How can reimagined mobility help organizations see reward and not risk?

13 minute read 15 Mar 2023
Dr. Joost Smits

EY Global People Advisory Services Mobility Leader

Experienced people advisory leader who strives to align corporate objectives to enhance mobility ecosystems. Loves cycling, sports and his family.

Rachel D’Argenio

EY Global and EY Americas Mobility Market Leader

Helping clients deliver strategic insights, incremental value, and life-changing experiences. Loves being creative and enjoys baking with her son, going on long walks, and traveling.

Maureen Flood

EY Global Mobility Reimagined Leader

Passionate about partnering with clients to enable long-term value from the optimization of global talent strategy and global mobility. Disability mom and advocate.

13 minute read 15 Mar 2023

The EY 2023 Mobility Reimagined Survey shows workforce mobility’s reality doesn’t always reach potential, with risks in the race for talent.

Three questions to ask

  • Why is employee experience as important as mobility execution to realize mobility’s maximum value?
  • How can workforce mobility cultivate cross-border growth for people and organizations?
  • How can organizations realize the full strategic and tactical value of mobility programs?

With economic headwinds crashing into an unpredictable labor market, organizations are facing a talent paradox: balancing an imperative to invest in securing their global talent pipeline and capabilities, while also remaining agile enough to adapt through uncertainty. New ways of working — across borders and jurisdictions — have brought greater expectations for workforce flexibility, talent strategy, and technological investment, amid increasingly complex economic, geopolitical and social challenges.

To build sustainable value in this climate, leaders need solutions that mitigate risk and maximize reward; enhancing employee experience regardless of assignment location, orchestrating seamless cross-functional performance to grow cross-border business.

The EY 2023 Mobility Reimagined Survey reveals workforce mobility programs as having powerful strategic and operational importance in the global race for talent. The survey provides insights from more than 1,000 global mobility professionals and employees recently posted on international assignments, across six key sectors. Respondents express recognition of the influence of mobility programs to promote personal and career growth for employees, as well as value growth for organizations. But the findings also reveal employers facing a mismatch between talent demand and what organizations currently offer in their mobility programs. This tension is seen through a lens of capacity — the quantity of people who are allowed to gain the experience — and in the limits of traditional mobility models, which aren’t often built for the flexible and hybrid working arrangements that employees demand.

The present reality of workforce mobility doesn’t always live up to its potential, and can be reimagined.

The survey shows:

  • 93% of employees agree an international assignment can be life-changing for themselves and their families.
  • 92% of respondents believe that aligning mobility strategy to organizational objectives helps in attracting and retaining top talent, but most respondents don’t strongly agree their organizations are equipped to handle risks.
  • 90% of employers believe aligning their mobility strategy to organizational goals drives business growth.
  • 78% of employers see a positive return on investment from their mobility program, but perspectives differ across sectors.

At a time when global competition for talent is fierce and burnout is high, there is an opportunity for organizations to transform their mobility programs into strategic levers that build value for employees and the business. Policy segmentation, digitizing operations and flexible hybrid policies can help to create a new balance between talent and business needs in today’s world.

Thriving in an uncertain global talent landscape

The looming possibility of sustained sluggish economic growth has forced organizations to prioritize agility in the face of structural and cyclical challenges. Global GDP growth is expected to be just 2.2% in 2023, according to the OECD, with geopolitical uncertainty and high inflation compounding the challenges of a continually unpredictable labor market. The EY 2022 Work Reimagined study showed that in many sectors employees gained further leverage with employers during the COVID-19 pandemic, when organizations needed to hold on to core talent and capabilities. 

The labor outlook is clouded by the persistent geographic and demographic imbalance to the global labor supply. While certain geographies or sectors may see a slowdown, the rise of geopolitical challenges will also begin to increase the demand for mobility to solve for country-specific issues.  

  • Image description

    A chart showing a slowdown of job openings in key markets at the end of 2022, but no steep fall in talent demand, or mass layoffs.

Despite — or perhaps because of — this potential slowing of demand for workers, organizations should consider employee retention as representing cost savings and maintaining key employees an organizational imperative. Deploying that talent with fluidity will be crucial to fill local needs. To retain talent, organizations need to find meaningful ways to enhance the employee experience to maximize organizational talent and grow capabilities in a cost-effective way.

Mobility professionals see their function as carrying strategic influence in this talent landscape, with 88% of respondents considering mobility as a way to address global talent shortages, and a further 76% believing mobility influences overall organizational strategy. In the face of continued uncertainty, 74% of employers agree the mobility function is critical to business continuity.

The EY 2022 Work Reimagined Survey revealed the priorities of employees have shifted in recent years to emphasize flexible work, broader total rewards offerings and better alignment with their own values and career objectives. Organizations have required adaptation. Leaders have needed to build high-value touchpoints with dispersed teams, seeking meaningful ways to inspire and motivate employees. As organizations have emerged from recent periods of lockdowns and reduced international travel, the data shows international experiences hold outsized influence.

A vast majority of employees, 93%, consider international assignments as potentially life-changing experiences, and pivotal to their career growth. Furthermore, life-changing experiences are cited as the number one benefit of international experiences.

  • Image description

    A bar chart showing the top five benefits employees found from international experiences, topped by being a life-changing experience, benefiting career development and gaining a global mindset.

Understanding cross-border work as life-changing provides both an opportunity and a challenge for organizations seeking to preserve their talent pipeline. On one hand, this shows the influence of international postings, and an opportunity to cultivate personal and professional growth for an employee.

But reimagining the mobility function with the physical and emotional concerns of people at the center amounts to an organizational transformation of processes, technology and structure. The success of such an undertaking is greatly connected to being aware of the enterprise risks and emotional journeys of employees, as research from EY and Oxford University has shown. Organizations need to be prepared to respond to and benefit from the growth of their employees. This means seeing mobility as a vital part of overall talent strategy, and not as a transactional function locked in a silo.

Workforce mobility’s influence across functions

The data shows a certain tension around the strategic and operational identity of mobility programs, perhaps due to its position and influence. The largest number (42%) of respondents indicate mobility as being fully centralized, often reporting to HR. But mobility practitioners must collaborate with a broad set of stakeholders to accomplish basic tasks, from technology enablement to immigration compliance.

  • Image description

    Bar charts showing common operational characteristics of mobility functions being centralized, reporting to talent/HR and collaborating across many areas.

Recognition of the full strategic potential of workforce mobility is highly connected to the level of seniority of mobility professionals. Substantially more senior Mobility professionals see their function as influencing business strategy and operations, and believe a lack of visibility from other functions makes it difficult to leverage the potential of mobility to achieve broader firm objectives. This disconnect in strategic or operational value of mobility is an opportunity for organizations to better articulate priorities around talent and attraction, career and skills development, as it relates to cross-border work. For example, mobility can be transformed into a function covering a broad constellation of cross-border work arrangements aligned with overall workforce strategy and business need. These include short- and long-term assignments, hybrid and virtual working arrangements, business travel and relocation.

  • Image description

    A bar chart showing senior manager level mobility professionals more likely to see the function’s strategic influence, as compared to junior employees.

Just as there is a split in perception about mobility depending on employee seniority, respondents showed clear divisions based on sector, perhaps due to the kind of talent considerations each industry addressed through mobility programs. Organizations utilizing mobility programs primarily for employees crucial to operations, will likely see the function as more heavily weighted toward an operational focus.

  • Image description

    A chart showing which sectors hold mobility with more strategic or operational focus. Health and life sciences is the only sector with a slightly more strategic focus in mobility. Financial services, consumer products, technology, media and telecom, advanced manufacturing/mobility, and energy and utilities, all have more operational focus.

The data also reveals characteristics of employers seeing return on investment from their mobility function, and those who are less likely to register a return on investment. Employers who were more strategically integrated with overall talent strategy were more likely to indicate positive returns from mobility programs.

Integrated Talent Employers

These employers consider mobility as an approach to address global talent shortages, and agree they are winning the race for talent as a result. They’ve developed a policy for hybrid mobility — defined as temporary and permanent remote work, hybrid cross-border work, virtual assignments and “digital nomads.” Most of these employers cite at least some return on investment for mobility programs and plan substantial technology investments in the next five years. These organizations are poised to fully recognize the value of segmentation, enabled by technology, as a way to deliver cross-border experiences that align to the demands of the different employee types. They are also more likely to have mobility report to HR, with an eye to expand their responsibilities in the next three years.

Siloed Mobility Employers

This smaller set of employers indicated no or minimal consideration of mobility as part of global talent strategy, and have no “hybrid mobility” policies in place. Less than half of this group sees return on investment for their mobility program, and plans to invest in technology improvements in the next five years. Almost none of these employers report to HR and have narrower responsibilities.

Integrated talent and mobility functions yield a positive impact on the organization's workforce plan


Integrated Talent and Mobility Programs

Disconnected Talent and Mobility Programs
ROI on mobility program 91% get some or adequate return on their mobility program Only 44% get some or adequate return on their mobility program
Mobility Function reporting For 44% organizations, the Mobility Function reports to HR 11% of Mobility Functions report to HR
Scope of mobility in the next 3 years 42% expect an expanded scope of responsibilities Only 9% expect an expanded scope of responsibilities
Extent of digitization 43% (on average) have digitized their mobility processes On average, just 25% have digitized their mobility processes
Mobility technology investments over the next 5 years 83% plan to make moderate to substantial technology investments Only 46% plan to make moderate to substantial technology investments
Number of respondents meeting the above two criteria 208 65

Digitization of mobility processes and execution, and the willingness to invest in further digitization, are points of diversion between the two groups of employers, highlighting the need to leverage technology enablement to support the strategic diversification and value creation needed to excel.

Digitizing mobile workforce management efficiently

The dramatic shifts to new ways of working in recent years have only brought greater attention to longstanding risks and opportunities of flexible and hybrid working. Employees and employers need technology that doesn’t create friction in their workflow or wellbeing. Tools should ease mobile workforce management duties, including the ability to quickly complete common repetitive tasks, while also simplifying tax, legal, relocation and immigration processes associated with cross-border work. Further, emerging technologies transform the experience for the cross-border employee, keeping them informed but not overwhelmed, risk savvy, and unencumbered. This freedom from the traditional burdens of the mobility experience allows them to increase productivity and engagement earlier in their journey.

Most mobility professionals (92%) think digitizing processes is beneficial, but only 35% say their organization has done so for key mobility processes. This disconnect presents an area of focus, with a vast majority of respondents expecting stable or increased investment over the next five years.

  • Image description

    A bar chart showing the expectations of mobility professionals for more investment in technology and digitization. Most expect stable or increased investment in the next five years.

Some of that investment may come in terms of consolidating or upgrading systems to accomplish key tasks. Both employees and mobility professionals cite the need to manage multiple systems for mobile assignments with 79% of employees saying they are or have used two or more mobility solutions for an international relocation. A further 87% of mobility professionals say they use two or more mobility systems or platforms in their organization, with larger organizations often using more systems.

Employees using multiple systems


of employees say they are or have used two or more mobility solutions for an international relocation.

Mobility professionals using multiple systems


of mobility professionals say they use two or more mobility systems or platforms in their organization, with larger organizations often using more systems.

Organizations that regularly operate across borders often need multiple vendors to provide services in particular jurisdictions. The Payroll function is a good example of this: previous EY research showed that firms operating in 30 or more countries needed an average of nine payroll providers. This is just the start of the complexity, as HRIS (Human Resources Information Systems), experience technologies and mobility vendor technology are all critical to functional execution. Integration of all of these systems is crucial, and leading organizations have moved beyond mere linkages to introduction of a “single pane of glass” through which all employee data can be accessed. Technology acts as a touchpoint for employees for critical and mundane tasks, and any amount of friction between the user and a successful digital interaction influences overall employee experience.

This highlights the consistent need for harmony between user experience and a seamless integration of mobility technology across functions, especially across borders. This seamless experience should exist across collaborative working tools, HR systems, Payroll, and any relocation, immigration or tax systems.

With this, organizations managing so many critical systems to enable cross-border work must have full visibility over legal, tax or regulatory compliance obligations as well as the data needed to enable strategic planning. It then becomes essential for organizations and employees to be risk aware.

Mitigating risk

The increase of internal and external complexity around international work has also increased the need for organizations to build the capability to thrive while adapting. Employees expect flexibility in work location and condition, as well as technology to enhance their experience. At the same time, geopolitical instability and a dynamic regulatory environment require organizations to prioritize visibility and agility as related to risk. Nearly all CEO respondents (97%) to the EY CEO Outlook Pulse Survey January 2023 (pdf) said they’ve altered planned investment strategies because of geopolitical challenges, with nearly a third (32%) halting a planned strategic investment.

While CEOs are factoring geopolitical risks into their strategic calculus, mobility professionals are less confident in their organizations’ overall preparedness to manage certain risks. An average 29% of respondents strongly agreed their organization is equipped to react to changing geopolitical circumstances, meaning the majority doesn’t feel as ready as they should be to address this new global reality. Just 49% of mobility professionals said their organizations consistently track employee movement across domestic or international jurisdictions.

  • Image description

    A bar chart showing by sector how many respondents strongly agree their organization is equipped to react to changing geopolitical circumstances.

Organizations need to know where their employees are to begin to address potential physical safety or cybersecurity issues which may develop, but also to know the extent of tax, immigration, or regulatory risk exposure. Most (76%) of mobility professionals said their organization had some kind of policy or approach to hybrid mobility, defined as temporary and permanent remote work, hybrid cross-border work, virtual assignments and “digital nomads.” But only 47% of respondents said those hybrid policies were globally consistent, with even fewer (41%) saying their hybrid policy addresses key issues.

  • Image description

    A bar chart showing how many respondents believe their organization’s hybrid mobility policy addresses areas like cybersecurity, data privacy, health and safety.

The data also shows an apparent disconnect between mobility professionals and employees in recognition of risk, both to the organization and to individuals. While both groups generally recognize geopolitical risks on a comparable level, the data shows diverging risk recognition when it comes to tax risk exposure, and even career development.

  • Image description

    A chart showing that mobility professionals are more likely than employees to see moderate to significant risk connected to mobility in areas of geopolitics, tax, proximity to leadership and lack of career development.

The perception gap over mobility’s effect on career development is a potential area of focus for leaders wanting to retain talent in this competitive labor market. A similar gap was seen in the EY 2022 Work Reimagined Survey, where 72% of employers believed new ways of working would cause some members of the workforce to lose a competitive advantage. Just 56% of employees believed the same. Employers have an opportunity to clearly articulate career development and progression opportunities with mobile employees, engaging them to co-create the flexible future of the organization, built on a foundation of shared values and critical skills.

Five areas of focus to reimagine workforce mobility

As economic and labor market uncertainty continues to drive organizations to reshape themselves, leaders should consider their mobility programs as a cross-functional lever to upskill and reskill, engage, and retain their employees, while creating long-term value. Here are five areas to focus on to fully reimagine mobility:

  • Scope

    Mobility has a unique opportunity to leverage employee demands, global uncertainty, and business imperatives to expand the scope of its remit to encompass all forms of cross-border employee movement and to be a critical player in achieving the organization’s business and talent objectives. To achieve this “seat at the table,” the mobility leader must be equipped with creativity, agility, and knowledge, to understand the global risk landscape and have creative ways to address the great variety of employee and business demands. Diversification and segmentation will become even more important, with technology as the enabler to allow mobility to deliver in a way that’s attuned to needs across the organization.

  • Talent

    Cross-border assignments can be life-changing for employees and their families, and provide vital opportunities to build skills and experience. But leaders need to clearly articulate their vision for cultivating the employee’s growth after the mobile assignment ends, while empowering employees to apply their knowledge. Mobility programs should be integrated in overall talent strategy, setting development and career milestones before, through, and beyond a mobile deployment. This means leaders should build in high-value touchpoints for mobile employees to keep them connected to the full team. Part of this might also include clear career mapping to show how employees will thrive after the mobile assignment. If organizations are going to attract and retain talent, while their business experiences the full benefits of mobile assignments, leaders should keep the concerns of employees at the center of communication, actions and planning.

  • Cross-function

    Mobility has operational and strategic value depending on how organizations coordinate, communicate and collaborate across functions and borders. This means building an operating model that creates an exceptional experience for employees no matter how or where they do their work. The disconnect in perception about Mobility’s strategic value between junior and senior professionals shows an opportunity to paint a broader picture about priorities around talent attraction and retention, learning and development, and business opportunity. Organizations should consider segmentation of mobility policies to create the best experience for cross-border employees at any level of the organization. Junior employees might have a more self-service model, and more senior employees might have a more “high-touch” process in line with the complexity of their assignment. This requires a redefinition of traditional mobility that integrates the flexibility demanded by employees, and the need for better coordination across functions.

  • Technology

    By streamlining mobility processes, and investing in the right technology, employees have more energy for moments that matter, and organizations have more visibility over cost, risk and return on investment. Reducing friction and consolidating vendors can reduce the time and resources spent juggling data from multiple systems, and managing tax and immigration compliance. Ultimately, innovating and investing in a better digital infrastructure around mobility will help harmonize user experience (UX) and employee experience (EX).

  • Risk

    Tax, immigration and regulatory risk exists whether employees are aware of them or not. By increasing awareness and reducing burdens around reporting, organizations can fully realize the benefits of mobility. Not being aware and informed about risk can contribute to a lower success rate for transforming into a more future-proofed organization with global reach. But it’s important to understand the broader definition of risk as it relates to a more integrated mobility function. Organizations need to build in visibility and agility to respond to cybersecurity and data privacy risks; health and safety risks around geopolitical, environmental or health crises; and around talent risks, in how the organization keeps the concerns of their people at the center of cross-border work.

Amid economic headwinds and a still heated race for talent, the transformation of mobility programs can fuel a more sustainable future for organizations. This means reimagining mobility as a strategy influencer across functions; part of a talent strategy rooted in attracting, retaining and growing the skills needed for the future shape of an organization. The first movers to break mobility out of an operational silo will have a greater chance of success in creating life-changing experiences for their employees, excelling in the cross-border race for talent, and growing their business.


The EY 2023 Mobility Reimagined Survey reveals that cross-border assignments are life-changing for employees, and value generators for organizations. Current organizational practices don’t always live up to mobility’s potential, creating the risk that organizations may fall behind in the race for talent.

About this article

Dr. Joost Smits

EY Global People Advisory Services Mobility Leader

Experienced people advisory leader who strives to align corporate objectives to enhance mobility ecosystems. Loves cycling, sports and his family.

Rachel D’Argenio

EY Global and EY Americas Mobility Market Leader

Helping clients deliver strategic insights, incremental value, and life-changing experiences. Loves being creative and enjoys baking with her son, going on long walks, and traveling.

Maureen Flood

EY Global Mobility Reimagined Leader

Passionate about partnering with clients to enable long-term value from the optimization of global talent strategy and global mobility. Disability mom and advocate.