Diversity Asia

When Talent Can’t Travel, How Can They Grow?

Talent immobility is a rising issue as ongoing lockdowns and travel restrictions disrupt business trips, rotational assignments, and hiring. Here’s a look at how talent development can continue even as talent mobility remains on pause. — By Jill Motley

For years, it’s been no big deal to freely travel among major Asian markets. Rotational assignments were eagerly accepted along with expat postings. Then COVID-19 put the brakes on movement, locking talented employees into a fixed geography and curbing everything from recruitment to reassignment.

Fortunately, talent pools can still be nurtured and grown even when both prospective hires and existing employees are unable to travel or relocate. It does require certain mindset shifts and a new approach to recruitment, development, and retention. In particular, firms need to be prepared to give top performers more incentives to stay on, boost localized talent development programs, and put long-term goals over short-term challenges.

Give Top Performers More Incentive To Stay
With international recruitment and assignment on pause, many firms are taking a second look at the top performers in their local markets. In particular, they’re looking at the top performers at their competitors, and how those performers might be hired away. After all, if one can’t bring in international talent to grow the company, fresh minds can certainly be recruited locally.

This aggressive recruitment approach is exacerbated by the fact that many multinational firms were short of talent before the pandemic limited access to regional employee pools. Plus, its not as though top performers who had been preparing for a rotational assignment or regional move as a way to advance their careers are willing to put their personal ambitions and desires for career development on hold indefinitely. No worker enjoys feeling “stuck, and these kinds of advancement frustrations wreck havoc on morale. After all, top performers are far from ignorant. They can see their value rising in tight talent markets and are eager to capture that increase in the form of potentially juicer roles, expanded authority, and improved pay packages at a competitor.

Thus, firms unwilling to watch their top talent walk out the (virtual) door need to offer extra appreciation and opportunities to their existing top performers. Which international assignments can be kicked off virtually, even before employees are able to move? What salary increases or retention bonuses could be brought into play? Are there certain perquisites or expanded responsibilities that can be offered to make top performers feel noticed, appreciated, and like they’re being actively groomed for the next level? It may be expensive and disrupt in-house traditions, but these kinds of moves are essential to keep top performers happy and happily attached.

Increase Localized Talent Development
A second move to make is to ramp up localized talent development programs. While it might be more traditional to recruit from certain regional universities or to bring in outside talent for particular roles, ongoing limitations and uncertainties around travel make local talent worthy of a second look.

This second look may require an increase in training budgets. Workers, especially younger workers, are attracted by on the job training and apprenticeship/mentorship opportunities. However, recruiters have in the past shown a preference for “ready now” hires. It may be better in the present circumstances to invest more in upskilling less developed – but more available – local talent than to hold out for other hires.

While no one wants to be lightly dismissive of the real issues on the ground, it can also be important to stop, take a deep breath, and reanalyze the situation with a longer-term perspective.
This second look should also extend to in-house talent. According to McKinsey, replacing an employee costs firms around 20%-30% of the annual salary. Not cheap. On the other hand, retraining an existing employee costs <10% of their annual pay. This is a substantial savings and can also pay dividends down the line in the form of increased employee engagement, deeper loyalty to the firm, and improved institutional knowledge as the worker moves up from their retrained role. Plus, by building local and in-house bench strength, many succession gaps and talent shortages in the future can be avoided.

Put Long-Term Goals Over Short-Term Challenges
A third element to consider is how many of the present challenges will truly be short-term challenges. The world of business moves fast, and has been trending toward just-in-time solutions for every aspect of operations, from manufacturing to talent. Thus, disruptions in the free movement of goods and people can be keenly and immediately felt.

However, the reality is that apart from certain agricultural products, delays are not truly ruinous. In fact, considered from a distance of a year, or even five years, they’re extremely minor blips on the radar.

In a 40-year career, will starting a new role in January or March even be remembered? How does two or three months of forced remote work compare to the famines, wars, and geo-political disputes of years past? While no one wants to be lightly dismissive of the real issues on the ground, it can also be important to stop, take a deep breath, and reanalyze the situation with a longer-term perspective.

When the norm is always on, 24/7, go, go, go operations, this slowdown can feel radical or even painful. For workers anxious about next steps, waiting “in limbo” is extremely difficult. So, this is where trust and transparency become more important.

Talk with managers, employees, and recruiters about the long-term visions and goals of the firm, the division, and each site. Connect with top performers and discuss one year, two year, and five year plans. Frame things seasonally over monthly, and nudge all participants for greater perspective on the situation.

Movement, busy-ness, and frenzied activity aren’t always the best paths to growth. The true value of rotation and international recruitment/assignment is often in the relationships that are built. Use this pause, where possible, to encourage the employees and the extended HR team to work on relationship building skills and connective actions.

The present limitations on movement and the trends toward lower levels of talent migration are a frustration. Yet they are not likely to be seriously adverse to the long-term health of creative and intentionally talent-nurturing organizations. It is simply a time that requires adaptation, and smart firms can always find a way to adapt.