Workforce Mobility Advice from… Van Halen? 10.18.2016 | Tim McCarney

Weichert Van Halen

The rock band Van Halen will forever be remembered for spandex, teased hair and changing lead singers more often than most people change socks. But there’s another side to VH that you likely never suspected: the band that launched such hit songs as “Hot for Teacher” and “Jamie’s Cryin” pioneered a unique methodology for spotting red flags that can be valuable to today’s corporate mobility managers.

Yes, you read that correctly.

It all starts with M&Ms. Brown M&Ms, to be precise.

At the height of their powers in the early 80s, Van Halen had a stipulation in their touring contract requiring any venue hosting their show to provide a backstage bowl of M&Ms candies with the brown ones removed. If a venue didn’t comply, and a single brown M&M was discovered in the mix, the band could walk but still get paid.

It was an act that reeked of rock star hubris; mega-millionaires sticking it to the little guy simply because they could. But if you believe the band’s original lead singer, David Lee Roth (and the guy wrote “Running with the Devil,” so we pretty much have to), the language was driven not by ego, but safety concerns.

Back in the day, Van Halen’s stage show was an elaborate production, involving everything from a levitating drum kit to zip-line harnesses. Careful attention to detail was required to avoid serious or catastrophic injury. Knowing this, the band buried the M&Ms clause in its contracts amidst complex language about load-bearing beams and maximum wattage. If Roth and crew arrived on-site and found brown M&Ms in the dressing room, it meant the venue didn’t read the contract word-for-word, and the well-being of Van Halen, the fans and the arena staff could be compromised.

In this regard, Van Halen took a small chocolate candy and used it as a trigger for identifying when something needed attention. A number of business publications have since used “the brown M&Ms technique” to help managers detect small problems before they become full-blown disasters.

It can also serve as a lesson to folks who oversee corporate mobility programs. Is there long-neglected language buried in your policy that’s causing unnecessary cost overruns? Or a component of your program that’s screaming for attention but gets lost in the day-to-day struggle? Devising your own system to alert you to “the brown M&Ms” can be a giant step (or, dare we say, “jump”) toward the optimization of your mobile workforce.

To help you out, here’s a look at some of the red flags we routinely find in our work with corporate mobility managers. Consider them conversation starters as you ruminate on areas of your program or policy that could be crying for help.

The 300-Page Policy Conundrum 

Van Halen knew what they were doing when they buried the M&Ms clause in their contract—nobody reads the fine print. Likewise, if your relocation policy is an endless loop of boring details and conditions, your mobile employees aren’t likely to read it, and that lack of understanding about their benefits will only add unnecessary confusion and ill feelings once their move begins. One option is to provide a CliffsNotes-like supplement that highlights up front the points they want (and need) to know: things like how much they’re receiving, how their expenses will be reimbursed, is their family covered, etc.

Who’s Authorizing Who?

Is your authorization process riddled with redundant forms and actions? For example, does it require a form be filled out by a recruiter who passes it to a team member who inputs it to an online form that someone else needs to approve—all before an authorization can take place? This can add days to the process when time is most critical and talent is needed in a specific location. Beyond the administrative functions, your authorization process should infuse each move with a sense of purpose, letting stakeholders understand the reasoning behind it, anticipated costs and the likely ROI.

Mind the Exceptions…

Exceptions can represent the most volatile part of your mobility budget, so it makes sense for companies to build formal processes around them, especially for requesting and approving them. Unfortunately, a lot of companies are missing the boat; our 2016 mobility survey found that little more than half of companies have processes in place for requesting and approving exceptions (54 and 55 percent, respectively).

It’s a small change that can make a big difference. In fact, according to Jennifer Connell, Practice Leader with our consulting group, “Simply knowing that senior management will be reviewing requests is often enough to discourage employees from requesting them.”

…But Track the Exceptions

On the flip side, our survey found that 62 percent of companies track and analyze exceptions, which can drive greater cost savings. Good news, but that means 38 percent of companies aren’t learning from their exceptions. Considering that tracking exceptions provides valuable insight to spend and allows companies to adjust their policies to better suit employee needs, there’s almost no excuse for not doing it.

Embrace Flexibility

With today’s workforce more demographically diverse and motivated by very different professional and personal needs than those of 10 or even 5 years ago, it’s no time to be caught peddling “one size fits all” benefits packages on your employees. Savvy companies offer flexible benefits that align with each employee’s unique needs and career trajectory. Understanding and delivering what certain employee demographics require will keep your program competitive.

Among flexible programs, tiered policies remain the top choice, but core/flex is becoming an increasingly popular option. According to Weichert’s survey, 56 percent of companies expect core/flex programs to grow in the coming year.

Use Lump Sums Wisely

Our survey showed fewer companies using lump sums for some employees, 44 percent in 2016 vs. 50 percent in 2015. Among the companies that do, 45 percent felt they provide employees with greater flexibility. If you offer a lump sum to your employees, make sure that you don’t include such tax deductible components as final move expenses and household goods shipment/storage. Since most companies provide tax assistance on the lump sum, this equates to extra costs, especially when multiplied by your total number of mobile employees.

Embrace New Technologies

We can all agree that managing your mobility budget is important, but how you manage it is just as critical. Our survey revealed that 54 percent of companies use such outdated methods as Excel spreadsheets to create cost estimates, which makes the process of budgeting and reporting more onerous than it needs to be. The good news: the survey also showed that 66 percent expect technology improvements to advance overall program

Get On the Same Page

Van Halen endured a number of personnel changes through the years, and it’s fair to guess that every new player had to acquaint himself with the band’s extensive catalog (although the jury’s still out on Gary Cherone). It’s a gentle reminder that in rock music as well as in business, the only constant is change. If your team or management has undergone some personnel changes in recent years, it might be an ideal time to provide staff with some basic relo education, on your own or in partnership with Worldwide ERC. This will give all team members a “back to basics” perspective and, who knows, perhaps even the insight to spot the brown M&Ms in your program, helping you avoid risks and improve results.

This post is an edited version of an article originally written for Mobility magazine. 

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Written by Tim McCarney

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Tim is Weichert’s Vice President of Marketing, responsible for keeping our brand strong and crafting our brand’s story. Outside of the office, he can often be found worrying about the Boston Red Sox.

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