Worker Relocations Increase as Pandemic Fears Fade

Global HR

​Employee relocations are on the rise as anxiety over COVID-19 has subsided. Concerns about the pandemic have fallen behind traditional relocation worries, such as family issues, spouse or partner employment, and the rising cost of living.

The latest Atlas Van Lines’ Corporate Relocation Survey, conducted in February among companies that typically relocate employees, paints a brighter picture for the recovering industry, which was dealt a serious blow by the global pandemic in 2020.

Just 26 percent of the 533 companies surveyed by Atlas said that COVID-19 caused a failed relocation in 2021, compared with 44 percent the previous year. Sixty percent reported increased domestic relocations in 2021, 48 percent reported increased international relocations and 57 percent reported an increase in relocation budgets. And projections for 2022 are even better, as 64 percent expect an increase in relocation activity this year.

“The corporate relocation business has rebounded well, and we are back above pre-pandemic levels,” said Mary Beth Johnson, vice president of corporate marketing at Atlas. “Concerns about health and safety in relation to the virus have decreased as we’ve figured out processes to implement relocations safely and securely.”

The Atlas findings hold true for the relocation industry as a whole, said Lynn Shotwell, SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of Worldwide ERC, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association for global mobility professionals. “Relocation providers are really busy and, in many cases, surpassing 2019 levels,” she said. “There’s all the pent-up demand to account for; all the relocations that were put on hold during the pandemic are moving forward. And the tremendous competition for talent compels employers to look for talent wherever they can, including overseas or across the United States.”

Shotwell said that she’s also seeing an increase in worker-driven relocation, where employees choose to temporarily move to another corporate location. “There is a new openness to allowing relocation initiated by the employee—say from the New York office to the London office—as organizations realize that many more positions can be done in a variety of locations,” she said.

Johnson said that as relocation volume and budgets trend upwards, logistical and cost complexities will continue to increase, especially with the upward shifts in inflation and housing prices. Inflation and cost of living, factors that prompt employees to be more reliant on dual-income households, are a major barrier to successful relocations, she said.

Forty-one percent of respondents to the Atlas survey cited economic conditions as the most impactful external factor on relocation, followed by a lack of qualified workers needed for relocation (31 percent) and the challenging housing market (27 percent). 

The ongoing labor shortage and supply chain disruptions are intensifying their impact on relocation. “Everything depends on a complex supply chain,” Shotwell said. “With the disruptions of materials and manufacturing, on top of transportation logjams and labor shortages, an employer cannot guarantee that someone’s household goods will be packed up and delivered on exactly the day they want. Everything takes longer, costs more and is much more unpredictable.”

Another big challenge is housing. “Where you used to be able to have employees move into the house they want, there is a lack of inventory right now,” Shotwell said. “People are having to accept accommodations that are less than what they anticipated.”

Johnson said that labor shortages continue to hamper relocations as well. “We already had a decline in drivers before the pandemic, and that’s still an issue,” she said. “But now we’re experiencing more shortages around the help that a driver needs to accomplish the relocation—packers, loaders, customer service reps. There are a lot of moving parts within the relocation process.”

Pre-COVID-19 Worries Return

COVID-19 was the main reason employees declined relocation in 2020. Since then, concerns about the virus have decreased, trailing behind more traditional considerations.

“Family issues and spouse and partner employment are the most frequent causes of declined domestic relocations, and factor in the top concerns for international relocations,” Johnson said.

The number of companies offering spousal employment assistance has been increasing every year since 2007 and is currently at an all-time high at 79 percent overall, and 90 percent for international relocations. Resume preparation, interview training and networking help were the three most common types of assistance provided.

Johnson pointed out that the largest segment of the relocating workforce—Generation X and Millennials—make up the sandwich generation: those taking care of both children and parents.

“An employee’s spouse or family situation can make or break relocation efforts,” she said. “Offering strong assistance programs is a must, and following the trend of spousal assistance, employers must ensure caregiving assistance policies are robust enough to meet the needs of relocating employees who are dual caregivers for children and aging parents.”

The rising cost of living is another big issue. “Next year’s survey will show cost-of-living concerns up even more based on what is happening in the economy right now,” Johnson said.

And there are lingering safety and security issues, Shotwell added, including new variants of COVID-19 and the outbreak of conflicts around the world.  

“Mobility professionals have always been responsible for duty-of-care—knowing where all of your employees are in a moment’s notice—especially with international assignments,” Shotwell said. “There will continue to be a heightened awareness of duty-of-care based on recent events, such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Our members have shared a number of stories of how they worked to get employees out of Ukraine and Russia and support the ones who remained behind.”

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