Why businesses are raising their relocation game

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Many moons ago, when my husband and I were raising small children in Washington, he was told his job was moving to New York. Since his was the bigger pay cheque, and comparable posts were few in DC, we felt we had to pack up and go.

I was lucky, in that my employer agreed to shift me to a job that could be done from New York, so our family finances did not suffer.

But the kids endured multiple changes in schools and childcare, and I missed days at work far too frequently in the months after the move, as we struggled to rebuild the support network we had left behind.

So it came as no surprise that a recent study by Boston College assistant professors Hanno Foerster and Robert Ulbricht found that difficulties in finding two appropriate jobs substantially depresses the share of dual-earner households that are willing to relocate — generally with a disproportionate effect on women.

38%Estimate of how much migration rates would increase in the short term – 14 per cent long term – without ‘co-location friction’

They estimate that migration rates would increase 38 per cent in the short term and 14 per cent long term without this “co-location friction”, as they describe it, and observe that the effect is particularly pronounced for highly educated “power couples”.

While this has probably been the case for a long time, the pressure on employers to do more to ease the burdens on “trailing spouses” has risen sharply, human resources experts say. It is partly due to a broader emphasis on worker wellbeing and a new openness to different kinds of work arrangement that came to the fore during Covid. Hot job markets, particularly for female and other diverse candidates, have also forced employers’ hands.

For example, headhunters report that, in the aftermath of the pandemic, more top recruits are reluctant to uproot their families. That has compelled companies seeking chief financial officers, particularly in demand right now, to accede to requests to work partly from another city.

But leaving the family behind is not the preferred solution for most job candidates — or most employers. That means hirers must find ways to make relocation easier and less stressful at a time when fewer and fewer households fit the traditional model of breadwinner and homemaker and therefore need different kinds of support.

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Employers must recognise the financial hit many dual-income families take from moving. Not only do many trailing spouses have to give up their jobs, but those with professional qualifications — such as doctors, social workers and physical therapists — are often unable to work in the new location because of licensing requirements.

The hit to the trailing spouse’s income and career is hard to measure. But research by Joanna Venator, a Boston College assistant professor of economics, found that financial support for a trailing spouse — usually a woman — can substantially increase a family’s willingness to move. Couples who live in US states that allow workers to claim unemployment insurance when they move for a spouse’s job are 40 per cent more likely to move.

While migration subsidies are rare, relocation packages that include job search support for the spouse are another way to address the same problem. “In academia, we are often trying to solve two-body problems and there will be conversations about that after making the offer,” Venator notes.

This is a great first step, but not nearly enough to remove the stresses of a long-distance move. There are unfamiliar school systems to navigate and dentists and day care providers to track down, not to mention finding somewhere to live and possibly a pet to transport.

Relocation companies are used to helping with houses, schools and the mechanics of moving, but there is growing recognition that families expect more now. Since the pandemic, employers have been more open about offering mental health support and cultural training that continues after the family’s arrival.

Employer-sponsored peer groups and buddy systems to help new arrivals are also more common, as employers adopt strategies that have long worked for the US military.

Since families come in different shapes and sizes, many employers also provide an additional support budget and customise it, says Kathy Burrows, a senior director at Sirva, which provides relocation services. A single parent might pay for a relative to help the family settle in. An employee with mobility issues could pay for adaptive equipment. In the US, a homeowner faced with swapping a low-rate mortgage for a new home at today’s much higher rates could opt for a new benefit, known as a mortgage interest differential allowance, to ease the financial burden for a couple of years.

“Companies are really listening and understanding those concerns,” Burrows says.

If businesses want to attract the best talent, they must keep finding ways to improve that support. Governments, too, need to get involved and make it easier to transfer skills across jurisdictional lines to prevent relocation from becoming a permanent drag on the trailing spouse’s career.

Win a free EMBA

The FT is launching its annual Women in Business essay competition in partnership with the 30% Club and Henley Business School. The prize is a fully funded place on Henley’s part-time Executive MBA programme starting from October 2024.

This year’s question is: ‘Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) be a help or a hindrance to women achieving greater representation in leadership?’

The deadline is May 28. More information: hly.ac/WiLscholarship

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