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Move Easier With Online Assistance

September 1, 1997
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Related Topics: Internet, Relocation Services, Relocation Management, Featured Article
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For decades, employee relocation has been a straightforward proposition. A corporate relocation adviser hands an individual a package overflowing with information on housing, schools, moving companies and more. The worker sifts through all the material, consults with a relocation counselor and embarks on a trip to the new locale to make arrangements for The Big Move . It's hectic, distracting and often overwhelming-even when an employee receives plenty of TLC. Says Diane MacPherson, editor of Relocation Journal and Real Estate News , "Usually, an uprooted individual isn't a productive employee."

Relocating an employee also is expensive and time-consuming for an employer. According to the Employee Relocation Council (ERC), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that tracks industry trends, the average cost to relocate an employee is $35,382 for new hires who own a home; $9,280 for new hires who rent; $45,373 for transferees who own a home; and $12,962 for transferees who rent. "Obviously, any way a company can cut costs and provide better service is a plus," says Jennifer Lugar, manager of member relations for the ERC, which boasts 1,200 corporate members as well as 11,000 individuals and companies from the relocation industry.

The online world is a way to improve customer service. A growing legion of companies is discovering that by posting relocation policies and procedures on intranet sites; creating World Wide Web hyperlinks to relocation specialists, moving companies, city guides and other resources; and by conducting electronic commerce, a company is able to simplify the relocation and expatriate processes in ways one couldn't have imagined just a few years ago. Although electronic relocation isn't yet widespread, already it's changing the nature of the industry.

"There are tremendous advantages to electronic communication. It's a way for people to find the exact information they need quickly and efficiently. It's a way for human resources personnel to create a self-service approach that really works," says David Gammel, manager of online research at the ERC. "Although a relocation department must always maintain a personal approach, many activities can be automated."

Find it on the Web.
One of the most useful places to sift through relocation data is on the World Wide Web. Today, many organizations, including relocation consulting firms, moving companies and others, are posting information that can be accessed in minutes. The ERC's Web site, for example, offers the ability to search for real estate brokers, appraisers and specialized relocation service companies by name or by geographic location. It offers articles and research material on the topic, including the ability to submit questions. And it also provides news and updates on the relocation industry.

"The benefit of going online is that it takes less time, the information is more up-to-date and it's far more cost efficient," notes Lugar. "There are clear-cut advantages for both employer and employee." Indeed, companies like Atlas Van Lines Inc., Mayflower Transit Inc. and United Van Lines Inc. all offer information about their products and services on their Web sites. At Atlas' Web site, for example, it's possible to locate an agent by clicking on a map and to submit an electronic form to obtain a bid. And some agents, such as Nelson Westerberg Inc. of Elk Grove, Illinois, are beginning to take orders using electronic forms. "It's clear that the Internet has many advantages. It's already simplifying things for our clients," says CEO John R. Westerberg.

Although a relocation department must always maintain a personal approach, many activities can be automated.

Real estate companies, including Century 21, Coldwell Banker and RE/MAX also are entering into the fray. Using a Web browser, it's possible for an employee to conduct a quick search for a real estate agent and even look at homes in a community by price or type of property. The RE/MAX Web site allows interactive, street-level mapping and provides nightly updates for the entire United States. It also includes listings for Africa, Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe and Mexico. Although "nobody's going to buy a home directly through the Internet, the Web site can help relocating employees sort out what they like or don't like," says the ERC's Gammel. "Once they take their first trip, they're already clued in to different neighborhoods and the types of homes available. It can help make the next trip far more efficient."

Century 21 also offers relocation packages for hundreds of communities around the United States. By clicking into the firm's relocation Web site, an individual can choose a city and request a $12.95 information package that includes information about shopping, taxes, schools, recreation and transportation, as well as community profiles. Those with access to America Online can obtain the data online by typing the keyword: CENTURY 21.

But perhaps the most remarkable use of the Internet is to sift through community information. Many cities already have established Web sites, with detailed information about housing, schools, city government, corporations, recreational opportunities, entertainment and more. Search sites such as Yahoo! and Excite offer specific information with only a few clicks of the mouse. As one relocated Excite employee puts it: "You can step in knowing that you want information on Kansas City or New York City and instantly find relocation information. It's possible to do comparisons, use real estate and cost-of-living calculators, and begin to assemble a picture of what it will take to relocate to an area. An employee has a far better understanding of what the move is all about. Two hours online is often equivalent to spending a day or two visiting a city."

Excite's travel guide, City.Net , covers more than 20 cities and a variety of other destinations around the world. Categories range from arts and entertainment to government and weather. There are hyperlinks to area businesses, sports, education and museums. And it's possible for users to access local newspapers, which often post online classified advertisements for apartments and real estate, among other items. "The interactive capability of the medium and the opportunity to sift through data and find what you're looking for provide a tremendous advantage," notes Robert F. Gregory, president of Argonaut Relocation Services, a Detroit-based firm that handles employee relocation for Detroit-based General Motors Corp. and other companies. Argonaut's Web site also includes tips and relocation industry information.

Partnerships also are forming on the Web. For example, Eli Lilly & Company and the City of Indianapolis are now working together to link their Web sites. That benefits both entities. When a new employee or transferee gets ready to move to Lilly's Indianapolis headquarters, HR managers direct the individual to the firm's homepage, which offers a hyperlink to a Chamber of Commerce site. Gathering information about the area is easy, says Ron Anglea, manager of U.S. recruiting and staffing.

The bottom line? HR at Lilly is drastically cutting back on the 800 to 1,200 information packages it mails out every year. And the net effect is substantial considering that each package -- crammed full of brochures, real estate information and guidebooks -- weighs in at a hefty three pounds. The cost of producing and mailing a package presently costs the company nearly $10. "It's saving the company money and allowing employees to find exactly what they want when they want it," Anglea explains.

Enter intranets.
Thanks to the World Wide Web, it's no longer necessary to wait days to receive a printed package of information that's hopelessly outdated. It's also no longer necessary to sift through reams of paper to uncover a phone number for a mortgage company or a shred of information about a van line. But the Internet is only part of the online relocation revolution. A growing number of corporations are discovering that internal Web sites, or intranets , also can help disseminate information and guide transferees and expatriates through the often confusing process.

Using a PC or kiosk equipped with a Web browser, it's possible for employees involved in a transfer or relocation to gather information about company policies and guidelines, and view specific links to vendors, consultants and others affiliated with the company. "It fits into the move toward employee self-service. It builds ease and convenience into the process," says Gregory.

It's a burgeoning trend. At Boston-based Fidelity Investments, employees can use the company's intranet to link to approved outside mortgage vendors -- which offer news, mortgage calculators, applications and loan approval information. The company plans to add other vendors in the coming months. At Basking Ridge, New Jersey-based AT&T, employees can access dozens of pages focusing on relocation policy, employer and employee responsibilities during a transfer or move, company allowances, and benefits availability and eligibility requirements. There are links to relocation counselors and other specialists, and a password-protected area where supervisors can check on managerial guidelines and scan frequently asked questions (FAQs).

According to Barry Pelletteri, chief information officer of human resources at AT&T, such backbone information is just the beginning. The company plans to automate many processes by adding embedded workflow -- a technology that will electronically route requests, approval forms and other transactions to appropriate individuals. AT&T online experts also are developing a comprehensive electronic forms library that will include relocation transactions. And they're presently setting up hyperlinks on the company's intranet to reach a variety of Web sites, including several city guides.

Of course, creating an intranet with sophisticated capabilities isn't easy. Although many companies now are developing content and boosting their site's offerings, some are outsourcing online global relocation and expatriate site administration. "Outsourcing these tasks is another way for human resources to get involved in business and strategic issues rather than administration," explains Bob Foster, chief operating officer of Ernst & Young's Dallas-based Global Expatriate Support Service. "Traditional methods -- mail pouches, e-mail, voicemail and fax -- leave a lot of cracks for information to slip through."

Ernst & Young, which has created sites for the likes of Pfizer, Mobil Oil and Lockheed-Martin, actually uses its Internet site as a gateway to private pages for specific companies. There, employees at these companies can find company-specific FAQs, policies, and information about schools, medical facilities, language training and relocation counselors -- whether the move involves transplanting to Spain or Singapore.

Yet, like any new technology, there are plenty of emerging challenges. For one thing, an intranet site is only as good as its content, organization and links. But there's also a basic business reality. Because employee relocation is only one element in the overall scheme of things, it's usually part of a smorgasbord of intranet offerings. That means that few companies can focus on it as the centerpiece of their online strategy. Moreover, a one-size-fits-all approach to content doesn't always work. It's certainly no bulletin that many companies have different benefits and relocation policies for different groups of employees. That situation's diversity can require the HR department to develop extra content and HRIS to create the navigational tools for channeling employees to the appropriate online information.

The revolution has just begun.
Although many companies continue to grope with the basics of connecting employees to the Internet as well as to their intranets, new capabilities already have begun to appear on HR radar screens. The emergence of extranets -- virtual private networks that connect companies -- promise to make electronic data exchange and commerce between companies a reality. That would allow, for example, an employee to submit a mortgage application from his or her desktop PC at work or one's notebook PC on the road, any time of the day or night. It could also allow a transferee to link directly into a city government's Web site and make arrangements for electrical and refuse service to begin on a specific date. In fact, a sophisticated Web site with workflow capability could walk the employee through the entire process at his or her own pace.

Although the technical capabilities for such transactions already exist, few companies have taken the plunge. But the situation might soon change. The ERC will begin facilitating e-commerce later this year. Home inspection, market analysis and appraisal forms will go online. "There will be a standardized way for appraisers, home inspection professionals and real estate professionals to transmit forms electronically," says Lugar. "It will speed the relocation process considerably." Adds Argonaut's Gregory, "The more automated the process among mortgage companies, brokers, moving companies and others, the less time employees spend being unproductive."

For now, the focus is on using the Internet and intranets to eliminate paper and provide information more quickly and efficiently. Net-savvy employees can do much of the up-front legwork on their own using a Web browser, and smart HR departments can eliminate the constant drone of paper shuffling by directing employees to electronic versions of policies and procedures, and connecting them to outside vendors.

"Relocation," says Lugar, "has always been a very personal, high-touch area, and that's not going to change. The idea isn't to remove human contact, it's to eliminate many of the inefficiencies that currently exist. A lot of tasks in the relocation process can be handled online and don't require a counselor. Web technology and relocation are a perfect fit." Adds Jan Nelson, director of corporate research for Newburyport, Massachusetts-based Mobility Services International, a worldwide employee relocation service, "People are just beginning to scratch the surface and realize what an important tool the online world is."

Workforce, September 1997, Vol. 76, No. 9, pp. 48-56.

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