When speaking to an employee about an international assignment it’s important to consider how they might feel about the prospect. Their reaction might range from being absolutely thrilled and excited at the challenge, to feeling extremely anxious. The truth is that even for the most dedicated and motivated of employees, the prospect of relocating is stressful.
Fortunately, they aren’t the first person to embark on this scenario and there are many strategies and support options available to ease the stress for an employee relocating to work overseas.
These 20 tips to reduce the stress of relocating overseas range from the logistical to the strategic.
1. Setting realistic expectations – as part of the planning process it’s important to set realistic expectations about their new role, the length of the assignment, any compensation they’re entitled to, the host location, the move process, the impact of the assignment on their career and the support being provided. It’s also important to help them to set clear personal and professional goals before they go.
2. Making an informed decision – the employee should ask themselves some hard questions about why they want to go and any potential home country issues that might interfere with their success, such as ongoing financial obligations, tax implications, care of elderly relatives etc. It’s easier to plan ahead while they are still in their home country than for them to be reacting from the host country. They should involve their family early on in the decision making process.
3. Communicating the company's policy and benefits early in the process – this is part of setting realistic expectations. The employee needs to know what they’re eligible for and how they can take advantage of the support the company offers. A policy briefing should be provided to the employee and the spouse/partner at the start of the process.
4. Obtaining work permit, required visas and understanding the immigration process and timeline – without a passport, visa and work permits an employee can’t relocate. Knowing what to expect in terms of how long it takes for visas, work permits and paperwork is critical for all other relocation planning, so start this process early.
5. Arrange a ‘look-see’ trip prior to making the decision – best practice for helping an employee make an informed decision about accepting an international assignment is for them to visit the location in advance to get a realistic sense of what it’s like, what the housing options are, the school system, what everyday life is like, etc. If this isn't an option providing a thorough overview of the host location with photos, maps, examples of housing, etc. from an area expert is another approach.
6. Cross-cultural training – even the most seasoned travellers and assignees can benefit from better understanding of the new location and the impact of culture on business and social interactions, management styles and making friends. This training is typically offered to the employee and their spouse or partner and should include children's programmes for school-aged children. It can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful relocation. Getting your employee’s whole family involved and helping them to understand the local culture and cultural values is important.
7. Destination services – one of the most valued moving services for relocating employees and their families, destination services often include on the ground support and settling in services in order to find housing, set up utilities, open bank accounts, contact schools etc. This is often offered over several days that can be scheduled in over the first month in the new location.
8. Providing a ‘Moving Day Timeline’ (six weeks, three weeks, week of, day of move, etc.) – most relocation companies will provide a timeline that communicates what needs to be completed prior to the actual moving day, including the insurance lists and photos and preparation for packing. This is essential for the employee to ease the stress of the countdown to the move.
9. Understanding size of rooms in new housing prior to packing – depending on the home and host locations, the housing in the new location may be very different from the home country housing. If the room sizes are smaller or very different, it can help for the employee to tape out the new floor plan (especially for children's rooms) to help visualise what furniture will fit.
10. The importance of an initial air shipment for the first days in new location – when the assignee moves to their new country it may be a while before their main shipment of furniture and household goods arrives and they can get fully unpacked and settled. It’s important for them to have some items that will make them and their family feel at home straight away, such as bedspreads, photos, children’s toys, music or foods. An initial airfreight shipment or additional excess baggage allowance, which will arrive within days rather than weeks or months, can accommodate this and will need to be considered when they are packing their goods for the shipment and their flight.
11. Temporary accommodation – assignees may be allocated a serviced apartment when they arrive before their new housing is available. These are typically in central locations and allow the employee to adjust to more of a normal routine than they’d be able to if they were staying in a hotel while waiting for their new housing.
12. Spouse/partner support – increasingly many families have "dual careers" and the spouse/partner accompanying the employee can benefit from career advice. Spouse/partner support also includes coaching and planning for non-career adjustment issues; some companies provide this support in the form of cash for classes, computers or job search activities.
13. Language training – one of the most important ways to alleviate the stresses of arriving in a new country is to learn the basics of the local language. The assignee doesn’t have to be fluent in order to gain some independence – being able to ask for help, order in a restaurant, and use public transport for example. An understanding of basic greetings and phrases will enable the employee to establish credibility and trust with colleagues and clients.
14. Understanding school options – navigating the international school application process can be challenging. Some assignment locations have more options than others. There are education consultants with expertise to help support finding the right school for your employee’s family. Before they leave, find out what paperwork and transcripts will be necessary and if any official translations into the host language are essential.
15. Medical check-ups prior to the move – most companies recommend having a medical check-up prior to going so that any conditions that need to be addressed can take place prior to your departure or be planned for in advance of the relocation. If possible the employee should have several months worth of prescriptions for any medication filled out before they depart and know what to ask for in the new location where the language may be unfamiliar to them.
16. Understand the medical care available to your assignee in the host location and encourage them to have a ‘well’ visit upon arrival– before starting the assignment it’s helpful for the assignee to know what to expect in terms of the host location's medical care. Encourage them to make a visit to the local doctor surgery to understand what it’s like, what language the doctor speaks and if the local medical care is acceptable to them or whether they’ll need to travel to a nearby location.
17. Connecting with assignees already on the ground – the internet allows assignees to connect with the local expatriate community in many, if not most locations. Some companies provide the contacts of other employees who are currently in the assignment location or those who have been on assignments there in the past. Your employee will find being able to ask questions and get other perspectives helpful in preparing to go or upon arrival.
18. Encourage sharing information about the new location with family and friends before departure – it’s always helpful for an assignee and their family to share information about the local culture and what their plans are with friends and family so that they have a realistic perspective about the assignee’s upcoming experience and what to expect when they visit.
19. Avoid ‘out-of-sight-out-of-mind syndrome’ – ensure that there is a mentor in place for the employee in their home location to keep them connected, encourage them to visit HR every time they are in the home location to keep their name and face in front of those who will help them to find the right job on return. Maintaining family and friend contacts will also help them with the return.
20. Provide departure services – services such as coordinating closing activities, providing counsel and expertise in facilitating home sale transactions, and expense processing and tracking can ease their departure and make sure that services are left in hand, contracts ended and utilities cancelled.