Business man travelling

Expert View on
Global Mobility Trends

17 December 2021

Global mobility has been an intrinsic part of international business for almost half a century. But like a lot of things, moving people overseas to work has evolved significantly in the last decade, with the increase in globalisation, digitisation, improvements in supply chain, international trade and relative economic stability. 

The global Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on the world. There are few aspects of the business world that have been left untouched by this catastrophic event. It began with a swift move to remote working, whether organisations were prepared or not. Some industries grew exponentially while others faltered, and there has and continues to be a significant impact on the supply chain with limits on transport and the cost of shipping remaining exorbitantly high. 

There is no doubt that the pandemic has also impacted global mobility. Expats found themselves stranded overseas without the connection to office life or the ability to return to their home country for holidays. Organisations found their global teams working from home, even though they were on expat assignment. 

We look at what global mobility was like before, during, and most importantly, after the pandemic:

When we look back to 2018/19, global mobility was only moving in one direction and that was up. How we worked was changing due to accelerated connectivity, new talent and cognitive models. Digitisation in many industries meant employers were working towards an augmented workforce, combining the best of people and technology for improved results. 

Deloitte found for 68% of businesses, having a global workforce was an enabler of these required changes. However, only 5% of the 11,000 businesses surveyed, believed they were ‘world class’ at managing an international population. This discrepancy indicated that there was much work required when it came to expat and international employee management.

Pre-pandemic, Deloitte found changes were already occurring in how businesses were sending employees overseas. In addition to mid- and long-term expat employees, which remained an important component, there was a move towards:

  • Increasing business travel
  • Short-term assignments
  • One-way assignments

The scope of global mobility also increased to include international recruitment, global workforce planning and location strategy.

Fortunately, for those soon to be caught up in the Covid-19 pandemic, there was also a move towards making global mobility strategy more human centric, by putting employee experience at its heart. There was a move towards designing an expat experience around the person moving rather than the needs of the business. For employees, this meant more focus on:

1. Recognition: 

Where once expat recognition was primarily financial, businesses are now understanding there are other ways to reward employees. Employers were adding benefits including paying international school fees for children, providing time-off to return to their home country, or membership to sports or social clubs. All of which recognise that the move overseas is a significant upheaval for the individual and their family.  

2. Wellbeing: 

The additional focus on wellbeing within global mobility echoes a similar trend within the broader working world. Organisations are offering mental as well as physical health support to their employees. While their domestic employees may have access to an Employee Assistance Programme, expats can access expat assistance programmes, equipped to deal with the complex needs of someone living away from their home country.

3. Development:

Pre-pandemic, an international assignment was considered an essential part of becoming a senior manager in an international business. Once planned and correctly executed, expat assignments were playing increasingly important roles in the development of an international manager. On assignment, there is an opportunity to learn a wealth of new skills as well as being exposed to different ways of working, new markets and customer requirements. 


Finally, pre-pandemic there was already a significant move towards digitising global mobility programs. The potential impact on the lifecycle of an assignment is significant:

1. Acquisition and deployment

Organisations were using software to find and recruit talent from all over the world. Predictive analytics are helping businesses to choose the most suitable talent for an overseas move, and faster ways to identify the best talent sources based on cost and quality.

2. Digital experience

Digitisation allowed organisations to onboard new expat employees virtually if needed, and to provide a more personalised employee assistance experience. 

3. Engagement

Finally, digitisation facilitated preference tracking, the identification of career opportunities, employee feedback and ROI.

Once the WHO declared a pandemic, global reaction was swift and unprecedented. Governments around the world closed borders and restricted travel. The limited numbers who managed to travel had to complete mandatory home isolation or hotel quarantine, in case they had been exposed to the virus. International transport links, including flights, were much less frequent, or cancelled altogether. 

The impact on global mobility was significant. Research conducted by PWC at the height of the pandemic in the western world showed 27% of businesses believed the pandemic would have a fundamental impact on how their business views the need for international moves. 

Almost half of the 250 leaders surveyed across 30 countries said they were allowing new expats to begin their assignments remotely from their home country given the uncertainty of the situation. 


PWC reported that over half of the businesses provided additional support to new and existing employees. This moved away from the traditional financial support to non-cash support in the form of:

  • Extended medical coverage
  • Temporary accommodation
  • Flights if needed
  • Immigration and tax advice
  • Impact of working from a different location

For expats themselves, the pandemic was a challenging time. Research conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic showed 38% of expats felt their mental health declined and nearly half wanted to return to their home country during the crises. Unfortunately, only 10% of those surveyed felt confident in the mental health support their employer provided.

When it came to diet and eating, surveys echoed the findings of Allianz Care’s own research on working from home, 73% of respondents said their diets had changed significantly. 

Although only a small percentage believed they changed for the worse, the Allianz Care Work from Home Survey results were to the contrary. The neuroscientific approach taken in the Work from Home Survey allowed for cognitive dissidence, where there is a difference between how we think and actually feel. This element of the research showed that expats were not eating as well while working from home and that their body weight changed during Covid-19. 

When it came to relationships during the pandemic, research indicated that a quarter of expats struggled to maintain their relationships with family and friends in their home country. Positively, more than one third of respondents felt their relationships with locals had improved during the pandemic.

As vaccines begin to have an impact in some parts of the world and many countries are beginning to transition out of the emergency phase of the pandemic, what do we believe the future of global mobility is?

For some of the answers, we spoke to Elysia Hegarty, Associate Director & Wellness Lead at CPL’s Future of Work Institute.


The normalisation of remote working

Many industries and employers have now experienced the benefits of remote working. For employees, it has brought greater flexibility and work/life balance. For employers, they have seen cost savings with reduced overheads of real-estate and travel, increased engagement, and productivity. 

CPL’s Future of Work World highlighted that 70% of employees stated an improvement in their wellness because of a greater focus on remote working. Most companies have announced their intentions to allow more flexible working options, with many we have surveyed adopting a hybrid working model. The evolution of technology has allowed us to do this and from our insights, 99% of organisations agreed that technology will continue to reshape their workforce over the next 5 years.


The talent-skill gap

Countries with skill shortages will drive the requirement for more mobility. CPL’s Talent Acquisition teams are already receiving high volume requests from clients to look further afield for skilled talent. The question remains whether these roles will be based in the host country or whether flexible working and digital connectivity will allow talent to work remotely from their native country.


Changing of personal priorities and expectations

Since the pandemic, personal priorities have shifted. With remote working prominent, many people moved to other countries or back to their home countries, citing improved quality of life as a key driver. In this context, considerations may well need to be given to moving jobs to people rather than moving people to jobs. 

As companies gain in agility and upgrade their technology, we may see an evolution to more assignment-based projects or assigning certain tasks to mobile people such as contractors or gig workers. Instead of relocating an employee from one country to another, we may see the employee move to a country of their choice instead of moving the job to the employee.


Research on the impact of the pandemic on global mobility trends is still ongoing; early indications are that many businesses are going to focus on:


Additional workforce planning

More workforce planning is going to be required across the board post-pandemic. The move to remote working has been largely successful and many businesses will be focusing on how to best incorporate it more permanently into their employees lives by offering hybrid working

PWC found almost one third of organisations who employ expat assignments are likely to analyse the need for global mobility. Many also intend to look at how they have been running their mobility programme including who moves and why. An expat assignment may be more considered than it was before the pandemic. 


Safety and wellbeing

Throughout the pandemic, most organisations improved their focus on wellbeing for all of their workforce. This was more acutely required for expat employees. The majority of companies plan to increase communication and provide non-financial support like international health insurance or expat assistance programmes.  This kind of focus is likely to remain key to the future of global mobility.


Cost effectiveness

Last, but by no means least, there is likely to be increased focus on the cost effectiveness of traditional expat assignments before they are approved. Given the often high cost of moving and maintaining an employee overseas, more businesses may look into shorter term business trips or shorter assignments, with additional support provided to the overseas office remotely. 

CPL’s Future of Work Institute does not believe the changes in global mobility are going to diminish the role of the expat; it will simply evolve. “The impact of the ever-changing immigration regulations per country will also be a key driver on mobility,” says Elysia. “We may see a decline in some categories of mobile employees but not necessarily in absolute. And some industries will require continued mobility.”