. However, compliance is as complex as for any other international assignments and needs to be evaluated individually. This is true for external as well as internal compliance issues. Although compliance is regarded as one of the most important aspects by many mobility managers, we have seen that compliance is just the tip of the iceberg, and the list of challenges presented in this first part of the article is not exhaustive. We continue our considerations with the companies' duty of care and possible solutions in part 2  of this article. If you'd like to learn more, click here to get in touch with a Mercer consultant.

back_to_top