Technology eases relocation process

Online portals, tracking, regular reports, expat blogs can streamline support
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/16/2010

Relocating a person, his family, worldly possessions and all the accompanying responsibilities, expectations, habits and emotions can add up to a major upheaval for employees and employers. But as technology continues to evolve, the relocation process has become easier — and potentially more successful — from start to finish.

Searching for accommodation

During the pre-assignment phase, the search for appropriate accommodation has been helped tremendously by the online word. Transferees can conduct comprehensive searches of houses or apartments in other provinces or countries, with street views offered by Google maps providing highly detailed views.

“(Transferees) can really explore online their new neighbourhood,” says Scott Sullivan, executive vice-president of global sales and marketing at Brookfield Global Relocation Services in Chicago.

As a result, fewer people have to do pre-assignment trips to select accommodation and offers can be done virtually, says Terri Oliver, director of consulting services at the MI Group in Mississauga, Ont.

Cultural training

More companies are also providing online cross-cultural training to familiarize employees and their families before the big move.

“Web-based cross-cultural training is continuing to grow in popularity,” says Sullivan.

In the past, it was a challenge to find the time to have an employee and his family come in for training, says Oliver, but having it online (and sometimes mandatory) means it is more accessible and used more often.

Tracking and reporting

Technology really comes into its own when it comes to tracking and reporting capabilities. Specialized software can provide HR with user-friendly, online portals to access primary functions, such as communicating with assignees, activity reports, keeping track of who is where and why, renewal deadlines and compliance issues.

“More and more countries are even getting tighter ensuring people are on the right visas, the right work permits, and this from a risk perspective can trouble companies,” says Sullivan.

One of the biggest challenges for an employer is cost. While a very small percentage (0.5 per cent to two per cent) of an employee population goes on overseas relocations, the cost equates to seven per cent to 10 per cent of overall employee cost, says Sullivan.

“One of the biggest areas, of course, is identifying the cost and capturing the cost and reporting on that cost and reporting on that activity,” he says. “Technology plays an extremely important role.”

In the past, employees have had to fill out a manual expense voucher, staple receipts and courier the package to the home office but now everything is done online, so the turnaround time is curtailed significantly when it comes to reimbursement, says Oliver.

For employers, an online portal can provide ongoing, upfront budget estimates, status reports and expense reports.

“They can go into the portal and run reports on their own,” says Sullivan, who tends to see older employees calling up their provider for reports while younger ones go online and do the reports themselves.

TransferEase offers clients an online log-in area to find reports on pretty much anything related to a relocation, says Vickie Campbell, president of TransferEase in Mississauga. That can include a “live” program showing, for example, a relocation’s budget versus actual expenses.

And all the financial transactions during an assignment, such as visa and immigration permits, work permits, household goods or rentals, are captured centrally with these portals.

“The problem in the past for companies has been they usually didn’t have this function centralized or have good technology to provide that, so folks in some countries were obviously managing the expense component of the relocation through local payroll of accounts payable all around the world,” says Sullivan

Expats in other countries could be interacting locally with all of the technologies and expense management systems, “so trying to cobble all that together at the end of the year is a major headache, if possible at all,” he says.

Global compensation tracking ensures tax compliance for every penny spent and earned, which can include salary, house-hunting or a car rental, says Oliver.

“Some of the employees are out-of-pocket, some the companies pay directly and some the relocation service provider is paying and the challenge in the past was at the end of the year it’s, ‘OK, you’ve received this salary, all of these benefits’ and tax laws are different in each country, so having that one location saves so much frustration ensuring the employee is filing properly,” she says.

Many companies still try to track things on Excel spreadsheets but certain elements can be missed.

“It’s a big issue out there right now, companies being compliant, in both immigration and on the tax side, so it’s for the employee’s protection and for the company’s protection as well,” says Oliver.

Exception requests, performance reviews

Another technology component is exception requests around a relocation policy, such as someone requesting a change of school for his children. Tracking that — and comparing the stats to other companies — and reporting back is an important element when a company is looking to make strategic changes to policies and programs, says Sullivan. For example, several requests for language training could prompt a company to raise the budget in this area. Or if there are few exception requests in another area, a company might want to cut its budget if it’s being too generous.

“They can right-size their program on an ongoing basis,” he says.

Even performance management can be tracked online, so HR in the home country can follow the progress of overseas workers. Connection with the home base can also be maintained through webinars or ­webcam meetings, to ensure distant employees are not forgotten, particularly when promotions come up

Triggers around schedules also keep the employer in the home country updated and reminded of a transferee’s progress and schedule, especially when it comes to the return date and proper planning, says Oliver.

Creating virtual ‘one-stop shops’ for expats

Registered assignees can also be allotted their own sites or pages, which contain resources such as the employee’s relocation policy, information on relocation allowances or access to information on housing or schooling.

“It’s kind of a one-stop shop on all the things international assignees are going to hopefully want to understand about the new location and what their lifestyle is going to be,” says Sullivan.

Building and maintaining relationships with new groups in the host country is also facilitated by the web. There are many expat blogs and support groups or virtual communities that can be valuable before, during and after an assignment. Employees and their spouses can better gauge their new location’s cost of living or culture by reading about the experiences of expats or finding new friends, says Oliver.

“Just to have that other view, ‘Here’s the reality,’ being prepared and having those expectations set ahead of time will overall make it a successful assignment,” she says.

As for the next stage or “next generation,” not surprisingly, it’s mobile. Considering transferees are already in transit though part of a relocation, it makes sense to have the information available on their mobile devices, says Sullivan.

But in the end, people still matter, says Campbell.

“You still need good people because it’s still a very personal thing that people are doing and you have to remember it’s third on the stress scale, after death and divorce, so you can’t get away from those emotions people are going through,” she says.

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