Envoy Global, which launched way back in 1998 (originally called VISANOW, they rebranded in 2016), is paving the way in our sector.
I made a really tough choice when I decided to leave a stable career as an immigration lawyer to build my own immigration tech startup. Throughout that period of uncertainty, I looked to companies like Envoy Global for inspiration. “If they can do it, so can I,” I told myself.
Here’s why I think Envoy Global has been leading the charge.
First, it was one of the first, according to my research, to provide a joint immigration technology and legal service to their clients back in the early days.
They’ve also raised the most venture capital money (to my knowledge) of any immigration tech company to date - a total of $48.1M.
Finally, from the legal side, their partner immigration law firm, Global Immigration Associates (GIA) is innovating the practice of law by enabling their lawyers to be fully remote by leveraging the Envoy Global \ platform. This is virtually (no pun intended) unheard of in the immigration space!
So, when I found out Envoy was hosting their own global mobility conference in my hometown of New York City, I signed up immediately.
What can I say? I had an amazing time. Aside from the interesting and thought-provoking sessions (which I get to below), I actually actually came away liking a few other things I didn’t expect:
- It was only half a day. I had amazing experiences at AILA, ERC and SHRM conferences this year, but boy was I tired each time. For that reason, I really enjoyed the fact that this event was only half a day, starting at around 2PM (which meant I got some work done in the AM) and ending in the early evening with some drinks where I got to network end even catch up with old friends and colleagues!
- There was just one room. Bigger conferences sometimes give me FOMO (fear of missing out) since there are usually simultaneous sessions I want to go to. Yes that means there are more options, but I’d rather not have to decide! At this conference there was just one room, which made my life easier.
- We got books. Instead of the usual conference swag (which always ends up collecting dust), Envoy gave out books. Hands down the best conference gift I’ve ever received.
***NOTE*** Before I get into the conference recap, a quick note about the format of this article: the symposium had several Q&A-style panels, so for those sections, I’m going to essentially paraphrase the panelists’ collective answers and pretend the answer is coming from one, “combined” speaker.
Now then, on with the good stuff.
Mobility best practices and Innovations
Moderated by Envoy CEO Dick Burke, this panel was a discussion about the current state of global mobility affairs.
Q: What technology has had the most impact on the global mobility industry?
A: First and foremost, cloud-based software like Sharepoint, Smartsheet and other project management and document management tools. Not only are these products useful in and of themselves, the usefulness compounds when they can connect with other enterprise software solutions like Slack, Workday and more. The most important thing is having a single source of truth - so if systems can talk to each other, you can eradicate silos and operate a more seamless department.
Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are important too. Depending on an organization’s level of sophistication, they can adopt machine learning to actually automate administrative tasks, speed up processes and minimize human error.
Q: This all sounds great, but global mobility departments often lack funding. How do you get a seat at the “table” to voice your needs and ultimately get more money for automation and other process upgrades?
A: The real answer is that you need to create a strong business case for more funding, but that’s traditionally been a challenge because there really hasn’t been much benchmarking data to create the underlying business case.
If you have a large company you can likely collect existing data on international assignments, immigration, etc. Otherwise, you can partner with providers that can help obtain benchmarking data.
Once you get it, leverage it, especially if you want to open a in a certain, less-known market, increase the use of foreign talent, etc. It’s hard to argue a compelling business case.
Q: In the past, mostly senior executives were going on international assignments. Now there is much more diversity. What do you make of this?
A: You now have truly multi-generational mobility, so one size no longer fits all. You need to meet employees where they are in their lives and careers to create a good mobility experience.
One strategy is to look at the intent of the assignment - is it to build the employees career? Is it to build talent in another country? Something else? The top two reasons are still knowledge transfer and strategic needs, but the “career builder” experience bucket is growing, particularly for employees who raise their hand and say they want to move. That said, an international assignment, be it inbound to the US or global, has to be mutually beneficial.
Additionally, consider a swap – trade talent within the organization. Especially younger talent, who can qualify for something like a Work Holiday visa, which is available in countries such as Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea.
Ultimately a lot rests on company culture. If it’s an international company, you need to have international experience, especially if you want to grow.
Q: How does the global mobility market look now versus ten years ago?
A: One of the things we’re most proud of us how much more diversity, inclusion and belonging there is today. As a small but telling example, immigration documents are now much more inclusive in terms of gender assignment and choices.
There’s also better service for both the global mobility / immigration teams as well as the employees or candidates who are moving. Everything is now online and available 24/7.
But that’s not enough. Employee engagement and retention are top-of-mind since people stay at jobs for two years or so before moving on. So all the changes are contextualized by our need to keep our employees.
Also, increasingly people travel much more independently with the help of services like Uber, Airbnb and more. This has been a challenge for larger companies that can’t support those travel habits for work-related trips or international assignments because of privacy, security and other concerns.
And lastly, There are now much better employee-facing tech that tracks and reports on global mobility. Relocating employees want a timeline, a dashboard of where they are in the process, etc. But it’s not just them - tech also helps with project management, change management, data analysis, budget analysis and more, all within global mobility.
Oh yea, and then there’s Remote Year. It’s becoming increasingly popular, but many larger companies haven’t embraced it quite yet.
Q: And finally, how can we make global mobility solutions repeatable and scalable in the future?
A: Company culture is important for this because first and foremost you need a workplace that values global mobility and will invest in it. But in the future, hopefully we won’t even need mobility policies – you’ll be able to use AI to create personalized policies that automatically take into account the employee who is moving, their role within the company, where they’re going and so on.
But we’re not quite there yet. AI needs considerable data first to be able to learn, and the industry doesn’t necessarily have that data yet. But leveraging internal data that looks at where people are based, who has dual citizenship, etc. - information that companies typically do already capture - is a great place to start.
What LCA data is telling us
The next session was a one-man show. A deep-dive into immigration data by Envoy’s COO Manu Sivanandam, who took us through and analyzed public data from Department of Labor (DOL) statistics as well as privately-captured survey data about immigration and global mobility trends.
(FYI, because this wasn’t a panel session, it won’t be in Q&A-style format.)
Sivanandam jumped right into it with a staggering statistic - today there are 258 million immigrants around the world, i.e. people living in a different country than the one they were born in. 90% of these, he explained, immigrated for economic or talent reasons.
He then drilled down. 60% of the world’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) graduates live in India and China. And in the US? Many of our own STEM graduates are foreign national students.
Focusing on India for a minute, many of the top STEM in India are graduates of The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), considered to be the best Indian institution for engineering education and research. Prior to the year 2000, 41% of IIT graduates left India, many of whom came to the US. Since 2000, however, that number fell to 15.8%. Some IIT grads stay in Indian, but many others are moving to Europe and elsewhere.
Something to consider, Sivanandam said, in terms of where tech talent is going and how global tech worker trends are shifting.
The presentation then moved on to an analysis of The DOL’s Labor Condition Application (LCA) data. If you’re interested in the raw data, you can find it here. The analysis was particularly impressive because the Envoy team actually built sophisticated heat maps to visually understand the underlying data.
The first heat map showed where H-1B workers are concentrated in the US. Unsurprisingly the biggest concentrations were Silicon Valley and the Northeast (New York, New Jersey, Boston), whereas the Midwest tended to be more barren.
The data also showed that H-1B visa holders with salaries of $100,000 or more grew from 2012 through 2017 and that during those years, more H-1B petitions had advanced degrees versus just bachelor degrees.
But since 2017, things have changed drastically. Sivanandam didn’t get into the details, and I won’t dive into it either, but he noted that RFEs went up in FY 2018 and 2019 and, as we all know, H-1B RFE approval rates have gone down drastically.
Finally, he showed the room just how granular their visuals were. For example, based on DOL’s LCA data, Envoy was able to drill down into New York City, show how many LCAs were filed by large employers in the area like Bloomberg, Tata, BlackRock, Amazon, and others.
A little plug for the company - Envoy can and does frequently run custom reports to help benchmark companies against competitors in the same industry, geographic area, etc. At the event, they offered to do this for free for participants in the audience. So reach out to them if you’re curious about benchmarking for your company and industry!
Sivanandam then moved away from DOL data and on to survey data.
This past year, a survey went out to over 400 HR professionals about global mobility. Lots of interesting insights, but the one that stuck out to me most - Canada is on everyone’s mind.
The survey found that:
- A majority of companies polled said they think Canada’s immigration policy is favorable for employers;
- When considering Canada for international expansion, 38% of the companies polled who don’t already have an office in Canada said they are considering it.
Finally, Sivanandam asked, what do you need for a successful global mobility program today?
- Data intelligence. You need to bring data into the heart of your mobility program. The problem is that it hasn’t always been there and so companies are only just starting to invest in technology to help gather internal mobility data and compare it against available government data to make insightful, strategic decisions.
- Strategy. You need to see how the world is shifting over the next 3-5 years and plan accordingly, whether that’s expanding into new global locations or hiring more aggressively from particular regions around the world
- Employee Experience. This needs to be at the heart of your mobility program, for both the foreign nationals coming into your company for the first time (and are likely anxious about the process) as well as current employees interested in an international relocation. A smooth process leaves everyone happy and is great for employee retention.
- Security. As your global mobility program grows, it’s important to stay on top of data security, especially as personally identifiable information moves around between offices, internal systems and more. The more centralized that data is (i.e. that single source of truth mentioned above), the better.
A global workforce is the future
The final session was another panel, probably the most unique panel I’ve seen at any of the conferences I’ve been to. The panel consisted of an academic, an HR startup founder, a Canadian relocation startup founder and other unique voices discussing, sometimes on a philosophical level, other times on a practical level, the global workforce of the future.
(For this last section, I’ve resumed the Q&A format)
Q: What is going to help maintain a cohesive company culture moving forward?
A: One thing is work flexibility. Some companies allow their employees to occasionally work from home. Other companies are fully distributed with absolutely no offices. Going into 2020 and beyond, letting employees work remotely at least part of the time, if not full-time, will provide flexibility to those for whom remote work would substantially increase their quality of life.
Plus if you have a talent shortage and you’re not located in Silicon Valley, New York City or another major hub, it’s harder to fill open jobs. Relocation isn’t always an option for everyone, but if they can work remotely, you open your company up to many more potential candidates.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to be explicit about your company culture. Employees care about their daily experience at work, and prospective employees care about this too. When you’re looking to fill a role, make it as easy as possible for your candidates to understand your office environment (whether physical or virtual(, mission, vision and culture. It will bring in strong candidates and help with retention.
Q: What do you think about immigration and global mobility moving forward?
A: It seems to be getting more and more complicated each day. If your company hires foreign nationals, figure out how to ease the immigration burden on those employees. It’s been shown that workers who are stressed about visa issues are spending time at work thinking about it and researching solutions, and understandably so. One strategy companies have deployed is putting those employees in Canada, which has enabled those employees to stop worrying about immigration and, thereby, become more productive.
From the global perspective, some countries, like Japan actually have a declining workforce, and with global immigration as it is today, change is constant. To solve short-term staffing issues without necessarily having a wholesale policy change, consider hiring talent via the “gig economy” first to get them in the door quickly. They can always convert to full-time staff later.
Additionally, revisit and consider loosening degree requirements - it’s possible that you have truly competent talent right in front of you but because you “require” a bachelors or some minimum number of years of experience, you may be overlooking candidates that may not stack up on paper but are fully competent to do the work in real life.
Finally, and ultimately, you need to understand the future of work and get your workforce ready for this so there is no surprise when it comes up. What new technologies are coming? What new skills will allow your people to thrive? Train them on that while they’re still with you so that when change does happen, everyone’s ready for it.
Well, there you have it. My last conference recap for 2019.
The Envoy Global GTS certainly left me and many others with a lot to think about. What will the next five years look like? How can companies adapt to ever-changing immigration laws and technologies? How can companies best leverage the global workforce in a world that’s both shrinking but also making movement increasingly challenging?
H-1B RFE rates and other local immigration laws aside, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to the international movement of people.
Hopefully this article, and my previous articles, can be helpful when thinking about, planning for an strategizing around the future of global mobility.
I’m excited to see what lies ahead during the 2020 conference circuit!