The world of global mobility—like so many other aspects of our lives—has been radically impacted by the pandemic and related transformations, both social and economic. The previous paradigm of the relatively predictable one- to three-year assignment abroad (a significant part of the global strategy for multinational organizations) has been shattered into many different new realities.
Here are just a few of the scenarios we have heard about, many of them impacted by cross-border travel restrictions and ongoing health concerns:
As the pandemic eases in some places but continues to wreak havoc elsewhere, current and potential assignees (as well as their employers) are wondering what the “new normal” will be. Will companies revert to past assignment patterns, or will some of the hybrid work arrangements that have emerged during the crisis be adopted for the long term? There are new questions about whether some assignments are cost-effective given the increasingly widespread virtual alternatives. (1)
Yet the primary reasons for people to embark on an overseas assignment persist. These include:
The critical nature of international assignments for leadership development has been underlined by the growing trend for organizations to move their Mobility functions out of more transactional areas like Compensation & Benefits and into more strategic locations such as Talent or Learning & Development.
Country by country, the current realities and the types of possible assignment scenarios are different. In some places, there are still government-mandated lockdowns or requirements for many employees to work from home for safety reasons. Other locations are restoring unrestricted social contacts for the time being, while remaining wary of new and more contagious COVID-19 variants. Travel restrictions within and between many countries continue.
Yet everyone who takes on an assignment, whether this is in-person, virtual, or a hybrid of the two, faces a similar set of challenges and questions about ways to get their jobs done under changing circumstances:
Assignees working in a virtual or hybrid environment must be aware of several potential pitfalls that are most perilous when face-to-face contact is limited or unfeasible. Those pitfalls (both old and new) include:
It is always easy to project one’s own prior experience and circumstances onto a new situation. Expatriates often face the conundrum that their previous patterns of success may need to be altered when working with counterparts from another country. Having face-to-face contact with others on-site provides many cues about differences and the need to make adjustments: city scenes, commute times, office layouts, meeting protocol, non-verbal gestures, local brands and competitors, social issues, holidays, the pace of market change. When either the assignee or employees are working virtually, such vital clues may be missing. This makes it easier to assume, for example, that other employees have a similar cozy home office or that customer needs match those of customers back home.
One of the most valuable experiences that international assignees have is getting to know local counterparts and customers in a way that would never have been possible if they had remained at home. Casual conversations, daily meetings, shared struggles, and even getting to know one another’s family members all have the cumulative effect of generating deeper mutual understanding and trust. This thick context is difficult to replicate through virtual communication methods, no matter how many technical bells and whistles are available.
In the absence of underlying familiarity and trust, it is more likely that projects will go off the rails or that valued employees depart because they just don’t feel a strong connection with their manager or with the company.
When assignees lack visceral, “seeing is believing” first-hand experiences, and receive incomplete information from employees who don’t know them well or entirely trust them, the result can be suboptimal decision making and unsatisfied customers. Local employees may feel less accountable for results because they have not had the opportunity to provide complete or candid input, and are working with a person they only see on a computer screen who lacks local market savvy. “We’re out of sight, out of mind,” “My manager only calls when s/he needs something,” or “Our team leader doesn’t understand the needs of our customers,” are common complaints from employees with virtual managers.
What can assignees do to overcome the potential pitfalls of virtual or hybrid settings? There are three steps that anyone can take to increase their chances of overcoming the obstacles listed above:
Adjusting to time zone differences (“share the pain”), modifying language to avoid slang or fast-paced speech, and making an effort to learn local language expressions are good ways to set the tone for effective virtual teamwork. Actions such as these help to send messages of respect and interest in another culture. Implementing meeting facilitation techniques that allow for shared “air time” (asking for input in advance, drawing out others, turn-taking, encouraging written comments, etc.) also shapes a team environment where everyone practices careful listening and mutual learning.
Even when an assignee is not present in person with others, it is possible to simulate aspects of face-to-face interaction that enable relationship-building and rapid knowledge acquisition. For instance, “show and tell” meeting segments can focus on employee presentations that highlight critical local customer needs. Virtual “coffee chats” and skip-level meetings may also provide opportunities to build relationships and give and receive information on a more casual basis, while broadening one’s understanding of the organization.
If an employee is meeting with a client in person, the virtual assignee could say, “Please take me along with your laptop,” and utilize this hybrid approach to getting to know both employees and customers better. The same method can be used to say, “Please show me your office,” or “What is it like on the street outside?” Accessing local news sites, following popular readings or media outlets, or becoming an active student of the local language can be other worthwhile forms of immersion.
Now more than ever is the time to ask employees how they are doing and what kinds of help they might need. Virtual assignees, in particular, may be unaware that a local counterpart is confined to a hot apartment with noisy construction going on next door, caring for children who are struggling with online classes, or working frantically to obtain medical care for a sick family member. Such colleagues could also be experiencing a range of related feelings: exhaustion, worry, sadness, frustration, relief when conditions improve, or hope for better days to come. The only way to know what is going on for others is to ask in a way that conveys sincere interest.
Some employees might need extra flexibility with work hours, time off, changes in job responsibilities, or possibly medical or psychological support; others may find expanded responsibilities or new projects to be a welcome departure from their current circumstances. Assignees must pay extra attention to their own mental and physical condition as well, along with how their family members are doing—it is far better to recognize a problem and find the help you need than to force employees to bear the brunt of your own personal troubles.
No expert has a crystal ball sophisticated enough to anticipate the combined effects of COVID-19 variants, government responses, medical advances, evolving communications technologies, company policies, and individual choices. Approximately three-quarters of expatriate candidates report that they would still like to go on assignment when circumstances permit. (2) However, it is clear that hybrid virtual and in-person assignment settings in various forms will be with us for the near-term future, and perhaps longer-term in organizations that determine they can cut costs and achieve acceptable results without the same prior volume of traditional expatriates. Amid this shifting reality, acknowledging the potential pitfalls of such assignments and implementing the recommendations outlined here is an excellent place to start.
(1) See, for example, Giovanna Silveira Milani and Michael Dickmann, “Is Global Work Losing its Attractiveness?”, Relocate Global, June 2021. “The pandemic has raised the question whether the costs of global assignments are justified. With the development of technological skills, especially those associated with virtual teams and spaces, is expatriate work still necessary?”
(2) Expat Destinations 2021. “The Impact of COVID-19 on Expat Life,” Internations: “Over three-quarters of the local respondents who had to put their plans to move abroad on hold (77%) state that they still want to move within the next two years, as do around seven in ten expats (69%) whose plans for moving to another foreign country were thwarted by the COVID-19 crisis.”
Jesse Rowell has the privilege to work for a mission-driven company (Aperian Global) that helps people work more effectively with other cultures. He has been with the company for 13 years and is responsible for the company’s Global Mobility practice and Market Development. The firm has prepared tens of thousands of assignees and families for international moves across the globe, equipping them with best-in-class support for the challenges they are likely to face in their new locations. His interest in working globally goes back to his first trip abroad as a university student to Ecuador. Since then he has been fortunate to work and live in many countries, making lifelong friends along the way.
Connect with Jesse on LinkedIn here.