Theresa Häfner, Head of Business Solutions at InterNations, which assists global mobility and HR professionals with the onboarding and social integration of their employees, explains why helping international employees and their families integrate socially should be a priority for every employer, and how it impacts both the expat and the company.
Employers underestimate the need for social integration and the fact that it is part of their responsibility to make sure their expat employees manage to feel at home and welcome abroad. However, smooth integration abroad is not only beneficial to the employees but can also have a significant impact on business goals — in terms of productivity, risk management, and cost-efficiency.
What Does Social Integration Mean Exactly?
Social Integration is very closely linked to settling in, feeling at home, and making friends — becoming part of the new environment and being immersed in the local culture. It goes beyond just learning about it in an intercultural seminar. In the InterNations Business Solutions Expat Insider Business Edition, which zooms in on global talent mobility through expat eyes, these factors are proven to be critical for the ability of expats to settle in abroad. Integration definitely has strong social and emotional aspects. It is very personal, after all.
Naturally, there is a human need for having a sense of belonging and being part of a social network. This is again clear from the Expat Insider Business Edition: A lack of socializing opportunities and not having personal support are the two main reasons for the unhappiness of those who moved abroad for work. This is also an indicator that employees look for a better work-life balance abroad, and employers have to cater to these needs in order to stay competitive and fill their positions abroad.
On the other hand, financial incentives are still an important factor and some expats might take on an international career perspective with an attitude such as: “I will focus on work for a couple of years, earn some money, and then restart my social life again back home”.
However, when I lived and worked abroad myself, it always helped to avoid thinking of my stay as a temporary state. I decided to go all out and put effort into establishing a new life wherever I was, regardless of the period of time that I planned to spend there. That way I was happier and more successful — initially in my studies and later in my work.
Expats that put their (real) life on hold may miss a chance to learn, grow personally, and benefit from a rewarding experience abroad. This doesn’t just have a negative impact on the expat, but also on the employer, with issues such as unproductivity, an increased risk of talent loss, and failed assignments as results.
Social Integration is Part of an Employer’s Responsibility
Many employers still offer quite impressive and extensive relocation packages despite cost-cutting. This, however, mainly applies to big corporate companies that can afford comprehensive packages. They also very much focus on supporting the “classic” expats, so only those who are sent abroad for a dedicated task and limited time. For the rest of their time abroad, and arguably the more critical time of integration, expats and their families must manage their stay more independently and ongoing support is lacking.
Companies that hire internationally, more specifically, seem to underestimate the negative impact that not being socially integrated has on their international hires. In some instances, there may be some allowance or help with the visa, but oftentimes not much more. For expats, culture shock is real — even if it is a conscious decision to go abroad for a job, it can be a lot harder than it seemed to be away from family, friends, known food, and simply a familiar environment. Therefore, many companies face high turnover rates for international hires. This is costly, not only in terms of time for new recruiting and onboarding, but also in terms of knowledge loss, and instability in the team.
Employers, however, seem to be afraid to interfere in the private lives of their employees, don’t want to pay for leisure time, and miss out on the chance to support their employees in an area where they can really make a difference.
Employer Misconceptions About Social Integration
Employers can and should support the social integration process, but they can’t simply solve this challenge for their employees. They must also count on the motivation of expats to find their way into the local lifestyle or culture and connect with others. Self-catering tools or the right offers for social networking next to the relocation package can have a significant impact.
As global mobility is a well-established industry with comprehensive expat packages and lots of knowledge and experience in this field, an adjustment and expansion of existing structures and offers is probably the next step to further optimize and improve. Spouse support and ongoing social integration seem to be the components that aren’t yet as established and clearly defined as others, and where many companies still struggle. Some new inspiration can trigger valuable change and improvements.
For HR, more significant changes and new perspectives are needed due to globalization, the intensifying war for talent, and the fact that more and more companies must hire globally. This puts them in a new position and creates a need to think differently about the onboarding and retention of these international hires. It starts with the awareness that international hires need more support on the social and cultural side. While many won’t be able to offer the same comprehensive expat packages as their colleagues from the global mobility departments in corporate companies, they need to think of more economical and efficient ways to support their new hires with relocation and integration.
For both, new thinking about the social aspects of relocation are important and they will have to put the people (even) more in focus.
About the Author: Theresa Häfner is Head of Business Solutions at InterNations, the world’s largest expat network. InterNations Business Solutions provides expert insights and personalized solutions for global mobility and HR professionals to ensure successful foreign assignments and improved international talent retention. She has eight years’ experience in the expat field and working with international teams. Having lived abroad for long periods of her career, she knows the challenges of relocation first-hand.