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An increasingly mobile workforce expects greater housing support from employers. How do companies zero in on the type of accommodation to offer?

Akankasha Dewan explores the various elements to take into consideration to ensure travelling employees can build a cosy home away from home.

The forces of globalisation have led to an undeniable and aggressive mobility revolution in the business landscape today. Driven by business and development needs, employees from all over the world are travelling across borders for varying periods of time.

According to the Brookfield Global Relocation Services’ Trends Survey 2013, companies are continuing to diversify their international programmes, with nearly all companies (96%) having long-term international assignments in place and most (86%) having short-term assignments.

While such opportunities are profitable for businesses, they only work if the needs of the travelling employees are supported and well met while they are away on company business – needs such as comfortable and convenient homes where this new mobile workforce can stay temporarily.

“Professionals on overseas work assignments seek accommodation that provides convenience in terms of location, facilities and services,” says Choe Peng Sum, CEO of Frasers Hospitality.

The need to cut costs

Cartus’ fourth annual “Trends in Global Relocation: 2014 Biggest Challenges” survey highlighted, however, that providing accommodation for staff was, in fact, difficult for many HR and relocation heads worldwide.

Eliciting responses from 164 mobility managers based around the world, it found housing was the second top challenge encountered by such professionals – beaten only by controlling high relocation/assignment costs (77%).

Almost half (47%) of respondents stated lack of desirable housing and high rental costs were complicating the housing search.

But attempting to solve the problem by cutting down costs on accommodation is easier said than done, as highlighted by the Global Serviced Apartments Industry (GSAI) Report 2013/2014.

“Increased cost-cutting can cause an increasing ‘frizz’ factor for the traveller, in turn, reducing their effectiveness at work because they don’t have such a pleasant trip and feel undervalued,” GSAI said.

“Other journey-related costs such as breakfast and Wi-Fi can wind up making these cost-cutting initiatives counterproductive.”

Professionals on overseas work assignments seek accommodation that provides convenience in terms of location, facilities and services.
– Choe Peng Sum, CEO of Frasers Hospitality

So what can mobility managers do to ensure they provide employees with supportive forms of accommodation without exceeding their budgets?

Type and length of overseas assignments

The first thing to look at, according to Yuen Keng Au, director, HR for central Asia at BD, is to analyse the motivations behind sending the employee overseas in the first place.

“Look at whether the person is being moved to fulfil a business need or an employee need. That makes a lot of difference,” she says.

“If it’s a business need, the company should be willing to pay more in order to move and house the employee because the person is supposed to add value to the organisation. With that, bosses are usually more willing to put in money.”

She adds the job profile of the employee being moved also plays a role in determining how much to spend on their accommodation package.

“If you are doing it purely for developmental purposes and for junior staff, then your package has to be very flexible. You can’t be paying tons of money to move the person,” she says.

Angela Li, lead of global mobility Asia at AECOM, agrees, and adds her company chooses the type of accommodation based on the duration of the assignment in question.

“Usually accommodation will be arranged in AECOM by different HR teams in different countries. It is all based on the project budget. Senior employees will usually stay in hotels because they go on short-level assignments,” she says.

She adds, however, that when it comes to long-term assignments, it is better for employees to stay in serviced apartments.

“The main advantage is that serviced apartments are cost-efficient, especially since you can’t stay in hotels for months at a time.”

If it’s a business need, the company should be willing to pay more in order to move and house the employee because the person is supposed to add value to the organisation.
– Yuen Keng Au, director, HR, central Asia at BD

Deciding which features to offer

Indeed, various research has pointed to the fact that serviced apartments are now an effective alternative to traditional hotels for companies looking to reduce their travel costs without compromising on the travelling employees’ safety and wellbeing.

“Demand for serviced apartments is stripping supply in many territories due in part to greater adoption of serviced apartments in corporate travel policies, but also to more apartment operators taking short-stay business (i.e. less than a week) away from traditional hotels,” the GSAI report stated.

For business users in particular, serviced apartments offer quantifiable benefits, the report added.

They provide a secure home-like environment making the traveller relaxed and therefore more productive. They also allow guests to customise the services they require, such as a laundry.

It is precisely such facilities HR leaders and mobility managers are looking for when choosing accommodation for their staff.

“There are a couple of main factors such as good service, spacious rooms, location of the property in relation to their office and facilities in the apartment (washing machine, cooking appliances, etc),” says Richard Tan, vice president of serviced suites, Pan Pacific Hotels Group.

Choe agrees, and adds it’s because of the availability of such a wide array of choices that serviced apartments are becoming more popular among companies today.

“With their priority focused on accomplishing their work assignment, living in a serviced apartment that helps them and their family settle in as seamlessly as possible into their new environment is of great advantage,” he says.

“HR and mobility leaders seek choice in selecting the right accommodation partner for their employees.

“This involves being able to provide the type of accommodation befitting the varying profiles and needs of their employees – from C-suite executives on long-term assignments to young business travellers on short to mid-length stays.”

With their priority on their work assignment, a serviced apartment that helps them and their family settle in as seamlessly as possible into their new environment is of great advantage.
– Choe Peng Sum, CEO of Frasers Hospitality

He emphasises a particular feature to look out for when choosing accommodation for staff is a strategic location.

This includes an apartment address within the key business district, surrounded by the city’s shopping, dining and leisure amenities with convenient public transport accessibility.

“It not only helps them reduce time spent commuting to work, but also enhances the whole experience of being in another country,” he says.

Business executives also seek serviced apartments that are well equipped with modern conveniences and efficiencies such as high-speed internet connections, iPod docking stations, modern kitchen appliances and state-of-the-art home entertainment systems, he observes.

Additionally, having a comfortable workspace within the apartment and access to in-house business centre support provides professionals with the flexibility of being able to work effectively from the comforts of their own home.

“Lifestyle facilities and value-added services that allow professionals to enjoy work-life balance without having to leave the premises is also a plus,” he says.

“These include 24-hour gymnasiums, swimming pools, sauna and steam rooms, outdoor recreational facilities and restaurants, housekeeping, room service, shuttle bus services, 24-hour concierge and security.

“Value-added services such as baby sitting services, family friendly activities and regular social and recreational get-togethers foster interaction among residents and make their stay abroad all the more meaningful and enjoyable.”

Meeting employee expectations

Au advises, however, the provision of such features should be made keeping employee demands and expectations in mind.

“If you’re taking a very high-level person over to another country then obviously even housing becomes an added perk, a benefit to the employee,” she says.

Business executives seek serviced apartments well equipped with modern conveniences such as high-speed internet connections, iPod docking stations, and modern kitchen appliances.

“If you’re moving a person overseas for development purposes, and this person knows they are coming for exposure – then usually they aren’t fussy.”

Her comments also encapsulate the obvious complexity involved in deciding which accommodation features to offer employees.

Knowing what employees themselves expect out of accommodation packages is crucial, especially because these expectations keep shifting over time.

In fact, Cartus’ survey revealed that altering employee expectations and attitudes, caused by factors such as changing demographics and a sense of entitlement, is the second biggest challenge faced by mobility managers today (45.2%).

The survey explained that employee demands and talent management goals are likely being intensified by the move to emerging market locations, where a more difficult assignment scenario can lead to increased employee demands for compensation or perks.

“This is why employee expectations are important. It really depends which country they come from. If they are coming from a very developed country then the expectations are high, but if they are coming from a developing country, then the expectations are quite low,” Au says.

Li agrees, and reiterates the situation can be very different from one country to the other.

“Even in Asia you have different tiers of countries. For example, you have employees living and moving within Indonesia and Singapore. So we have to make adjustments and correspond to different business expectations of each country,” she says.

Besides country of origin, the family status of travelling employees should also be taken into consideration when deciding the type of housing to offer staff.

“A lot of the junior talent are single, rather than with family – so they don’t need a huge house. If you get them a small apartment, or if they share apartments with other employees, they don’t mind and are very accommodating. They want the exposure and don’t mind housing,” Au says.

If you’re moving a person overseas for development purposes, and this person knows they are coming for exposure – then usually they aren’t fussy.
– Yuen Keng Au, director, HR, central Asia at BD

“But if you bring in a senior person, and the person is supposed to be turning around the business for you then they have expectations.”

Such expectations can range from the size of the apartment to proximity of grocery stores.

“At a higher level, people do expect conveniences. They feel they should be placed in locations that are a little more prime, where they are with their similar committee and similar status of people and it is convenient for them to get hold of home country goods and services,” she says.

She acknowledges, however, that most serviced apartments are already in prime locations, where service levels are good and pretty convenient.

“The only problem with them is that they’re expensive and the size is a little small – especially for those with bigger family sizes. They have difficulty trying to fit everyone in, and sometimes these issues make serviced apartments even more expensive for employers.”

Providing value-added services

Despite such challenges, Yuen feels the value of staying in serviced apartments should not be overlooked as their facilities do serve as essential forms of support for relocated employees trying to familiarise themselves with their new surroundings.

“Initially, bosses do send employees to serviced apartments. This is because they want to provide staff with some basic conveniences while they start looking for a permanent house to settle in – they need time to make those decisions. That’s why serviced apartments are probably the best option.”

Travelling schedules, therefore, of the individual in question, also matter when trying to decide the type of accommodation to allocate to them.

“Someone who travels all the time may not need a long-term apartment. The serviced apartments will give me the flexibility to live in for a couple of months before I go to another country. It can actually be cost saving if I travel 50% to 60% of the time and I don’t need a permanent house,” Au says.

Choe agrees, and states all advantages and disadvantages should be taken into consideration when choosing the right type of accommodation for staff.

“Everything is taken into consideration when it comes to assessing value – from the proximity of the serviced residence to the office, to the size and space provided, the range of in-house facilities, value-added services offered and the length the team is willing to go to help the employees get comfortably settled abroad,” he says.

Tan agrees, and adds stepping into the shoes of travelling staff and imagining their day to day lifestyle may help employers in deciding which features to offer employees.

“Choose a location that is central and close to the office. Look out for facilities within the apartment as the assignee usually spends quite a lot of time in the apartment resting after a long day at work. Modern furnishing is important for a contemporary feel,” he says.

“Ensure that service is good for the accommodation as well, as the front desk has the largest contact with the guests throughout their stay.”

Crafting the perfect accommodation package

Despite all these considerations, Au adds there is no one overarching solution to designing a perfect accommodation package. Customisation of benefits is integral, based on the needs of the employee in question.

“At BD, we follow a flexi-benefits policy. We do offer an overarching sea of benefits, but we allow them (employees) to make selections from the options offered,” Au says.

“Maybe the employee is single and so conveniences matter more to him or her than the size of the house. They are willing to downgrade the size of the house, but prefer a better car, as compared to someone with a bigger family, who needs a bigger house, but doesn’t need such an expensive car.”

Employers should, therefore, allow staff to make a personal selection of choices as opposed to having fixed benefits.

Stepping into the shoes of travelling staff and imagining their day to day lifestyle may help employers in deciding which features to offer employees.

“Essentially, you are providing a customised package for all – but if you do do that, it must be supported by good administration and good systems.

“The overall package is the same. However, the details of the variations we offer will change according to the needs of the individual and of his family.”

When it comes to selecting the accommodation partner bosses wish to use to provide housing for their staff, however, Choe believes the process can be made more streamlined and stable.

“In overcoming the increasing challenge of making relocation booking decisions, HR and mobility leaders need to have the confidence of choosing a brand that has the right credentials, not only in the country that they are looking at, but also globally,” Choe says.

A few key considerations to take into account include, first, a successful brand with a proven track record and a growing global footprint.

Such a brand demonstrates a strong demand for the services that they are providing, and also the fact they understand what it takes to meet the needs of the relocation market.

“Industry recognition and guest satisfaction are also important benchmarks to base your decision on, as these are votes of confidence that demonstrate commitment to service excellence which are critical to ensuring the successful stay of your assignee,” Choe says.

He adds accessibility to information and ease of booking through online websites are also tools of information that HR leaders can use in the process.

“These are designed to make your job easier. And it means the brand has a thorough understanding of the importance of meeting the needs of the customer, and is an extension of the level of service that can be expected on the ground, particularly if it also provides channels for feedback and enquiries that are responded to efficiently,” he says.

Image: Shutterstock

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