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Michael Dickmann

Cranfield University

Professor of International Human Resource Management, Director of the Masters in Management

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Global mobility: how to ensure your short-term international assignments are a success


In the first of a two-part series, Professor Michael Dickmann, explores the findings from The RES Forum’s latest research on short-term assignments and offers five recommendations for ensuring the success of this form of global work.

The rise in popularity of the ‘short term assignment/assignee’ (STA) – typically defined as an overseas posting lasting less than a year – reflects an ever more integrated and interdependent global economy.

STAs are often younger than the more traditional long-term assignees, and many opt to leave their family and partners ‘at home’, instead travelling back to base more frequently.

This allows the individual to keep many of their social contacts and enables the return and reintegration from the overseas assignment to be more easily facilitated.

The RES Forum’s 2018 Annual Report into global mobility trends (which is based on research amongst the Forum’s 1600+ members from over 750 multinational organisations in 40+ countries), looked at how enterprises can best ensure SAFE (smart, agile, flawless and efficient) global mobility using STAs.

The research explored the specific organisational benefits of STAs and their relative importance, with five areas standing out. First, getting a specific task and project done was highly important to 95% of organisations. Filling a skills gap (93%) and knowledge gap (90%), knowledge transfer (90%) and solving a host unit problem (83%) were similarly important.

In contrast, career issues, social capital improvement and cultural integration, as well as personal and professional development of STAs is far less important to many of the surveyed organisations. Most firms are obviously prioritising organisational interests over individual ones.

What are the challenges and success factors of short-term expatriation?

Understandably, companies are interested in their global workers being successful so The RES Forum research wanted to identify what impacts the accomplishments of STAs.

For the company, tax, legal and social security compliance are highly important.

For the individual, there are a number of issues that may endanger how the outcomes of working abroad are perceived.

A situation where family members and the expatriate are not co-located, work-life balance issues connected to the expatriate working too hard, cultural adjustment, social isolation of the assignee, and high stress levels are all important issues that are seen by global mobility professionals as substantially endangering short-term expatriation success.

Organisations should design personalised development, coaching and mentoring initiatives for high potentials and highly talented individuals on STAs.

There is indeed a dark side to STAs. However, the compliance challenges are more under the control of the global mobility department and are often relatively well mastered.

Less important issues for these teams are job design, host country team problems, expatriate personality and willingness to be culturally agile, expatriate resilience and assignee family components.

Five ways to ensure the success of STAs

As we have seen, the importance of STAs is rising. While STAs are jigsaw pieces in the overall global mobility picture – particularly used for project work and singular or more clearly determined objectives –  their development creates a number of opportunities.

The more agile mobility and HR departments are, the more likely they are to be able to take advantage of the below recommendations.

1. Improve planning and use SMART objectives

Make a conscious decision regarding how to use long-term assignments (LTAs) and STAs. Use LTAs in relation to objectives such as individual development, position filling, integration of organisational culture, the control of the host unit and building the local market.

STAs by their nature have a shorter duration and are most often connected to more specific work objectives.

Use the shorter time frame and superior ability to specify concrete assignment objectives to support agility, flexibility and purpose of the overall global mobility work.

2. STAs are proven to be successful – prioritise their use vis-à-vis other forms of global mobility

The data shows that it is useful for most multinationals to consider enhancing STA numbers. It is incredibly rare that short-term expatriates miss their objectives; in fact, they often over achieve their assignment goals.

Thus, if the costs are held in check, this is a good way to invest in talent while gaining positive business outcomes.

What are these business objectives? Our data indicates that organisations should channel the performance of STAs. The best performance of STAs is seen by organisations to be on projects, general position filling, individual development and knowledge transfer.

Utilise suitable candidates for such short-term challenges and make sure that they can transfer their own learning and are able to utilise this at home.

3. Increase STA attractiveness to motivate the ‘right’ staff to work abroad

Some of the communication, social networking and loneliness issues that STAs often suffer from can be alleviated by targeting, attracting and selecting the right candidates.

While STAs vary and the work-based demands are highly diverse, there are some general characteristics that have been described by the RES Forum companies as aiding STA success.

Identify and attract digitally native and communication-confident short-term expatriates, as they will link more easily to the global mobility self-service platforms as well as keep up their networks and work relationships with their home base.

In addition, we suggest selecting culturally agile, open and confident STAs as their adjustment time is shorter than that of LTAs.

4. Companies need to fulfil their part of the deal to help STAs in their careers.

The RES Forum research clearly shows the good outcomes of STAs for organisations. So it is time that they also live up to the implied ‘deal’ that supports the talent and career development of their professionals.

Understand the career development opportunities of short-term expatriates and use these to attract candidates. The best career progression is through STAs with priority on individual development, general position filling, project work or knowledge transfer.

Organisations should create inventive, flexible and agile approaches to deal with key STA challenges.

In order to be most effective, we suggest that organisations should design personalised development, coaching and mentoring initiatives for high potentials and highly talented individuals on STAs.

The retention of short-term expatriates is substantially higher than for longer-term global workers, especially if their assignment is linked to general objectives, cultural integration or knowledge transfer back to the home unit.

5. Create agile global mobility approaches

Global mobility and/or HR departments need to work towards mastering the key (compliance) challenges of STAs. Tax, legal and social security compliance are among the key problems associated with STAs and they are plainly the ‘bread and butter’ issues in the global mobility remit.

More importantly, organisations should create inventive, flexible and agile approaches to deal with other key STA challenges, which include the distance between expatriates and their families, cultural adjustment, work-life balance, social isolation and stress issues.

These are sometimes underestimated in their importance by organisations, but research consistently shows a large array of potential negative outcomes for individuals and their employers.

Raising the bar with global mobility work

Companies would be well advised to gain clarity of the particular objectives and deliverables of STAs.

Deciphering which global work form (LTAs, STAs, cross-border commuting, extended business travel or virtual project work) may be best suited to the context and the challenges of the organisation is highly important.

It is then down to the level of agility of the mobility function to raise the effectiveness, quality and responsiveness of global mobility work.

In the second of this two part article series, Professor Dickmann will look at another, much neglected, area of global mobility – that of the extended business travel (EBT) assignment.

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Michael Dickmann

Professor of International Human Resource Management, Director of the Masters in Management

Read more from Michael Dickmann