What Employers Can Learn from Digital Nomads to Better Support Relocating Spouses

In this opinion piece, Katharina von Knobloch, an Expat Partner Coach supporting women in transition around the world, shares her insights on the career dilemma that many relocating spouses face and how the digital nomad approach can help.

When employers are designing their relocation packages, one factor is particularly important to consider — the professional future of the accompanying spouse. The growing number of dual-career couples and the rise of professional ambitions on both sides of a relationship bring along a challenge that is not at all surprising. It is, however, tricky to tackle in our increasingly global society with more and more foreign assignments being rejected out of concern for the partner's career. On the other hand, we see digital nomads rising in numbers, leaving the traditional nine-to-five cubicle job to travel the world while establishing a portable career. Hence, it is worth looking into the phenomenon of digital nomads and what relocating spouses — and employers supporting them — can learn from this modern approach of shaping a career.

The Current Career Dilemma for Relocating Spouses

Several surveys indicate that approximately 20% of expat partners are able to either take their job with them or find a new appropriate position abroad. The rest are focusing on family matters or struggling with aspects such as work permits, social norms, acknowledgment of certification, or simply the bigger barrier of a foreign job market and the absence of a support network. While the career repercussions for relocating spouses have not really been a focus topic in the past, international companies are increasingly alarmed about the number of assignments that fail due to job frustrations experienced by the relocating spouse. About 90% of Generation Y partners have been employed prior to relocation (compared to 67% within the Baby Boomer generation), and most are not willing to step down from the workforce.

It's Not About the Paycheck

Many companies try to convince their high potential employees to move abroad for work by means of lucrative relocation packages, factoring in the potential income loss of the partner. However, at the end of the day, giving up your job does much more to you as a person than to your paycheck. My research amongst 200 relocating spouses showed that the ones who were able to continue working abroad are much more confident with their skills and feel way more independent. Partners who are not working are increasingly losing confidence over time, feel invisible, and connect their unhappiness with a lack of career opportunities.

Employment often gives us a purpose and a sense of value that is crucial for our well-being. Work provides a social network of colleagues, bosses, and clients that act as a sounding board for ideas and problems. A work environment equips us with valuable social relationships that help us to fit into an unfamiliar place and understand cultural differences. However, most of all, it means constant communication, feedback, and acknowledgment, all of which make us feel less alone and part of a community that is larger than ourselves.

While the working partner starts a foreign assignment with their desk as a safe harbor in a time of much transition and upheaval, the spouse is left with a huge void to be filled by their own power and imagination. During this time, spouses are often concerned about the future of their career and what will happen after a potential return home. With roughly 80% of relocating spouses being female, the modern view on feminism, which can almost stigmatize women who choose to stay at home, adds social pressure to an already difficult situation.

Digital Nomads: The Modern Form of Remote Work

So, what could be the answer to this dilemma? One term flying around is “portable career” with its promise of grouping global mobility, family planning, and career ambitions all under one umbrella. According to increased media coverage, digital nomads have coined this phrase by taking flexible working to the next level.

My career planning research amongst digital nomads revealed that they have not only created a unique form of remote work but also brought along a very interesting mindset. Digital nomads show a very distinct level of confidence in terms of their skills (more than 20%, compared to relocating spouses). Individual interviews with digital nomads reveal that this level of confidence is often connected to the long preparation phase to start this journey and the pure will to make it happen, motivated by the fact that they have chosen this specific lifestyle and taken their professional path into their own hands. In comparison, relocating spouses are triggered by their partner's company to move abroad, and are forced to adapt accordingly.

While relocating spouses worry about what others may think of their career choice abroad, digital nomads only focus on themselves. They are less concerned about their career outlook and are very solution-oriented. Interestingly enough, when relocating spouses and digital nomads are asked for character traits that make them successful, five of the top ten mentioned skills are identical — flexibility, adaptability, curiosity, communication, and organizational skills.

Digital nomads can be seen to be paving the way for expat partners by pushing the limits of work and promoting a lifestyle of independence. While the background of the person and work permit restrictions might mean it is not possible to simply copy this approach, it can provide a source of inspiration to relocating spouses.

Digital nomads can be role models, inspiring relocating spouses to take their career into their own hands and reinvent themselves by changing career paths or using the time abroad as a preparation phase for starting a freelance business. Digital nomads are leveraging the benefits of technology by joining online accountability groups, continually improving their skills with online training, and using a wide range of online services to facilitate processes from billing to promotion. They have built a worldwide community of colleagues to fight the loneliness of self-employment and are heavily promoting their skillset and business, which are aspects that relocating spouses also struggle with.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

Globally operating companies should start to rethink their career support for expat partners focusing on how to empower the partner to start a location-independent career. In that sense, employers are not only supporting the spouse but can build long-term loyalty to the company by increasing the flexibility to move abroad again. Employers should ask themselves what kind of skillset they can foster to equip the partner with digital nomad know-how. For example, are there local networks of digital nomads and creatives they can access to connect the partner with an empowering community? While a portable career can add freedom and flexibility, it can be socially isolating. Hence, connecting the relocating spouse with local networks will become more important than ever.

Companies establish long-lasting career plans with their employees even for the time after returning from a foreign assignment. Why not do the same for the partner by focusing less on a specific language skill and job support for a limited amount of time, and more on investing in online courses that help the partner to change their career path for good?

The Bottom Line

The increased media coverage of new work forms, such as portable careers and the phenomenon of digital nomads, can provide inspiration for the professional future of relocating spouses. It does not only offer an alternative approach to a well-known problem, but also advocates for a solution-oriented mindset that can help international companies to create better relocation packages.

Katharina von Knobloch_Expat Spouse CoachAbout the Author: Katharina von Knobloch is an Expat Partner Coach helping women in transition around the world. She is on a mission to empower relocating spouses to find their own professional identity. As an expat partner herself, she has lived and worked in five different countries and has used her own experiences in combination with her coaching education and research in the field of expatriate management to make the modern challenges of expat partners more transparent. She also has a blog called Share the Love.