In this opinion piece, Lindsay Lydon, Senior Business Solutions Consultant at InterNations, explains why employers should support expat employees in having a well-functioning life while working abroad.
With the workforce becoming more mobile and generations, such as Millennials, being more prone to relocating abroad for work, there is a greater expectation that employers should support the overall experience of global employees — beyond just compensation.
The changing global and generational landscapes bring new needs for those moving abroad, in terms of acclimatization, social integration, and dealing with cultural differences — inside and outside of the workplace. Global employees want to know how to deal with their role within the organization, how to communicate with their leader and peers, how to build their social life, and how to develop support networks. Those working in remote areas have further concerns about what life would be like in a more secluded location, what they will be able to do after work, and how they will sustain a real work-life balance.
The Expectation of Life Abroad Versus the Reality
Many expats have preconceived ideas and expectations of what life abroad would look like, but the reality often doesn’t match the expectation. From my own experience, when I moved abroad from the United States of America (USA) to Germany with my husband and two children, my first step was to become socially integrated with the people at my children’s school. I went there with the preconceived idea that Germans are cold and unfriendly, but these misconceptions quickly changed after I engaged with the parents and teachers at the school. Now, years later, I have many German friends who are part of my personal support network.
So yes, cultural misconceptions are rife because people are ill-prepared. Finding a house, school, and dealing with basic practicalities may be supported by the employer, but that’s just not enough. Employers need to move beyond the surface and deal with social components as well, because this greatly impacts the happiness of expats and whether they will make a success of the work they moved for.
The Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition, a report based on the InterNations Expat Insider survey, which is one of the most comprehensive on expat life, found that international hires, foreign assignees, and relocating spouses really struggle with feeling at home in the local culture and making friends. Of those who were unhappy abroad, their top two reasons were that they didn’t have access to local socializing opportunities, and they didn’t have a personal support network.
Expat employees need a support network that acknowledges both their struggles and growth — the challenges and highlights. Having interactions with people give expat employees the confidence to keep going and that sense of security. It validates that the choice they made to move abroad was a good one, because they see other people doing it too. They know they are not alone and not isolated. Furthermore, it prevents them from being stuck in an expat bubble or even worse, feeling completely isolated. Finding the right people to offer support, can be a real turning point in life abroad.
The Shift Employers Need to Make
Employer relocation support that includes personal support and access to these kinds of networks, should have buy-in at the highest level of the organization. Critical questions need to be asked, such as: Has the CEO agreed that the organizational culture will promote and reinforce the idea of an empowered global workforce? Is the need to support the social integration of employees abroad understood? And if so, is there a means and plan of how it should function? It’s not just the responsibility of HR and global mobility teams. All departments play a role in the success of foreign assignments and international talent retention.
A global mobility manager once told me that when they move people, they move them the right way — supporting them throughout the relocation process and expat lifecycle. She said assignment failure is just not in their vocabulary and that they only focus on assignment success. This is the kind of attitude and approach expat employees need from their organizations.
The onus lies with the employer to move employees holistically. There are many ways to do this and many options to choose from. Some companies pay a lot for housing or compensation packages, but does it impact overall experiences? They need to conduct internal surveys, listen to employee needs, spread the message of social integration abroad, and give pointers on how to handle cultural differences and build support networks — to name a few. They should not waste money when what someone really needs is a friend.
The reality is that miserable, overwhelmed employees will not be productive and will not fully deliver on business goals. Unhappiness with life abroad can quickly and easily turn into a failed foreign assignment or international talent loss.
Someone doesn’t just wake up one morning to quit their job abroad. Something leads to that moment, such as loneliness, homesickness, or unhappiness. Therefore, employers need to accept that real support is not just about money. It’s about enabling expat employees to have good experiences abroad — and it is very much part of their responsibility.
About the Author: Lindsay Lydon is a Senior Business Solutions Consultant at InterNations. With more than eleven years of management experience, Lindsay partners with global mobility teams in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States of America (USA) to provide social integration solutions for expats and relocating partners. She is an expat herself, having relocated to Munich, Germany, from the USA. Prior to her current role, she held various leadership positions in the retail and real estate industries. Lindsay is originally from Portland, Oregon, and holds an MBA from Northeastern University.