With more than a decade of experience working globally and supporting foreign assignees, Jesse Rowell, Managing Director of Global Mobility and Market Development at Aperian Global, highlights the importance of relocation support and why employers should go the extra mile in supporting global employees beyond just onboarding.
1. What are the most important aspects of relocation support to maximize the productivity of foreign assignees and improve assignment success?
Employees need to feel prepared for what they are walking into from day one. Some of that preparation is rooted in ensuring the personal side of the move goes as smoothly as possible (movement of belongings, settling into a new home, maneuvering comfortably in a new city, etc.). If employees are not happy on the home front, it definitely impacts getting things done at work.
The most important aspect of preparation that ensures assignment success is transferring what made them successful in their home culture to their new host culture. In order to do that, employees need to understand the cultural gaps present, and have strategies to adapt their working style accordingly.
2. How do you define the difference between onboarding and integration — and the support needed for these phases of the expat lifecycle?
Depending on the corporate context of onboarding and integration, there may be different descriptions. In the work that Aperian Global does, onboarding is often defined as helping a new employee become aware of the company at large, it’s corporate culture, rules, benefits, and so on. That could also apply to an assignee being onboarded in a host country. Integration efforts would be those skills and behaviors that can be applied to one’s working style before moving, and while on assignment, to ensure success. It also means that there is support with the integration of the entire family. However, for some, onboarding may also mean the cultural coaching that comes with settling into a host country.
In the thousands of engagements we have had with assignees and their families over the years, having added support with integration is more vital than the onboarding. Integrating into a new culture is never easy for individuals or families, and the support needed is going to be longer-term than what is required in terms of onboarding support. Help during pre-departure, post-arrival, and throughout the assignment is key to success. And those companies that plan and budget for these phases in the expat lifecycle are likely to experience more successful assignments.
3. What are the main reasons that organizations struggle with failed foreign assignments?
Surveys over many years, among all nationalities, have consistently shown that family-related issues are the number one cause of failed foreign assignments. Other reasons that also show up regularly are the inability to adapt to the host location, poor processes around choosing candidates for assignment, and job expectations that have not been met. A lack of integration support and inadequate onboarding are also contributing factors.
I believe companies struggle because mobility policies and budgets vary from company to company, and even by type of assignment. Furthermore, there exists a deep disconnect in many companies between mobility departments and overall talent development. Companies worry about (and are vocal about) low employee engagement, attrition, turnover, and recruiting talent. But when it comes to tracking the same things from expats, very little is being done. A lot of valuable lessons and policy-informing data could be gleaned by a stronger linkage between these groups.
4. What is your advice to address these issues?
Companies and mobility professionals should listen to their expats. They should conduct surveys with them to find out what could be better, and what is missing in terms of relocation support that would have helped. This information should then be fed back into talent development, where greater visibility and awareness can lead to more support for assignees and for mobility departments.
5. What is your view on relocation support going beyond onboarding and having more longevity?
Expats and their families are going to struggle, no matter the preparation or prior experience. There may be a honeymoon period, where the general excitement of being in a new place can overcome any initial cultural hurdles. But then things may plateau. Assignees that feel supported when they need extra help, perhaps months into an assignment, stand a better chance at success — whether it is through community-based support, ad hoc spot coaching or training, or online tools.
I would encourage companies to not see onboarding as a one-off or transactional event. It is a key step to getting started on the right foot, but everything is not going to be covered via onboarding. Making ongoing support available, in any fashion, will pay dividends. What that support looks like may vary depending on the background and experience of the assignee and the options available, but cultural coaching, language learning, and settling-in or localization services are possible types.
6. How will this longevity of relocation support help employees inside and outside of the workplace?
Inside the workplace, longevity of support provides reassurance to employees that the company will do whatever it can to provide services to help them be successful. It is important to remember that an expat on assignment is an ambassador representing the company. And like an ambassador in the Foreign Service, understanding the cultural differences that impact how work is done in a particular country is vital. Organizations that take cultural training and integration seriously will make sure their ambassadors do so as well.
Plus, company relocation support throughout the assignment builds loyalty and trust among employees, which in turn yields higher productivity.
The same holds true for support outside the workplace. Those services may manifest in ways that help employees in a larger context beyond their job. For example, if a company is supportive of networking and socializing outside normal business hours, it gives license to the employee to integrate community with the job. There are countless stories of expats and their families meeting strangers while on assignment that turn out to play significant roles in their own success.
7. What does the future hold for relocation support to ensure improved foreign assignments?
No matter the age or experience of assignees, being able to access the support services provided to them on-demand will be important. Right now, too many services are deployed in a manner that is not convenient to the expat or their family. Service providers need to be flexible in their approach to allow for delivery in any number of ways (virtual, online, or face-to-face) and at a time that works for the assignee.
In my mind, the future of relocation support means maximum flexibility offered to those needing it, while being affordable to mobility budgets and company policies. Global mobility professionals need to recognize the anxiety that comes with being an expat on assignment. If the goal is to ensure a successful assignment, then adjust and adapt policies that frame relocation support to alleviate as much of that anxiety as possible. That means looking to outside partners that can provide the integration support in new and flexible ways.
About the Expert: Jesse Rowell is Managing Director of Global Mobility and Market Development at Aperian Global, which provides organizations with scalable and innovative learning solutions to conduct business effectively across boundaries, including the GlobeSmart cultural tool. The firm has prepared tens of thousands of assignees and families for international moves across the globe, equipping them with best-in-class support for the challenges they are likely to face in their new locations. He is based in Chicago, Illinois.