Alternative Assignments: HR’s Version of the Marshmallow Challenge

Love marshmallows? Perhaps, you have heard of Tom Wujec’s The Marshmallow Challenge. He’s a Fellow at Autodesk, a world leader in 2D and 3D design. In other words, he’s a pretty sharp thinker.

Here’s the challenge: “In eighteen minutes, teams must build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top.” In short, it’s a design exercise that reinforces collaboration, innovation and creativity for participating teams.

Easy enough, right? You would think, but the results surprised us. Why? Because it was kindergartners who outperformed adult groups, even MBA students. Kindergartners immediately got busy with the task at hand without fear of failure. The kindergartners’ strategy was to prototype and test, prototype and test, prototype and test until the time was up.

Whether they know it or not, HR professionals managing a global population are already engaged in the marshmallow challenge. They are currently in pursuit of innovative designs for an ever changing assignee population. The traditional, long-term expatriate assignment no longer works in all situations, so HR needs to collaborate, innovate, and create appropriate alternative assignments.

And the best way to achieve results? Take it from a kindergartner: prototype and test, prototype and test, prototype and test.

Building Alternatives
Here are some of the new designs being constructed by HR professionals:

  • Short-Term Assignments: A popular alternative assignment defined as typically spanning three months to one year. The assignee normally does not change residency status and is not typically accompanied by family.
  • Commuter Assignments: Involves the assignee commuting every one to two weeks from the home location to work in the host location; in this case, the primary residence remains in the home location.
  • Full-Time Local Hire: Another alternative assignment option. Hiring locals enables corporations to gain instant access to cultural acumen, increasing understanding of how to best function in the country’s unique market.

What Makes Alternatives Work
Here’s what HR professionals are discovering as they test alternate designs:

  • Flexibility: Alternative assignments allow corporations to promptly address pressing business concerns with greater ease.
  • Cost Control: If well-managed, alternative assignments can be more cost-effective than their traditional long-term counterpart.
  • Attractiveness: Most alternative assignments avoid upheaval of the assignee’s family, making these alternatives more attractive to more employees.

Prototype and Test
Here’s what HR professionals are learning as they prototype and test:

  • Watch Costs: Temporary housing, frequent trips to the home country and Per Diem expenses can be costly, especially if an alternative assignment runs longer than initially planned.
  • Watch Compliancy: Corporations must ensure compliance with the immigration and tax laws of the host country and consider assignee residency.
  • Watch Complexity: Corporations must anticipate the administrative complexity of alternative assignments and consider HR technology to address this complexity.

The Marshmallow on Top
After testing alternative solutions, HR professionals continue to learn best practices for creating alternative expatriate assignments—for balancing the marshmallow on top. A vigilant HR department with an effective tracking system is essential for success. Fortunately, HR can utilize global workforce management technology solutions to track a wide range of assignee and assignment data without placing unnecessary drain on its department.

Traditional long-term expatriate assignments will continue to be a necessity for some global corporations. What we can expect, however, is alternative assignments giving corporations more freedom in how they work to improve global mobility.

Whatever approach you decide upon, take your cues from kindergartners—get busy with the task at hand, have no fear of failure, and always end up with the marshmallow on top.