Managing Expat Employee Mobility in a Challenging Decade

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Global businesses need global executives, but increasing societal pressures are hindering employees’ ability — and desire — to be mobile.

One of the most significant societal developments of the last 30 years is the revolution in the economic role and position of women. Initially, this change was driven solely by economics — women sought employment to provide the family with a higher standard of living.

Today, however, the trend is toward dual careers, rather than dual incomes, and employment now offers women rewards above and beyond their income. Since replacing a career is more difficult than simply finding another job, the impact on relocating couples has been substantial.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that professional people tend to marry other professionals. While the number of women who are active in the economy has grown, those who regard their careers as extremely important are found in higher percentages among the partners of the very people corporations are most likely to relocate.

Not surprisingly, nearly half (48%) of the companies responding to Global Relocation Trends 1995 Survey Report, a joint survey by Windham International and the National Foreign Trade Council, said their employees turn down assignments because of spousal career issues.

Maintaining consistency in education

Another ongoing concern for expatriate executives is the impact relocation has on their children’s education — a situation that has worsened in recent years. In the past, for example, boarding schools allowed expatriate parents to preserve the continuity of their children’s education. Today, however, families’ increased desire to spend more time together makes the boarding school option socially unacceptable.

The development of standardized course content for individual schools, and the rising use of academic assessments to determine whether students have covered specific information, also make it much more difficult for children in their teens to move from one school to another. Those who do are likely to find they’ve missed important parts of the curriculum.

Financial pressures on higher education institutions pose yet another problem, since expatriate children are often penalized financially compared to local students. The required ‘residence qualifications’ also make expatriation difficult.

The emergence of a “Third Economy”

Peter Drucker has written extensively on the development of a “Third Economy,” or the area of non-remunerative work. Although volunteer work draws people from all walks of life, the type of effort Drucker refers to usually involves individuals who are partners of executives. These are individuals specializing in high-level work that replaces activities once handled by the government. Since such opportunities are more dependent on location — and the volunteer’s particular network of contacts and associations — the partners of relocating executives may find it harder to sacrifice their voluntary commitments than to take a hiatus from their careers.

Developing effective alternatives to mobility

In response to these challenges, many corporations are seeking alternatives to mobility. Whenever possible, they are using technology to avoid relocation altogether. Electronic mail, videoconferencing, and teleconferencing allow certain activities, particularly multifunctional projects and research, to be managed with only occasional face-to-face communication.

For example, a major communications corporation developed a new cellular phone application using a design team in France, a marketing team based in the UK, and initial productionfacilities located in Germany. The team held monthly project updates in France, and otherwise met only by videoconference.

Other companies are limiting international job experience to short-term assignments, usually lasting about six months. Such assignments minimize the disruption to the family and social connections that longer assignments usually entail.

Finally, some corporations are sending employees on assignment alone, leaving the family and children behind. For obvious reasons, however, this approach is a last resort. Divided situations can distract the employee’s attention, while the frequent (official or unofficial) visits home reduce the employee’s integration into the local team. Single-status arrangements also inevitably lead to a higher level of marital breakdown.

In search of better solutions

Although these alternatives may work in some situations, new and better solutions are needed. Global mobility is a growing trend. In Managing Mobility, a survey of 200 major corporations conducted by ECA International, two-thirds of responding companies increased their expatriate population in the past five years, and two-thirds expect further increases over the next five years. Effectively removing the constraints on mobility is essential to achieving long-term business objectives.

As mentioned previously, nearly half the respondents to the Global Relocation Trends 1996 Survey Report said candidates rejected international assignment due to dual-career issues. Yet few organizations have developed a coherent, consistent response to this problem. Usually, cases are handled on an individual, as-needed basis, and this ad hoc approach has given birth to a new trend in some companies — providing partners with a budget (of up to $10,000) to cover the costs of job-finding or continuing education in areas where employment is either illegal or impossible.

Planning the assignment

Although current alternatives alleviate some obstacles to mobility, others, such as the issue of children’s education, are extremely resistant to solutions. One possible solution is to plan assignments so potential expatriates become partners in deciding the appropriate time for relocation.

This can be particularly helpful during the years when an executive’s children are in their teens, normally a very difficult time for families to relocate. Even so, the reality is that a child’s adolescence frequently coincides with the time corporations most need his or her parents to be mobile.

Increasingly, companies are trying to accommodate the need for expatriates to manage both their careers and their families. Employees are being allowed to “opt out” of mobility for periods of their careers. Most often, this is to accommodate children’s education, but employees view partners’ careers and the care of dependents as other valid concerns.

Success, however, requires a supportive company culture. Employees must be free to discuss the hardships mobility presents during specific times in their life cycle — and to be honest about their willingness to take on an international assignment.

Ensuring expats’ return on their investment

Perhaps the most important element in achieving required mobility in the future is to ensure a return on the expatriate’s investment. An expatriate’s experience must be recognized upon return — not, as frequently occurs, regarded as irrelevant in determining his or her future career path. Downsizing has made this increasingly difficult, but it is essential if employers want their key employees to be willingly mobile in the future.

The Global Relocation Trends Survey Report shows a marked increase in the perceived importance of repatriation support in recent years. Three-quarters (75%) of respondents to the 1995 report formally address repatriation, compared to just 45% in 1993. Nearly a third (31%) now offer expatriate career development; 28% provide repatriation support, and 25% offer spouse career assistance.

Employee mobility is a key to future business success in the global marketplace; successful companies will respond to the increasing social constraints on mobility in a flexible manner.