The world of work is becoming remote, with the office further and further away. And for some people, it's not just the office, but their homes, that have become out of reach. These are the expatriate assignees, the executives and specialists who were sent abroad before the Covid-19 pandemic started and who will now be staying abroad until international travel resumes.
People who are far from from home need a slightly different kind of support from the average worker, and even more so at times like these. People Matters asked Lee Quane, the Asia regional director of mobility firm ECA International, about best practices for managing expats. Here are the highlights of the conversation.
What are some best practices for training and preparing people for overseas assignments?
One of the main reasons for sending someone on international assignment is leadership—the person is called upon to occupy a role such as managing director for the host country. The other main reason would be due to skill shortage in the host location.
For people who are taking on leadership roles, companies usually have workshops for cultural training. They make sure that these people are aware of cultural norms that they need to embrace or avoid in the host location to get their message across. Likewise, they need to ensure that the person and the colleagues in the host location are comfortable with each other, and many companies do this through a pre-assignment visit, where the person is still being considered as a candidate for the assignment. This is to get the person familiar with the host location and the people reporting to them, so that the company reduces the risk of the assignment being a failure.
When it comes to technical capability, problem-solving skills, and initiative, these skills are not built up over the course of a few months. It takes three, five, ten years. So rather than trying to teach this, companies test for existing capabilities.
Learning and development shouldn't stop just because someone has moved to another geography. What can employers do to make sure international assignees continue getting the training they need once they're abroad, or other forms of support?
The first thing is mentoring. The employee will often need some form of guidance while on the assignment, because they will be placed in situations where there are a lot of unknowns that they have not been aware of. The most successful assignments are those where there is a mentor, either in the home location or elsewhere, who has probably been on the assignment before, either to the same location or a similar location, and can provide advice and guidance based on their own experience.
Likewise, some companies have home leave trips. These are often seen as a perk, and quite often many people do not perceive the justification for doing so. But the home leave passage was designed initially as a means for companies to bring employees back to their home location for appraisal, training, the opportunity to meet with colleagues, and provide a debriefing on questions such as how they are getting on with their colleagues in the host location, how the assignment is progressing, and what needs to be done to make it more successful. We feel that companies should still be doing this, as a way to let employees speak with their colleagues in a less pressurized environment than conference calls across time zones.
Of course, online learning, which many companies are now using, makes it easier to ensure that employees continue to receive development opportunities throughout the assignment. Previously, because of the intense focus on the success of the assignment, employees often neglected learning opportunities, and so when they came back, they were often missing certain skills or capabilities that they would need back in the home location, or that their colleagues in the home location had obtained in their absence.
After an international assignment ends, how can employers best leverage the knowledge and experience gained by the person?
We would advise companies to plan the return in advance. The typical overseas assignment lasts three years, and some companies have the foresight to plan the person's return even before they go on their first assignment, to plan what's going to happen and what role the person is going to fill at the end of the assignment. Not many companies have the ability to plan so far forward, but most are able to start the repatriation planning at least six months before the end of the assignment. They can sit down with the employee and consider what skills the employee has learned over the course of the assignment and how these would match with roles in the home location.
Likewise, ensure that the employee is aware of job openings elsewhere in the organization, so that they don't have to go back to the same position that they were in prior to the assignment. That gives the employee the ability to branch out into other roles if they are interested in doing so.
With the current travel restrictions in many countries, how can employers best support international assignees, especially those for whom it's impractical to now return home?
We're seeing organizations increasing the number of virtual meetings between assignees and their line manager in the home location—not just one-on-one, but group meetings where assignees can have exchanges with other assignees as well as management in the home location. Likewise, ensure that assignees receive regular updates as to what the company is doing, both in terms of managing the impact of the coronavirus on the organization, and in terms of asking the overseas assignees what they are doing.
We ourselves are a UK-headquartered organization, and our operations in Asia have been affected by the coronavirus since January, whereas in the UK the impact only started from mid-March. So we incorporated a reporting structure where our operations in Asia reported back to the head office regularly on how the coronavirus was impacting our business and our colleagues, what we were doing to mitigate it. Then, when the coronavirus started having a more significant impact on our offices in the UK and the US, they were able to learn from the experience that we had and what we had done. So when they responded, they were able to do so more quickly than organizations that have no international operations.
By getting insights from people who are based overseas, it makes them feel that their voices are heard, what they are doing is being taken on board and applied elsewhere in the organization. So they feel valued, rather than feeling that they are being cast adrift because they are overseas.
And of course, companies need to share what they are doing with their employees: their business continuity plans, their plans for repatriation if there's a need to bring them back from the host location, ensuring that business insurance and medical insurance are updated.
Is there anything else companies can do to offer their employees emotional support?
Given that people might not be able to return to their home location, there's a lot of stress. Quite often the employee is in a situation where, in the host location, they have 16-20 or even more local colleagues who are relying on them to provide reassurance and certitude that their livelihood won't be impacted by what's going on. And these employees might not have experience because this is a once in a lifetime or even once in a generation situation that many have not faced.
The best companies have given much more support in terms of access to counselling. They have had to invest in experts, internal or external, to provide guidance and support to ensure that their employees are emotionally able to deal with it: not just for themselves but for their colleagues in the host location. Likewise if you're operating in a location overseas and your home location is suffering from the coronavirus impact, like Europe—the UK, Germany, France—and the US, they've got family back in this location and they're unable to return.
They need to maintain a lot of communication with family and friends back in their home location. And companies need to allow their assignees a lot of leeway to ensure that they're maintaining communications with family and friends to reduce the stress on them