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Difficult Conversations About Workforce Management: Business Needs vs. Employee Expectations

In today’s shifting and uncertain business world, company leaders are faced with tough decisions daily, including ones around workforce management. As companies move from pandemic-era remote setups to today’s evolving workplace landscape, there’s a growing gap between employees’ continued desire for flexible work options and some organizations’ desire to have employees work in the office. Global leadership teams are having difficult conversations as they determine the best workforce management policies for their business and evaluate the potential impacts of their choices. Depending on company workplace expectations, this can also lead to difficult conversations with employees, as companies must manage their expectations about remote and work-from-anywhere scenarios, as well as hybrid, near-site, and in-person work arrangements. 

The adoption of the digital nomad lifestyle rose dramatically during the pandemic; in 2019 there were 7.3 million digital nomads worldwide. By 2022, that number had more than quadrupled to 35 million. Contributing to this growing movement, there are currently more than 45 countries that offer digital nomad visas, enabling workers to live in those countries and work remotely for a foreign-based employer. Many digital nomads are self-employed, giving them the freedom to work from anywhere. Full-time employees may crave this lifestyle, but also may not have the luxury of that same freedom since their companies have a host of business impacts to consider when exploring work-from-anywhere policies. This can create a gap in expectations that companies must address. 

During the pandemic, many companies accepted or encouraged remote work, especially as it aligned with health and safety measures. The trend gained momentum during the Great Resignation of 2021 and 2022, when many companies were willing to accommodate flexibility to help attract and retain top talent, whether through formal company policies or by simply allowing employees to work remotely. Today, with seismic shifts in the global economy, companies are re-thinking their workforce needs and considering or implementing cost cuts. The balance of power between employer and employee is shifting, and many companies are moving back to pre-pandemic workplace structures. This sometimes means mandating a return to the office for all employees. 

After several years of workplace flexibility, change can be difficult for both companies and employees. Take, for example, an employee that moved to Switzerland during the pandemic: Is that employee now required to move back to France, where the company is based, to work in the office? If the employee stays in Switzerland, what compliance and company regulations — tax, immigration, data security — must the company now meet? 

Organizational implications to consider

For companies still determining their post-COVID workplace policies — and mobility professionals charged with relaying and implementing those policies — here are factors to consider when navigating the situation, keeping empathy for employees in mind while meeting company goals and expectations: 

  • Meeting compliance requirements — Companies already have to manage compliance requirements for any country outside of where the business is based if they have an established presence there. If employees are working from a country where the company has no established presence, that creates a variety of additional compliance challenges — tax, immigration, visa, wage/benefits, pensions, data security — that companies are legally responsible for managing. Every country has its own compliance requirements and there isn’t a database containing the rules companies and their remote employees need to follow. On top of that, there are data privacy regulations, like the General Data Protection Regulation in the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union, that make tracking employee whereabouts harder. Company leaders and mobility professionals should evaluate the time, financial and resource investments needed for employees to work remotely before making any permanent decisions. They should also define acceptable parameters around what “work from anywhere” will mean to the business if they choose to follow this model. For example, they might limit acceptable locations to ones where the company already has an established business presence.
  • Anticipating possible repercussions of not allowing remote work requests — Companies leaning toward not allowing remote work, or not granting individual employee requests, should consider the potential repercussions of saying no. For example, it could lead to employees leaving for other jobs with more flexible employers. Can the company afford to lose quality employees? Companies should also consider the cost, financially and through HR’s time investments, to retain current employees versus replacing them if they leave. Not allowing remote work could also lead to a decrease in employee morale if working remotely is important to them. How will the company counteract that dip in morale, which could negatively impact employee productivity and the company’s reputation and bottom line? These are just a few examples, but company leaders should brainstorm other potential repercussions, discuss the comfort level with each scenario and be prepared to communicate with employees about their decisions.  
  • Creating equitable access — How will company leaders decide who can and can’t work remotely, to ensure equitable access across the organization? If one employee is granted the opportunity to work remotely, it may set expectations among employees that they can all work remotely — and if someone is denied the opportunity, it could lead to claims of favoritism or discrimination. Some organizations may face the risk of creating a two-tiered workforce, with some employees needing to be in-person (like at a manufacturing plant) and others who can get their jobs done from anywhere (like some corporate employees). Leaders should think through the organizational implications of whatever policy they plan to institute to prevent tension or resentment within different employee groups. 

The role of global mobility

What role does global mobility play in all this? The gap in expectations between employers and employees is leaving mobility professionals, who are increasingly responsible for managing remote work policies, in a position to figure out how to balance expectations and navigate sensitive conversations with care and compassion. Here are four ways mobility professionals can navigate their remote work policy responsibilities: 

  • Reinforcing company policies with understanding — If companies require some form of in-person work, mobility professionals should be reinforcing that message with employees who request to work remotely. It will also be important to understand employee perspectives and to guide related conversations with emotional intelligence, which is practiced through purposeful thought, careful communication, mindfulness, empathy and authentic support. 
  • Ensuring compliance — If companies are allowing employees to work remotely, mobility professionals are likely to be the ones tasked with overseeing the implementation of those policies. An important part of that responsibility will be ensuring their companies comply with other countries’ work regulations. For example, mobility professionals will need to take on employee tracking for tax and immigration purposes, while not overstepping data privacy restrictions. 
  • Managing employee expectations — Employees looking to work remotely will likely do some research about their relocation options, such as new housing in their chosen host city. However, online real-estate marketplaces don’t always accurately represent true housing costs and averages. This can lead to employees having false expectations, including thinking that their real estate investment will stretch farther than reality. Mobility professionals should help employees avoid the pitfalls of self-direction and set realistic expectations — reminding employees that they need to trust mobility teams and relocation management consultants as the experts in talent mobility. 
  • Managing remote work costs — At a time when companies are tightening budgets, mobility professionals will need to be cognizant of the financial implications of the remote work policies they’re overseeing. By practicing mindful mobility and working with relocation management partners, companies can find strategic cost savings while still creating positive experiences for remote employees. This will help demonstrate the value of mobility teams in bridging the gap between company and employee expectations. 

As the workplace continues to evolve, workforce management planning and implementation should be thoughtfully considered, along with clearly communicating decisions to employees. With anticipated shifts in the global economy potentially creating a surplus of talent in the marketplace, relocation management companies/relocation providers should keep a pulse on how companies and employees react to remote work demands; this will allow them to provide guidance and support to their clients along the way. Ultimately, companies must determine which workforce management policy is best for their business and employees, and the above considerations are starting points to help make that decision. Whatever approach companies choose, mobility professionals should align with company goals and guide employees through their options with compassion. 

With more than 70 years of relocation experience, Graebel can help company leaders and mobility professionals lead with purpose and see the larger picture of their workplace decisions. Our focus is to help clients make strategic choices that balance employee and company expectations, especially as mobility professionals take on more responsibility — and play a larger strategic role in their companies. Contact us to learn more. 

Additional Resources for Navigating Remote Work Policies and Expectations