Global employee mobility was often a requirement for companies who wanted to operate on an international scale, in different international markets. Their employees needed to travel from office to office and country to country, back and forth between a company’s global headquarters and regional offices around the world.
So, when COVID-19 made remote work not only possible but necessary, one consequence seemed to be that global mobility needs would die out. It’s true that the focus shifted towards employees having a stronger say in location decisions, and a larger part of companies allowing fully remote employment. At the same time, location still matters - but how will it change post-COVID?
We interviewed Nataly Kelly, VP Localization at Hubspot and author of the blog "Born to be Global". She is a long-time advocate of remote work and global collaboration and she also knows about the importance of location for building truly global companies.
Nataly, why does location still matter, even during post-COVID times, in your opinion?
I think the pandemic has actually helped us all gain a deeper understanding of just how important location really is. With localized outbreaks and variants, local trends began mattering to people more than in our recent history. The focus moved quickly to hyper-local. People began paying even more attention to their local news. They needed to know what was happening not just in their part of the world and their country, but their state or province, their city, even their community. Suddenly, they became aware of the numbers of cases in their local hospitals, schools, and neighborhoods. If anything, local has become even more important as a result of the pandemic.
Does “global” still matter as much in a post-pandemic world?
Definitely, I think the pandemic has simultaneously helped us see how interconnected our societies are across the globe, and how difficult it is to entirely shut down human mobility that shapes our societies and fuels our economies. We can’t help but move around, but we also want to spend time with our families and have that vital ability to move back and forth. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has helped us realize that mobility is something vital to human culture. As human beings, we have a strong connection to our local communities, but we also crave, even demand, global connectivity, and mobility. We can be part of many cultures and local realities, thanks to mobility.
Can businesses ever expand internationally in a way that is truly location-agnostic?
Well, you need to find people who understand your target market and your customers. They need to speak their language, know their culture, understand what’s going on in their country, not only from the perspective of business trends, but also from a more pragmatic perspective. Laws and regulations are highly local in nature, not only at the country level but often at the regional level too. Doing business in each location has different requirements for employing people, compensating them, paying taxes, intellectual property, and so on. There are tons of considerations that matter at the local level.
What are some examples of why location matters for a global business?
If you’re going to sell into new markets at scale, you’ll usually need to recruit team members with local knowledge in the markets you operate in. These are usually native speakers and people who usually have stronger ties to a region. They can help you immensely to understand these international markets. You can often “seed” a market from a central location that attracts many immigrants and speakers of multiple languages who are originally from the locations you seek to target, but that approach will only get you so far. At some point, you might need folks embedded in these markets. Depending on what you’re selling, it might be important to hire people who truly understand the trends and the nuances that others can't get without being there. Location also matters when you take a longer-term view of that specific market. At first, you may have team members in your company from different markets. These employees may be transplanted from one country to the next, which can really help with growth initially. But after some time you may need to begin hiring locally. Often, younger people want to move to a country just for a few years, and it isn’t their long-term plan to live there forever. So, if you want to retain those employees, you might also need to consider adding the ability to operate in other markets in order to retain those employees.
How have views of mobility changed during COVID?
I think for many companies, COVID-19 has highlighted how vital mobility really is, and why it needs to play a critical and strategic role in most companies. The pandemic brought a lot of challenges for companies with a large international presence and employees who have immigrated from various places in the world to work in central offices. I think one of the biggest things I’ve seen within the scope of my own work is that during the pandemic, people felt personally impacted by their loss of mobility. It dramatically affected their work/life balance and even their morale. Enabling employees to work from more locations definitely helps, and mobility plays a huge role in creating that support for employees.
What are some examples of how mobility can impact work/life balance?
I don’t have to look further than my own team. My team is the very definition of a highly global team. Nearly every one of us is either an immigrant or has been an immigrant, with family and friends in at least one other country that they consider to be their homeland or their adopted home. No one is ever “from” a single place on a team like ours. We have Latin American team members living in Germany, Japanese speakers who are longtime residents in Ireland, and so on. When the pandemic hit, folks who had always been able to travel home and see their families once or twice a year suddenly lost that connection. It’s incredibly painful to suddenly have your sole ability to stay connected with loved ones shut off, so this adds to the stress people already feel during a pandemic. During the pandemic, I know that at many companies, employee mobility became more difficult, not due to employer restrictions in many cases, but rather, due to health and safety concerns related to COVID-19. Employees began to really miss the former days of flexibility and being able to travel back and forth to attend weddings, baptisms and christenings, birthdays and major holidays, and unfortunately even funerals.
How has the pandemic affected workplace mobility, especially for global companies?
Here I can give you my own example. I had always worked in an international role at HubSpot while being based in the Boston area, but I was able to easily travel between our global offices in different countries. My husband and I lived thousands of miles away from both sides of our families for nearly 20 years. We had family fly in to visit us a couple of times per year in Boston and we always visited our families in Ireland and other parts of the United States frequently too. But when the pandemic hit, frequent travel wasn’t safe or advisable, and the dread of not being able to travel to see our families, potentially for years, began to sink in. So, we made a major change and relocated as a family (including two small kids and a puppy) from the US to Europe, during the pandemic. It was a risky decision in some ways, but that’s how strong the pull of proximity to family can be. Fortunately for me, HubSpot is an incredibly flexible employer in terms of locations where employees have the ability to work.
Does mobility make a company a more attractive employer?
Absolutely it does. It’s a great strategy to retain talent as well as to attract the best the world has to offer. In my example, I consider myself very lucky, working at HubSpot, that I could move my job with me to Europe, where most of my team members are based. Now, I have much better time zone overlap with my own team and other international leaders I work with in Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success. I also have better work/life balance than I’ve ever had before. My kids see their grandparents nearly every day now, and I can’t tell you what a huge difference this makes in their lives, and mine. I feel very grateful to HubSpot for allowing me that flexibility. I don’t think most employers truly grasp how much gratitude this type of mobility can engender and how it can help boost employee retention, especially during times of uncertainty.
What do you think the future of remote work might look like?
Remote work has been forced upon many companies thanks to the pandemic, whether they like it or not. Many companies I know have had a very hard time adjusting to this new reality. Those that have embraced it are realizing that it’s not only possible to work this way, but has significant advantages for employees and businesses alike. I think now that remote work is the new normal, companies will be more interested in expanding flexibility for employees to work from more locations. I also expect to see companies become more competitive in the area of geo-agnostic and geo-flexible roles. When all other things are equal, I think the best and brightest will opt to work at a company with more flexibility in terms of remote work and where it can be carried out. What will be interesting to see is how they can manage operations in this new, more remote and global-friendly reality. Managing teams across time zones can be tricky, but multinationals have done it successfully for ages. Finding that harmony between local autonomy and global consistency takes time, but it’s a muscle that any company can eventually build.