Katia Vlachos, Expat Transition Coach and Author, answers seven questions about why employers need to take a holistic approach to the relocation and integration support they offer to foreign assignees and their partners.
1. You help expats to feel at home wherever they are. How do you do this?
Expats need to be able to create home wherever they go — it’s an essential part of the transition process. The concept of home shapes the way expats approach the different phases of an international move and cope with adjustment challenges. While everyone's concept of home is unique, I find it helps to categorize concepts into three broad themes:
A deep understanding of the concept(s) of home — as well as those of their partner and family, if they’re not moving alone — helps expats make smooth transitions. This is why it’s one of my core missions to help my clients figure out what home means for them and then use that awareness to create home, consciously and with intention, wherever they are.
2. You state that with the right tools and support, any move abroad can be a great move. What do these tools and support entail?
Besides knowing their concept of home, following a systematic, step-by-step approach to the moving process is another key ‘tool’ for expats to make a successful move. In my book and in my coaching work, I take expats through a structured approach to every phase of the move, from deciding whether to move, to planning and preparing, making the move, and finally settling into the new location.
In each phase, there are key elements that set them up for success. For instance, when planning (if not already in the decision phase), they should consider the implications of the move for each area of their life — career, social circle, support system, personal development, well-being etc. That way expats anticipate potential challenges and consider what resources they and their family will need to cope. The next step is for them to line up those resources or request and negotiate with their employer. Even if expats don’t have a lot of time to spend on each phase of the move, this structure helps them to define priorities and an action plan.
3. What are some of the biggest challenges that expats that move abroad for work — as well as their partners — face?
Through my research and work with expats, I’ve identified four key challenges:
4. How can employers address these challenges?
Support that employers and mobility professionals can provide to help with the four challenges I mentioned, includes:
5. Employers often focus more on practical support, such as offering moving assistance, than personal support, such as providing access to local networking or socializing opportunities (findings from the Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition). How can employers strike the right balance between these two support types?
While practical support is essential in the case of an international move, the availability (or lack) of emotional support can make (or break) a foreign assignment. I’ve been a long-time advocate of encouraging employers to gain a deeper understanding of the experience and emotional challenges of expatriation. Focusing on the individuals who move — including the partner and children — and understanding exactly what they are dealing with, allows employers to tailor the resources and services that they offer to the needs of their assignees and find the right balance of practical and personal support that works for each particular case. The ideal outcome is personalized, customized support, which is becoming increasingly important as Millennials (with their distinct preference for hands-on, customized solutions and experiences) take over the global workforce.
6. What are the benefits of a holistic approach to relocation support?
Becoming aware of the challenges of leading a global life, both practical and emotional, and providing tailored, targeted support to everyone who moves benefits both individuals and organizations. For example, ‘family concerns’ are the top stated reason for the early return from a foreign assignment — or the failure thereof. The costs — financial, professional and personal — of failed assignments are high for assignees, their families, and employers.
When expats and their families get the support they need, they are able to cope more effectively with the challenges of transition and create the conditions for thriving in their new lives. With their partners and families adjusting smoothly, assignees are better able to focus on work and perform in their new positions. This increases the odds of a successful assignment and an engaged, productive employee.
7. What final words of wisdom do you have for global mobility and HR managers that manage global talent?
Focus on the whole family — not just the assignee. Seek to understand all aspects of their experience. Expand the range of available services to include resources for building a support network, dealing with career issues, and supporting the adjustment process in targeted ways. This does not mean bigger packages, but rather a more efficient and effective use of existing funds.
For example, an expat partner who wants to pursue their career abroad would be more likely to benefit from help with networking, career coaching, or support with understanding the local job market, rather than an introduction to local expat spouse coffee mornings, which may be part of the standard package. Providing foreign assignees and their families with the support they need not only helps everyone make a smoother transition, but it also allows them to hit the ground running and settle into their new positions at work faster. It’s a win-win.
About the Expert: Katia Vlachos is a cross-cultural adaptation writer, expat coach, and the author of A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment. A researcher and policy analyst by training, she holds a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a Ph.D. from the RAND Corporation. She has lived in eight cities and seven countries — and on three continents. Katia helps expatriates cope with many kinds of transitions, including international relocations, career changes, reinvention and identity issues, as well as relationship challenges and breakdowns which result from a mobile lifestyle. She has written, among others, for the Harvard Business Review, Huffington Post, and Thrive Global.