While moving abroad for work comes with its challenges, relocating to a remote location can pose even greater difficulties for foreign assignees and their families. These added complexities call for employers to provide more innovative types of support to their assignees in remote locations, to ensure that their employees are happy and productive in their host country.
When it comes to expat destinations, what normally springs to mind are the big and glamorous expat hotspots — London, New York, Berlin. However, as the pursuit of low-cost manufacturing and commodities persists and companies continue to access emerging markets, employees are increasingly being sent on global assignments to more isolated locations — and potentially less desirable — than the large expat hubs.
As the global mobility landscape continues to evolve, there is a need to identify what this ongoing trend means for employers, and the relocation support they provide to their assignees.
The Different Faces of Failure
Despite companies placing an increased importance on sourcing global talent, many assignments continue to fail.
Olivier Meier, Principal at Mercer — a leader in global consulting — specializes in international talent management, with a focus on global mobility within emerging markets. Meier believes that companies need to adopt a broader definition of assignment failure. ‘’A failed assignment is not just about an employee terminating their assignment prematurely. It is also about low productivity while on assignment, assignees who leave the company shortly after the end of the assignment, or even the lack of succession planning in the host location.’’
While the Millennial generation has a greater interest in moving abroad than previous generations, not all assignment locations are attractive to employees. ‘’There is often a mismatch between the company’s requirements and the expectations of mobile employees. We are seeing this with the new generations that are very mobile but don’t necessarily aspire to go to the remote locations where their companies need them to be,’’ says Meier. Global assignments in remote locations can place heightened pressure on the ability of the assignee and their family to adapt and thrive — both personally and professionally.
Given the diminished attractiveness and amplified challenges of relocating to a remote location, employees and their families may require added incentives and greater support in order to ensure the success of their assignment and mitigate against assignment risk.
Integrated Assignees are More Productive Employees
Although it may be slightly easier for foreign assignees to socially integrate into the larger expat hotspots, the Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition — a report based on the 2018 Expat Insider survey with 18,135 respondents — shows that building a social circle can be one of the most difficult aspects of moving abroad, regardless of location. The survey found that 59% of foreign assignees that are unhappy abroad blame a lack of socializing opportunities — their main reason for unhappiness. The second-most important reason for their unhappiness was because they don’t have a personal support network, with 45% of foreign assignees indicating this.
The isolation of remote locations and reduced access to airports can result in foreign assignees feeling even further away from their home country. This can leave them more vulnerable to home-sickness, ultimately compounding their unhappiness.
In locations without a large international group or expat community, assignees might miss other expats who share the same experiences and who can empathize with the challenges of living and working in a remote community.
Supportive and genuine friendships — with both locals and other expats — are critical to feeling at home and help to overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation in their new location. However, such friendships can be difficult to develop, especially within a remote location.
Companies need to develop strategies to better support the integration of their foreign assignees, fostering positive relationships with other colleagues within the workplace, and connecting them with others in their community. Focusing efforts on facilitating social integration benefits both the employer and employee. It has been proven that well-integrated assignees are not only happier in their personal life, but more focused and productive at work as a result.
Family Matters in Focus
Family concerns are the number one reason for assignment refusal, while family-related issues are the primary cause of assignment failure (Brookfield Global Relocation Services, 2016). While this is true for global assignments in general, assignments in remote locations are likely to be met with heightened resistance and produce greater challenges for expat families.
‘’Family considerations represent some of the biggest challenges for foreign assignees sent to a remote location, with the inability of the employee’s spouse to find work in the host location one of the greatest barriers to global mobility. Relocating spouses might have to stop or slow down their careers — a sacrifice that not everybody is prepared to make,’’ says Meier.
Relocating spouses are central to the expat family structure, and it is critical that companies consider their needs when providing relocation support. This is, however, an area of assistance that is lacking across the board, with 56% of relocating spouses not receiving additional spouse support as part of their relocation package, although they would like it (Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition). ‘’It is very important to support spouses to find a job in the host location, or to identify opportunities for further education and training,’’ says Meier.
Apart from the professional implications of moving to a remote location, social isolation can also be a big issue, with the lack of a personal support network the primary contributor to the unhappiness of relocating spouses who rate their happiness negatively (Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition). Those who cannot find employment or are unable to work in the host country due to visa limitations, and those who stay home to care for the family may be at heightened risk. Recent figures show that 27% of relocating spouses stay at home to care for their households or children, while 17% are looking for work (Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition). Employers need to consider ways to support relocating spouses to integrate and form a support network abroad — especially for those who do not have opportunities for social interaction within the workplace.
In some instances, assignment locations are not suitable for families to accompany the assignee. This can be due to various factors, such as security and safety concerns, health risks, and the lack of employment opportunities for the spouse or education opportunities for expat children. Meier recognizes that this poses additional challenges for the family: ‘’Companies need to take these situations into account, and provide additional support to alleviate the resulting challenges, such as frequent trips home for the assignee’’.
Overcoming Language and Cultural Barriers
The inability to adapt to the host country is one of the three most commonly cited factors attributed to an unsuccessful global assignment (Brookfield Global Relocation Services, 2016), representing an important consideration for employers — particularly those sending foreign assignees to locations that may be more difficult in terms of adjustment.
Often the expat hotspots offer luxuries to ease adaptation that the more remote locations do not. Such remote locations may also present a more challenging language barrier, as well as a heightened likelihood of assignees and their families experiencing culture shock.
Although language classes and intercultural training might be considered as traditionally standard aspects of relocation packages, many global employees and their spouses miss it: 31% of foreign assignees and 46% of relocating spouses do not receive access to language classes, and 45% of foreign assignees and 53% of relocating spouses do not receive access to intercultural training, although indicating that they would like to receive these types of support (Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition).
Such figures suggest that companies — particularly those sending families to remote locations that pose bigger adjustment challenges — should strongly consider incorporating these aspects of support into their relocation packages. Ensuring that language classes and intercultural training are available to foreign assignees and their spouses can help to alleviate some of these adaptation difficulties, and support employees to personally and professionally adjust to their new environment.
Evolving Mobility Landscape Calls for More Support
As the global war for talent intensifies and the pursuit of low-cost manufacturing and commodities persists, mobility patterns continue to evolve. While emerging markets offer attractive benefits, the ongoing challenge will be for employers to meet the unique support needs of assignees and their families in remote locations, to ensure that their employees are happy and productive abroad.
Read the Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition: Expat Insider is one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive surveys on life abroad (18,135 expats from across the globe took part in the 2018 survey — 10% of respondents were foreign assignees, 19% were international hires, and 8% were relocating spouses).
Brookfield Global Relocation Services. 2016. Breakthrough to the Future of Global Talent Mobility: 2016 Global Mobility Trends Survey.
InterNations Business Solutions. 2018. Expat Insider Business Edition: A Look at Global Talent Mobility Through Expat Eyes.