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APS Human Capital Matters: Mobility

Editor's note to readers

Welcome to this edition of Human Capital Matters (HCM)—the digest for leaders and practitioners with an interest in human capital and organisational capability. Human Capital Matters seeks to provide Australian Public Service leaders and practitioners with easy access to the issues of contemporary importance in public and private sector human capital and organisational capability. It has been designed to provide interested readers with a guide to the national and international ideas that are shaping human capital thinking and practice. The inclusion of articles is aimed at stimulating creative and innovative thinking and does not in any way imply that the Australian Public Service Commission endorses service providers or policies. It is intended that the articles are accessible for the general reader, do not require subscriptions to specific sites and, where possible and appropriate, editions of HCM have been reviewed by topic specialists to provide range and currency on topical issues.

Additional hyperlinks/references for those with librarian support or access to specific, user-pays sites may also be provided.

Thank you to those who took the time to provide feedback on earlier editions of Human Capital Matters. Comments, suggestions or questions regarding this publication are always welcome and should be addressed to: humancapitalmatters [at] apsc.gov.au. Readers can also subscribe to the mailing list through this email address.

This edition looks at workforce mobility.

The term mobility in organisations has traditionally referred to the movement of the workforce either horizontally across geographic locations, or vertically across hierarchical boundaries. The term 'upwardly mobile' referred to progression through the ranks or the social hierarchy.

In this traditional concept of mobility, 'low' mobility may contribute to 'structural unemployment'. This term describes a situation in which demand for services and products continues but the workforce is not able to meet the demand due to stagnant or obsolete skills and technology, often the outcomes of low mobility. Such stagnation and obsolescence are seen to deter innovation and reduce the ability of organisations to adapt to changing demands1.

Hierarchical progression in organisations is not always a preferred organisational strategy.  A 2015 CEB report talks about 'The New Path Forward'. The new path revolves around changing an employee's career focus from promotion to 'growth', primarily because organisations can't sustain a promotion-based culture. Changing employees' desire for promotion can be difficult to achieve however. Opportunities for both promotion and growth are oft-cited drivers for employees' mobility.

More recently, mobility has taken on the meaning of employees being connected through technology such as smartphones and computers, regardless of physical location.

This ability to connect seamlessly across locations and time zones, now also referred to as mobility, is seen now as a business imperative. The Australian National Broadband Network (nbn) argued a sales case on key points such as 'meet with customers, suppliers, colleagues , regardless of location face to face without leaving your desk, saving time consuming and costly travel'; 'remove geographical barriers', 'work smarter', 'reliable broadband ... allow(s) more flexible working, the ability to open new employment opportunities, including those in remote locations', 'boost productivity', 'bring together the best possible teams regardless of location ..' and so on2.

Both concepts of the word mobility have implications for the larger system to which the individual worker belongs. An employee is more than a discrete entity. Each person is part of a larger system such as a family, community, work group and organisational enterprise. Having a sense of belonging to these larger systems is important in terms of employee well-being and engagement. The impact of mobility on systems outside the immediate employee is discussed in Kate Warren's article on the pros and cons of mobility.

It is evident that mobility is a multi-faceted issue. This edition of HCM will attempt to present a selection from the range of available literature.

The list of articles are:

  • The first article provides the source for the most common understanding of workforce mobility.
  • The second article looks at the pros and cons of traditional mobility plans involving geographical relocation in large international public sector agencies like UNICEF.
  • The third article, from PwC, looks at mobility in a globally connected world.
  • The fourth article from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) in 2015 highlights the importance of employee-organisation career partnerships, a feature also noted by PwC as essential to the delivery of mobility programmes within organisations. The complete article is available only to those agencies that subscribe to CEB/CLC.
  • The fifth article is the chapter from Professor Peter Shergold on Opening up the APS in which mobility—in this case between the public, community and business sectors—is proposed as a way of re-invigorating the APS.

WebFinance. The on-line business dictionary. [retrieved from http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/mobility-of-labor.html, 24 August 2016]

BusinessDictionary.com defines mobility as 'the extent to which workers are able or willing to move between different jobs, occupations and geographical areas.' Horizontal mobility is a change that does not involve a change in status or level. Vertical mobility involves a change in status. The dictionary suggests there are differences in mobility profiles that can be related to skill levels. Low-skilled workers are more likely to demonstrate high levels of both occupational and geographical mobility. Higher skilled workers may have some degree of geographical mobility but are less inclined to occupational mobility. A low mobility rate can contribute to 'structural unemployment' defined as joblessness caused not by lack of demand but by changes in demand patterns or obsolescence of technology which requires that workers be retrained and that the organisation invests in new capital equipment.

WebFinance Inc is an US-based internet company which manages educational websites like BusinessDictionary.com. It aims to provide reliable reference material.

Warren, K., (2014). The pros and cons of mobility plans. CareerMatters. Devex [retrieved from https://www.devex.com/news/the-pros-and-cons-of-mobility-plans-82655, 24 Aug 2016].

Mobility is the term used by HR professionals to describe the movement of staff across locations. It has always played a key role in career management. Mobility policy and practices often encourage or require frequent rotation to new offices, regions and areas of focus. The idea is to expose career professionals to varied experiences, contexts and approaches that help develop a well-rounded workforce that can better understand and navigate a large bureaucracy, ultimately making the organisation as a whole more effective. In this way staff members benefit from the sharing of best practices, the cross-fertilization of ideas and the opportunity to develop new skills and new areas of expertise.

Mobility plans can be challenging for organisations to implement and even more challenging for staff to navigate.

The pros are generally considered to be: professional development; developing best practices from the adaptation of previous experiences to new contexts, thus spurring creative thinking; developing a network of colleagues and professionals; and, exposure to new cultures and experiences.

The disadvantages or 'cons' are seen as: the turbulence experienced by family and significant others (such as children changing schools); it can often feel that you don't get a chance to 'hit your stride' or specialise; some employees can feel 'out of the loop', missing out on networking and mentoring available in certain locations like headquarters; and, it can be a logistical nightmare—matching skills and experience to available opportunities, competition with external candidates and juggling dual careers.

Devex is a media platform for the global development community. This article is listed as a blog by Kate Warren talking about career matters in the organisation. Ms Warren is the senior director and editor of careers and recruiting content at Devex.

Pricewaterhouse Cooper 2012. Talent mobility 2020 and beyond. [Retrieved from https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/managing-tomorrows-people/future-of-work/pdf/pwc-talent-mobility-2020.pdf on 24 Aug 2016]

According to PwC, the traditional model of mobility, which requires employees to relocate, is still a necessary way of doing business for some organisations. There are however, several world-wide trends that are having an influence on the need for relocation:  demographic changes, 'the war for talent', emerging markets in sometimes undesirable locations and the globally connected world. Mobility opportunities are recognised as key to attracting, retaining, developing and engaging talent for employees of all genders and particularly for those of the millennial generation. Global workforce mobility, not necessarily defined as relocation, is predicted to increase by a further 50% by 2020.

Technology, though key to a new-look mobility model—'mobility without moves'—will not negate the need to have people deployed in location.  The pressure on HR to support mobility decisions and manage programme costs is expected to increase and will require a predictive analytical capability to support evidence-based decisions.

The concept of relocation is changing. Short-term and project-based assignments are expected to increase as much to provide nimble adaptation to change as to appeal to employees seeking to 'grow' through experience and those wishing to minimise disruption in their own lives. There are potential challenges. These include 'dislocation' or absence of a sense of belonging and the potential for waning engagement on the part of the individual. These come on top of common mobility concerns about matters like compensation, tax, logistics, local culture and security.

The changing composition of the workforce is affecting mobility, as are the changing concepts around family and caring. Carer responsibilities affect about one in three employees3.  PwC suggest that the preferences of the individual employee are becoming major factors in mobility decisions.

The 'new normal' around mobility is expected to encompass a broad range of experiences, short and long-term, project-based and assignee-led deployments. It will encompass virtual mobility and long-range commuting. It will play a role in the development of future leaders and the retention of valued staff. While global mobility brings additional challenges, common mobility challenges regardless of organisational scope, will be: ensuring analytical tools to allow prediction and evidence-based decision-making; embracing technology; and, personalising mobility to cater for the range of employee preferences and circumstances and still deliver the flexibility organisations require.

In addition to developing a predictive analytical capability other tasks ahead for HR will be equally daunting.  They include managing risk and compliance, ensuring value for money and return on investment in regard to mobility programmes, promoting the rapid deployment of key talent and developing effective career-partnerships. (The following article from CEB speaks more directly to the idea of career partnerships).

PricewaterhouseCoopers is a multinational professional services network, founded in 1998 and headquartered in London, United Kingdom. It is the largest professional services firm in the world, and is one of the Big Four auditors, along with Deloitte, EY and KPMG

CEB. 2015. The New Path Forward: Creating Compelling Careers for Employees and Organizations [this 10-page PowerPoint presentation is available on-line only to agencies that subscribe to CEB/CLC]

In the modern era of flatter organisational structures, organisations are less able to provide hierarchical mobility to employees. Based on this premise CEB reports there will be internal skills shortages as a result of employee dissatisfaction.

One organisational response, as CEB sees it, is to promote 'growth' rather than 'promotion' through a partnership between the organisation and the employee in terms of career opportunities. In this way, employee aspirations—as well as meeting personal preferences and desires—may align more closely with organisational needs.

In order to align organisational capability with employee needs and interests, CEB suggest organisations design careers around experiences. This requires the identification of experiences that develop the right capabilities. It is important that these opportunities are accessible. To this end the organisation must advertise opportunities and encourage and develop employees to communicate or share their capabilities and attributes.

CEB advocate the idea that employees be motivated by 'employability', the collective term for an employee's capabilities, skills, knowledge, experiences, achievements and personal attributes. It is important that the organisation sets clear expectations about employability so that career experiences are aligned with organisational goals. Communicating employability may be a skill in itself and one with which employees are likely to need help to develop.

CEB identified that 'talent brokerages' increase the willingness of managers to share talent. One example includes creating a critical skills portfolio with the effect of increasing visibility of available organisation talent and job opportunities.

CEB is a best-practice insight and technology company. In partnership with leading organizations around the globe, it aims to develop innovative solutions to drive corporate performance. CEB aims to equip leaders with the intelligence to effectively manage talent, customers, and operations. The Corporate Leadership Council (CLC) is a program within CEB's HR Practice.

Shergold, P. (2015). Opening up the APS. Learning from Failure: Why large government policy initiatives have gone so badly wrong in the past and how the chances of success in the future can be improved. Australian Public Service Commission. [Retrieved from http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/current-publications/learning-from-failure/opening-up-the-aps on 24 Aug 2016]

Professor Shergold's starting premise for Opening the APS is:

Being a public servant is not necessarily the career for life it once was … Public service leaders are recognising that they need to promote the movement of people in and out of the APS.

Accordingly, 'greater mobility should be encouraged' to ensure cross-fertilisation of ideas and appreciation of the distinctions between the public and private sectors. Whilst 'not a silver bullet', mobility is seen as a step towards creating a public service culture that values external perspectives and increases capability. In turn this is seen to provide potential to improve policy design and implementation (p.54).

Mobility is seen as a way of challenging bias and embedded and often unconscious ideas about processes and institutions, particularly as 'few senior APS leaders have substantial career experience outside the public sector' (p.55).

According to Shergold, previous mobility schemes among the public sector and the community and business sectors have failed because they have not attracted sufficient priority. As well, public servants wishing to get career experience outside the public service have historically had to resign. This has been disadvantageous in terms of superannuation and other conditions of service.

The proposed solution is to allow greater access to leave-without-pay. Secretaries are exhorted to remove barriers to mobility by managing leave liability from centralised corporate funds. In all, Shergold makes six, in many cases mobility-flavoured, recommendations to 'open the APS':

  • Secretaries should support their staff to undertake career development opportunities outside the APS in order to gain beneficial experience
  • Building on existing departmental initiatives, an Australian Public Service Scholarship should be established that provides financial support for ten APS leaders each year to undertake an important project in the business of community sector for up to 12 months
  • A highly prestigious Public Sector Fellowship should be established to provide financial support each year for ten exceptional leaders from the business, community and academic sectors to contribute to significant initiatives in the APS for up to 12 months
  • For high priority large-scale projects, departments should actively source specific talent from outside the APS on a temporary basis to provide a wide range of relevant skills, experience and entrepreneurial energy
  • Program advisory groups should be established within departments that include representation drawn from outside the APS in order to capture a diversity of perspectives and knowledge
  • A Prime Minister's Public Service Advisory Committee should be established that includes leaders from business and community organisations.

Professor Peter Shergold AC was a senior public servant in the APS for 20 years. He established the Office of Multicultural Affairs in 1987 and headed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission (ATSIC) from 1991. He was appointed Public Service Commissioner from 1995-98. He served as Secretary of the Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business from 1998-2002 and then as the Secretary of the Department of Employment, Workplace Relations. In February 2003 he became Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for five years. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (FASSA), the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA), the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) and the Australian Institute of Management (AIM). He is a Senior Research Fellow at Singapore Civil Service College. In December, 2014 he was asked by the Government to lead an independent review of Government processes for the development and implementation of large public programmes and projects, including the role of ministers and public servants.

1 See CEB's 2015 HR News Report HR Leaders Struggle to Flexibly Deploy their Staff in which HR leaders report lack of flexibility in HR systems hinders adaptation to organisational change

2 Australia's National Broadband Network information page [accessed 15 July 2016]

3 In the 2016 APS Employee Census, 30% of respondents reported having carer responsibilities. Of those, the majority reported caring for children, though one in four reported caring for parents and 17% reported caring for a partner, relative or some 'other' person.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018