This interview with Lisa Sezto-Ip, head of Global Mobility at Varian, has been edited and condensed by Felicia Shermis.
Please talk a little bit about your background — where are you from and what led you to this point in your professional life?
I started out in public accounting and didn’t really know anything about global mobility. But, I had a desire to go abroad and experience another culture, and I had studied Mandarin in college and I wanted to use and improve my language skills. When an opportunity came along in Hong Kong, where a friend of a friend offered me a place to stay, I moved myself there and got into expat taxation. I took the opportunity to have an adventure — that turned out to be my entry into Global Mobility.
I moved back to the US after four years and I ended up doing mobility tax at Apple. There I focused on supporting employees who were on international assignments and relocating abroad.
By now, I have been at Varian for five years. We were recently acquired by Siemens Healthineers and are currently working on integrating our Global Mobility strategies. The two companies have been operating under different models so we have some work to do. There are a lot of moving pieces right now as we are planning for the future while supporting employees’ current needs.
How do your unique background and personal story impact your decision-making while building/supporting global mobility programs?
Mobility is very compliance heavy so it’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of things. Having moved abroad myself, I have a lot of sympathy for employees and their families. I know there is a big adjustment ahead when you move abroad. I have an understanding that everyone’s needs are unique. We have to focus on compliance of course but we also have to have a high-touch employee focus.
One of the things we are looking to do is to change our standard relocation package to be more flexible. We want people to be able to make choices within a set framework rather than us having to make exceptions to accommodate individual circumstances, which has been the way it has traditionally worked. This new approach will be more scalable, as everyone comes with different needs — be it someone moving from a big house to a small apartment and needing help figuring out logistics with that, someone who is facing massive delays with their visa, or someone who has to find an English-speaking midwife in a foreign country.
What does your department look like, how do you work? What type of mobility do you mostly support (business travel, relocation, virtual cross-border collaboration)?
We are currently a team of two at Varian, with additional support from Siemens. As part of our combination, we are considering different models to best support the business. It’s an exciting time to start with a blank canvas on this journey of harmonization.
We support all types of employee mobility from international business travelers to long-term moves to remote work, and everything in-between. As a center of expertise, we have the opportunity to work with many of our colleagues around the world, from manufacturing to field service to finance to C-suite executives. We provide consultation on costs, compliance requirements, and unique personal considerations.
It is difficult to talk about global mobility right now without touching on how it has been impacted by the pandemic. In your view, what are the lessons learned, and what changes will be needed from global mobility programs going forward?
Covid has had a huge impact on global mobility. Prior to the pandemic, global mobility was largely forgotten. Now it’s been brought to the forefront because travel regulations, remote work, tax implications, etc. have expanded the scope of what mobility is and it has also expanded the population we serve.
The floodgates really opened when Global Mobility departments had to widen their umbrella to handle requests from employees who wanted to work remotely from “new” places.
Companies are starting to look at compliance regarding remote work and are putting limits on where employees can work. Early on, we created a steering committee to ensure we had a framework of guidelines to consider when requests for remote work “elsewhere” came through. Ultimately, these decisions are still most often made on an individual basis.
Travel restrictions have of course been a huge issue during the pandemic. They have not only caused employees to get stuck in countries but have also meant a lot of work to try to figure out how to get employees to where they need to be. The shipment of household goods has also been severely impacted — it’s become two to three times more expensive to ship, and it takes two to three times longer than in pre-pandemic times.
These are all issues we think about when building support for the future. That’s why we are moving toward a more flexible system with cash allowances, for example.
Likewise, it’s hard to talk about global mobility right now without including issues such as sustainability, diversity, and inclusion. Can you share how you approach these topics within your department? What responsibilities do you feel global mobility teams have in this realm — when it comes to globally mobile employees and the support they receive, as well as vendors you choose to work with?
I feel that global mobility, in general, is a great enabler of diversity and inclusion. We take people to new cultures and environments and bring together multicultural teams. Nothing compares to sitting next to a colleague in a new country with your senses soaking up all the new and different ways of doing things, of sharing different cultures. What’s great about this is that it is a cycle — a gift that keeps on giving — when people come back from abroad and share their new perspectives, that impacts the home team as well. We are bridging cultures without even trying.
We are also thinking about sustainability issues when helping our employees move. We partner with a relocation company and through them, we do an intake survey to find out what is important for the employee in terms of housing, and what their thoughts are on shipping goods, for example. We encourage recycling and facilitate the collection of items for donation.
Temporary housing is still pretty standard and doesn’t necessarily cater to specific needs such as an energy-efficient building. But once the employee is in place and looking for permanent housing, they can get help with fulfilling specific wishes, such as easy access to public transportation, energy-efficient housing, etc.
What does “humanizing global mobility” mean to you?
There are many ways of doing global mobility. Especially in larger programs, it can be very operational and transactional where there is a lot of focus on compliance. Humanizing it means focusing on the employee and their family — helping them to “see around corners”. The magic sauce is to come up with a program that is employee-focused, flexible, and scalable. We have to leverage technology to make things easier, we have to have comprehensive support from beginning to end, and we have to see the individual.