Employee benefits on a global scale

The Mexican and American guitarist Carlo Santana, whose own sound can be described as pan-cultural, once said: “One day there will be no borders, no boundaries, no flags and no countries and the only passport will be the heart.”
As an artist, he has a flair for emotive language and a romanticised way of seeing the world – which is not a criticism. It would be a wonderful reality, and, in some ways, a return to what life was like a long time ago, in more nomadic times, pre-civilisation.
In some ways, we’re already heading towards a future where identities converge, where national passports are more reflective of the constant movement of people and where home is, literally, where the heart is. Call it “progressive regression”, for want of a better phrase.
Globalisation, which properly came into existence as an idea in the 20th century, has become a reality. Multinational organisations, with bases in their country of origin, now have satellite offices all around the world, while today’s intrepid professional is used to a working environment that requires them to hop from one continent to another.
Businesses have been aware of this for quite some time. Post 1990 – the end of the Cold War – industrialised, emerging and poor nations have realised that greater cooperation and openness have been essential for prosperity and modernisation.
However, this milieu is new and therefore a lot of the subsequent developments that have emerged have been unprecedented. Every step forward brings with it certain unforeseen challenges. These have not necessarily been detrimental, but have warranted adaptation and innovative ways of thinking.
One area that has become an increasingly important consideration for multinational companies with an expat workforce is employee benefits and how they are administered. This is not only a huge area in terms of scale, logistics, cost and administration, but all the more urgent given the way in which many organisations operate today.
A new study from The American Benefits Institute and Aon Hewitt has found that, at present, many of the 140 multinational companies based in Europe and North America that took part in the research have difficulty in implementing a global benefits strategy.
“At the corporate level, organisations struggle to know what benefits they offer, how they compare to local market trends, how much they cost and what types of risks they pose to the enterprise,” the report documented. “They also struggle with why, to what extent and how corporate leaders and functions should get involved in local benefits-related decisions.”
Though this might be construed as a worrying position to be in – a vague haze of uncertainty – expats shouldn’t be too worried. What emerges from the report is that executives are aware of what they are up against and are already working towards a position of greater control, one which also mitigates rising costs and financial risks.
“More and more companies want to have a better line of sight and at least some control over the benefits decisions made by their local operations,” explained Amol Mhatre, global benefits strategy and solutions leader at Aon Hewitt.
“Companies that want to design more sustainable benefits programs need to implement a more formalised governance structure to manage financial and operational costs and risks.”
Though globalisation’s fluidity is one of its innate characteristics and what makes it so successful as a way of life for people and companies, it does have its drawbacks. Rules are grounded in structure. Without concrete form, rules tend to have nothing to hold onto.
In the framework of employee benefits, there is, evidently, no global accord, no international structure within which executives can form their own policies. A solution to this is for greater centralisation, for headquarters to supervise a scheme.
The reason for this is that in leaving this responsibility with local operators, while effective, inevitably results in a lack of uniformity across the company. By consolidating policies, which are adapted to fit in with local variations – inflation as an example –corporations are able to promote a relatively equal programme across the board.
There’s often a lot of unease about globalisation, but there shouldn’t be. Think about the language. To make the world smaller, to connect disparate peoples, rendering borders relatively insignificant, is a good thing. We’re all becoming neighbours.
With it comes the unknown, but like the first successful flight of the airplane, or JG Ballard’s modernist prose, there’s a certain uncertainty about things. However, as this study reveals, many people are up to the challenge.
As such, the smaller the world gets, the more normal it becomes for expats to have tenures from one country to another. Drinks in New York to coffee in Paris, people will respond accordingly. Employee benefits will make much more sense than they do now. They’ll be tightly constructed to reflect a constantly changing landscape. No matter what, you’ll be suitably covered.
Cadogan Tate specialises in international shipping, helping professionals transfer their possessions when moving overseas.