Short-Term Assignments: The Challenge to Do More Faster

Categories: Global Mobility

Introduction: Why Short-Term Assignments?

Deployment of talent on short-term international assignments is one of many trends that global companies are accelerating to cope with the global financial crisis. Short-term assignments were already on the rise due to changing workforce demographics, the need to offset recruiting gaps, increased focus on strategic global projects, and the desire to provide greater flexibility to employees. Assignees are sent to one or more key global locations to implement a particular set of tasks without the large investment of time or expense associated with a full-fledged global assignment. Other changes that have recently impacted more traditional global assignments include limiting the number of expatriates worldwide while focusing on highly strategic roles, accelerating the development of local leadership, and moving some expatriates to “local hire” status. Given the heightened significance of short-term assignments in these difficult times, it is worth looking at best practices that can help to ensure the success of projects vital to growth and effective operations in key world markets.

Potential Challenges

Just because an assignment is shorter in duration does not mean that it is easier. In fact, a strong case could be made that a short term international assignment is actually more fraught with potential pitfalls than assignments of three or more years. With a tight timeframe in which to get the job done, short-term assignees are under pressure to hit the ground running and to accomplish a lot in a hurry. They do not have the time to take their first few months on assignment to get settled in a new environment, listen and learn, recover from early mistakes, and gradually build effective working relationships with their local colleagues. Due to time constraints, they may not have the full support of a short term international assignment management strategy. Indeed, the conventional wisdom that employees become fully engaged and effective during their second year abroad is unacceptable for short-term assignees, as their assignments may be over within a fraction of a year.

Short-term assignees, with their aggressive goals and deadlines, are possibly more susceptible to common expatriate mistakes such as failing to build key relationships to gain support and ownership for new initiatives, introducing headquarters practices with insufficient knowledge of local circumstances, and alienating local colleagues and counterparts by pushing too hard and too fast. Yet, they are afforded less time to recoup from such missteps.

The expatriate nemesis known as “culture shock” also affects short-term assignees. People living in a very different environment can begin to feel isolated and ineffective in the absence of a personal support network, sufficient language skills, or access to local resources. Many short-term assignees make the move solo, leaving behind close family members and/or significant others. They also tend to live in sterile hotel rooms or other temporary accommodations. For these reasons, they are missing the immediacy of personal ties and comforts of home that can help longer-term expatriates find the resilience and resourcefulness to cope with temporary lows. The temptation to spend free time working may curtail the short-term assignee’s participation in informal social events that would otherwise enable him or her to forge new relationships and learn cultural lessons.

Preparing Short-Term Assignees: Ten Key Questions

A good global mobility strategy for short-term expats is important for ensuring positive initial contact and for ensuring expats have the resources they need to thrive during their assignments. A range of global mobility solutions for short term assignments are available to give expats the freedom and ability to interact meaningfully with global colleagues.

Consideration of the following ten questions is a good starting point for assignees who want to overcome the obstacles and best leverage the investment that both they and their companies are making:

1. What can you do to develop your personal network in advance?

Regardless of where you are located, there are often contacts available that allow you to start building a personal network in your destination country and to acquire relevant knowledge before leaving home. Sources for such contacts might include:

  • Assignees from your future host country who are residing in your current location;
  • Former expatriates who lived in that country and can provide introductions;
  • Residents of the broader community in which you live (there are large foreign contingents from many parts of the world in most major urban areas);
  • Alumni associations; or,
  • Web-based platforms such as LinkedIn.

2. Are you being introduced in the right way?

The way that you are introduced to new colleagues is crucial. For instance, in some cultures hierarchy and group affiliation — “whom you know” — are valued over “what you know.” In these environments, your credibility and the importance of your project can be underscored through an introduction by a high-status individual whose views carry weight in the host culture, or undermined by a haphazard or unmediated introduction that does not position you appropriately in the eyes of host nationals.

3. What is the level of local input and support for your agenda?

There is a big difference between a project that has been planned and driven primarily or entirely from headquarters and one with local involvement and strategic contributions from the beginning. What was the origin of the effort with which you are involved? Is it new to your host country colleagues, or has their input been incorporated already? Depending upon the answers to these questions, you may need to take a different road towards implementation. In the case of a headquarters-driven initiative, you will probably have to work harder to provide a rationale for going forward that makes sense in the context of local business circumstances, and modify the project as you proceed. Neglecting to do this invites outright rejection or feigned compliance – in the case of a short-term assignee, local colleagues do not have to wait very long for the foreign “typhoon” (that is, you!) to pass.

4. Do you understand the perspectives of local stakeholders?

Try to identify and meet with a group of local stakeholders who can provide input and advice. What do they want from your stay in their country? How aligned are your goals with theirs? What advice and insights do they have about local customer needs, employee capabilities, and organizational priorities? If you can engage such key stakeholders early on, you are more likely to establish targets and adopt implementation methods that fit their business context.

5. Are your fellow team members ready and willing to participate?

For many team or project leaders, especially temporary assignees, matrix reporting relationships are a fact of life. If your team is essentially rented out from other managers, do you have the buy-in of those managers for your initiative, and are they encouraging your team members who report to them to participate fully? Misunderstandings and dysfunctional team behaviors occur most often when participants on the same team are driven in divergent directions by conflicting metrics, priorities, and leadership demands.

6. Is your role clear to everyone involved?

You may have a perception of your role on assignment that is not shared by your new colleagues. Are you a team leader, a project coordinator, a liaison with headquarters, or an individual contributor? What is your role in making decisions that will impact other team members? What is the project timeline, and what are the key objectives that you seek to achieve? At the outset of your assignment, it is useful to share your understanding of your role with fellow team members and to hear their understanding of both your role and theirs at the same time. Any gaps in expectations are best addressed sooner rather than later, and could require consultation with key stakeholders and/or higher management in order to avoid having team members work at cross-purposes and blame misunderstandings on one another.

7. Can you relax and learn about the local culture at the same time?

Every culture has rules and assumptions that are not immediately visible or articulated. For example, how is true agreement expressed? Is information commonly shared on the basis of one’s function or through long-standing personal ties? Should feedback be given and received in more direct or more indirect ways? How should one demonstrate respect for persons in executive roles? Who needs to be consulted when major changes are proposed?

By spending time with colleagues in informal social settings, you have the chance to see them in a different context and listen to their views about questions like these. They may feel freer to offer advice in such an environment, and by taking part in cultural events — dinners, entertainment, ceremonies, festivals, sporting contests, etc. — you will gain insights into workplace interactions. At the very least, the camaraderie generated in these settings usually makes your host country colleagues more inclined to cooperate with you and your agenda, especially in relationship-oriented cultures.

8. Have you allowed sufficient time for any knowledge transfer that must occur?

If there is a significant body of knowledge to be transferred to the new location, the most prudent strategy is to take the time you would normally expect to invest in this transfer and double it. A host of issues can affect the smooth movement of knowledge between one location and another. Factors that it may be necessary to consider are fear of job loss on the part of those in the host location conveying the knowledge and a related hesitation to share information; problems in linking IT platforms; different or insufficient technical backgrounds on the part of trainees that require recalibration of materials and methods; learning styles that call for extensive “hands-on” involvement of the trainer; and the need for spoken and written translations into other languages.

9. How will you maintain your own personal support system?

Although your assignment may be just a few months in duration, it is not a good idea to go it alone. Simple steps, such as setting up a web-cam connection that allows you to see loved ones as you speak with them, or arranging in advance to have others visit while you are on assignment, can provide you with sources of enjoyment, support, perspective, stress release, and a “sanity check” when work becomes difficult. Investing energy in making new friends and acquaintances through common interest groups will also give you the foundation for a local support network and ways to learn about your host country. These kinds of personal experiences can turn out to be as valuable in many ways as your professional ones.

10. Do you have a local partner who can carry on your work after you’re gone?

Being in a rush to complete assignment tasks successfully comes with the territory during a short-term stay. However, a critical error that many assignees make is that they neglect to identify and groom local owners for their initiative. The result is that when the assignee leaves, the initiative loses momentum and fades away. It is essential to identify local partners at an early stage and bring them into projects in a manner that allows them to identify with the progress to date and take responsibility for the next steps. The ideal outcome is for them to champion your initiative to the extent that you are no longer needed. Without this, a short-term assignment loses its meaning, either because it has to be extended or because its impact does not live on beyond the assignment itself, an outcome that is not optimal for the assignee, the host organization, or the company as a whole.


Effectively managing short term international assignments can help firms that are trying to grow their business in key global markets while simultaneously reducing costs. Assignees who prepare themselves by taking steps such as those outlined here will be better able to overcome the inherent hazards of trying to get a lot done in a hurry in a new environment, and will increase the chances of completing their assignments successfully. Companies can help by offering support and comprehensive short term assignment policies.


If you’d like to help your team succeed on short-term and long-term assignments, our Global Mobility solutions. We offer a wide range of solutions for companies and teams requiring the skills and global intelligence needed for international work assignments. We’re proud to have supported over 16,000 individuals and their families in developing the tools they needed before, during, and after assignment. We look forward to being part of your success story.