Thriving Abroad

Five Suggestions for Supporting International Employees to Feel More Secure in Uncertain Times 

For many international companies the global mobility pause button has been hit, hard. Debate abounds about the future: will there be an increase or decrease in short-term and long-term assignments? Is there any future for developmental assignments, or will virtual assignments be the ‘new reality’? And as for business travel, well who knows? But two things are certain, ‘duty of care’ is now high on agenda and global mobility will not die, well not completely. 

So, what does this mean for the way in which employees are supported in their mobile lives? Will fewer people traveling mean higher expectations from, and of, those that do? From the perspective of the employee, it’s easy to understand their trepidation. Closed borders, isolation, fear re COVID transmission, medical care, and resulting health outcomes all add new levels of uncertainty and disruption. Will employees still see international roles as life opportunities? And will partners and families still wish to travel too?

From my recent work with assignees, it seems the answer is a guarded ‘yes’ – people will still choose to go. What drives these decisions? One thought that occurred to me is our amazing capacity as humans to view the future optimistically. Known as our ‘optimism bias’, we tend to overestimate the probability of positive events and underestimate the probability of negative events happening in the future.

This is great in terms of keeping us positive about the future, even in times of adversity, aka now! but there is a downside – as a result of our optimism bias we can develop unrealistic expectations. When we are then disappointed or find an element of struggle that we didn’t expect the opposite of optimism bias can come into play, our negativity bias. This is where we give more attention and more weight to negative experiences or information than positive ones. Our negativity bias is designed to keep us safe, to ensure we pay attention to threats and problems that in days gone by would have impacted our safety and survival. Mostly, we do not face those same risks today, but we can behave as though we do and as a result, over time we can become anxious, depressed, feel fragile, and insecure. It is not difficult to see how a relocation experience can ignite our negativity bias. We have great expectations for our new life, but reality disappoints. We experience unpleasant or challenging events and as a result, feel threatened and insecure. 

Understanding this, how can we better set up the assignment experience to manage our optimism and negativity biases more effectively – helping us to feel more secure? 

I believe it starts at the very beginning, with the relocation decision. Here are 5 suggestions for better supporting the decision and laying strong foundations for an international move:

Help employees recognize that international relocation is more than a career or house move. When we asked expats within the Thriving Abroad community what advice they would give prospective expats, they said they would tell them ‘relocation changes everything’. Ingolf Thom, a Global HR Director believes the decision to move overseas is more complicated than the decision to change companies, yet few people do as much homework. Decisions are simply made too quickly, something that Dr. Jennifer Petriglieri highlighted in the Thriving Abroad Together Podcast Series (Episode 8) saying ‘Relocation decisions that have to be made quickly are binary decisions, do we, don’t we? Rather than a more mindful decision based around many factors and criteria, such as what are our boundaries?’

Be clear about understanding the pros and cons. Be open about the potential hotspots and what can be done to help minimize or mitigate their effects. OK, not everything can be anticipated, but for those who have never moved before: they don’t know what they don’t know. Providing an overview of the possible hotspots helps people to plan. Often, the temptation is to sweep these under the carpet, to ‘sell’ the opportunity, but this way people are better prepared and ready to cope with the disruptive and challenging aspects – forewarned is forearmed after all.

Thinking about longer-term personal and professional aspirations. Due to the nature of assignments, there is often a timeline that people look towards that is pretty short. It all becomes about the move and immediate arrival and settling in, and not about the longer-term vision people have for life. This is a particular challenge for dual-career couples. Jannie Aasted van Skov Hansen in the Thriving Abroad Together Podcast Series Episode 3 suggested that:

One of the largest talent challenges for international organizations is that the career of the spouse is by far the most important reason for people not to be mobile, and this is becoming one of the largest international talent management challenges. Many companies and organizations still hold the old school view of international assignments. There is lots of focus on attracting the employees while the spouse is seen as someone who needs ‘help’, as a kind of appendix requiring special support. The result is a short-term focus on ensuring the assignment is not failing.’ 

Jannie went on to say that what is missing is a longer-term focus:

Actually, designing global career paths for the employee, and also acknowledging that modern-day couples work together, and both have dreams and aspirations for their careers and lives’. 

This longer-term vision means people are more conscious about their longer-term career aspirations, understanding these can help organizations manage talent more effectively.

Understanding the nature of change and transition and how to maintain wellbeing through disruptive times. While a company can offer practical support and that certainly helps to create a sense of security, they cannot manage the change experience for the employee. Disruption and change are characterized by highs and lows which naturally involve an element of struggle and discomfort as they build their understanding of the new environment and culture. Setting expectations and mindset around the nature of change and its impact in the early days is important as is building an attitude that is confident, courageous, and constructive. Finally, it is important to prioritize energy and wellbeing and encourage employees and families to give attention and time to enhance their physical and mental wellbeing. These three factors: Mindset, Attitude, and Energy all contribute to becoming AntiFragile: ‘the ability to improve through the high levels of disruption in our environment’ Dr. Paige Williams, Thriving Abroad Podcast, Episode 65.

Utilizing valuable strengths and learning forward. Moving abroad requires cultural understanding and agility and part of this involves an openness to different perspectives, personal awareness and a willingness to reflect and learn from experience. A great starting point for any change process is to discover the strengths that can be used to build forward. Understanding the personal strengths and levels of cultural agility that people already possess is a very positive way to embark on an international assignment.

An informed decision forms the foundations for successful international relocation. When employees are well informed and prepared, they are better able to communicate their needs. This means there is clarity about the specific support they require and the more effective provision of that support. The more employees understand and are invested in the experience, the more proactive they can be in taking responsibility and then act to create personal and professional success abroad, so feeling more secure in their international lives in uncertain times.

Louise Wiles is an expat coach, podcast host, and author of Thriving Abroad: The definitive guide to professional and personal relocation success. To learn more about the Thriving Abroad Podcast and the episodes mentioned in this article go HERE

To buy the book go HERE, receive a 20% discount with the code THRIVING20

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