Short-term relocation assignments are emerging as a strategy to keep younger workers engaged and loyal to the organization.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Globalization is raising the bar on mobility. As technology strengthens economic and intellectual connections across the world, leading multinational companies are looking to develop a new generation of leaders with a global mindset and multicultural experience.
But few businesses are offering emerging leaders the scope of experience they will need to succeed in the new world of work. According to a study by the American Management Association, 48 percent of organizations consider developing global capabilities in their leaders to be a top priority, but a DDI survey reports that only 18 percent of multinational companies have the strong global leadership pipeline necessary to meet their future business challenges.
Shifting talent demographics may be challenging this status quo, with millennial and Generation Z workers bringing a fresh appetite for international experiences. Graebel’s Millennials and Mobility survey found that 84 percent of millennials are willing to relocate for a job and 82 percent believe that they will have to relocate in order to advance their careers. Likewise, the organization’s subsequent Future Workforce and Mobility survey found that 75 percent of Gen Z respondents are more likely to accept a job offer from a company that offers options to work abroad.
“In the past, international work experience was perceived as means to advance within an organization and gain global business experience,” says Mollie Ivancic, vice president of international services at NEI Global Relocation. “Today, employee experience and the possibility for advancement are often the key motivators for gaining international work experience. Employees in the early stages of their career are often motivated by their desire to experience a different culture, work in a global team environment, and live in a new home base that will afford them opportunities for frequent weekend and holiday travels to new locations.”
With the emergence of greater mobility expectations comes a more flexible approach to relocation. Short-term relocation assignments for early-career employees have become a popular, lower cost strategy to keep pace with the rapidly changing market while filling a business need.
“Short-term placements have been quickly evolving to accommodate business needs and employees’ changing personal needs,” Ivancic explains. “No longer is there a single short-term placement policy. Businesses want to be agile in how they mobilize talent, yet they are driven to make sure the assignments are completed with a more cost-effective price while employees’ personal needs are driving more flexibility.”
While more cost-effective than traditional relocation packages, even a short-term international opportunity requires significant capital investment. But the risk is often worth the reward, as these programs help employees develop new skills, encouraging job satisfaction and improving retention.
In addition to giving talent a look at the business from a different perspective, international assignments improve employees’ cross-cultural and communication skills, fostering innovation and creativity. “Living in a host country, transferees are immersed in different perspectives and cultures, and they broaden their mindsets. Transferees can then take these ideas and ways of life back to their home country and implement innovative solutions for their organizations,” says Mary Dymond, chief talent officer at Graebel Companies Inc.
Employees often return from assignments more resilient and responsive to change, with a broader range of experience and the confidence to take on new opportunities. “Through their assignment, they’re exposed to different situations and experiences, and they must learn to adapt in order to succeed at work,” Dymond adds. “That ability to accept change will serve them throughout their career and enable them to be even higher performers, as change is a constant in any organization.”
According to Miriam Duignan, vice president of global services and supply chain management at Cornerstone Relocation Group, an investment in a short-term relocation program for a high-potential employee is an investment into the future of the company. Employees who participate in these programs feel more valued by their employers, increasing their engagement, loyalty, and job satisfaction.
“If you do send someone on a short-term assignment, make it clear that they are high potential and make them aware of the cost of their relocation,” advises Duignan. “You want to show employees that you’re investing in them so that they stay with the company for as long as possible and develop their career with you. Make them aware of the investment—it makes them likely to stay longer, to believe that you are a good company, and to communicate that to their network.”
Managing International Assignments
Short-term relocation opportunities can deliver significant benefits to organizations, but according to Barry Morris, president and CEO of Capital Relocation Services (CapRelo), a mismanaged program has the potential to decrease productivity, hurt the employee experience, and ultimately impact the company’s bottom line. Businesses should ensure a positive ROI by reducing some of the challenges that employees face before, during, and after an assignment.
1. Take an inclusive approach to selection. Who is the ideal candidate for a relocation opportunity? Morris says that generally, companies tend to select employees who do not have concerns about being separated from their homes, spouses, and dependents for a long period of time. Many HR leaders believe these criteria only apply to millennial and Gen Z workers—but that may limit the potential talent pool.
Dymond agrees that organizations shouldn’t target any particular demographic for their short-term programs or simply assume that an employee isn’t a good fit for the opportunity. Doing so runs the risk of alienating employees or missing out on high-quality talent that could excel in the placement.
Rather, HR leaders should evaluate all of their talent for interest and competency in handling an assignment. “During the annual performance review, ask the question of all employees, ‘Are you interested in an international assignment?’ This supports diversity, increases the talent pool, and provides an appropriate forum for discussion with management,” suggests Morris.
Morris also recommends that organizations conduct candidate assessments to determine whether an employee is a good fit for an assignment—and only choose the highest performers. “Discourage deploying employees who are rated ‘meets expectations’ or below on an international assignment,” he says. “In addition to acclimating to a new environment, low performers would be exposed to more challenging work to which they may not meet the demands, resulting in a failed assignment.”
2. Clearly communicate expectations. The best way to ensure a positive ROI on short-term assignments is to communicate the goals of the assignment, establish expectations, and align the opportunity with a longer-term career plan, Dymond says.
Organizations should begin by understanding the employee’s specific aspirations and motivations for the relocation. Those short-term goals can then be aligned to the succession planning needs of the organization to develop a plan for the employee’s return.
“Setting the employee up for a successful return is a key part of ensuring a positive ROI,” says Dymond. “If you haven’t crafted and clearly explained the employee’s career path and how the employee will reintegrate into the company, they will likely look for an opportunity elsewhere and the transferee’s next employer will reap the benefits of the relocation.”
Ivancic recommends that companies establish a defined performance management process prior to the start of the assignment to ensure that HR leaders at home and on-location have the tools they need to keep transferees on track. “For employees on assignment, it is important that the home and host HR leaders collaborate to ensure the employee’s short-term and long-term career goals are aligned,” she says. “This will help ensure the employee has consistent messaging while on assignment and will reduce the potential for disengagement and concern regarding job position upon return to the home location.”
Duignan says that organizations also need to be clear and transparent about the scope of the opportunity—in particular, whether the assignment is a one-time opportunity or the beginning of a longer series of relocations. This can help employees manage their expectations and fully take advantage of the placement.
HR leaders can communicate all of these considerations by providing coaching and resources to support relocating employees. According to Morris, hosting a global mobility intranet site to store information and offering webinars to answer questions is a great start—but relocating employees also need a human touch.
“There should be an unbiased person, place, or team dedicated to answering questions and coaching employees interested in an international assignment,” he explains. “Coach managers on how to encourage and support their employees regarding their plans and goals for an international assignment.”
According to Duignan, organizations can leverage past relocating employees as mentors. “If companies have a history of sending assignees abroad, they can set the relocating employee up with a mentor who has gone through the process to have a conversation before they go. Mentors can share their experience around how they settled in quickly and how to make the most of the assignment. Speaking with someone else who has been there and done that before can make sure that the employee has a good start and gets the most out of the opportunity.”
3. Provide cultural training. Cultural training can be an effective way to prepare employees for their experience living in a new country. Engaging an expert in a group training session can help transferees manage their expectations for the assignment and their return, Duignan says. While face-to-face, multiple day trainings were once the norm, today’s organizations can use virtual trainings, shorter sessions, and other creative solutions to handle this inexpensively and effectively.
4. Conduct frequent check-ins while on assignment. A positive short-term relocation experience can only occur with consistent communication. HR, the transferee, and their manager should be in constant contact to make sure that the employee feels supported throughout the experience and ahead of their return. Scheduled check-ins will ensure that the organization and the employee remain engaged and focused on assignment goals, explains Ivancic.
“Both home and host managers should conduct frequent one-on-ones to check in with transferees and see how they’re adjusting and if there are additional ways the company can support them in their relocation,” Dymond says. “As employees near the end of their assignment, be sure to communicate next steps for their return and how the relocation experience can translate into their next position with the organization.”
5. Manage the transition back to the home country. The transition from a short-term international assignment back to daily life at the office can be difficult for some, but HR leaders and managers can ease the process by clearly defining how the employee’s role will change following the relocation.
Dymond recommends that the transferee’s manager reach out to the employee before their return. “The discussion should focus on reviewing the relocation experience and how this can be applied to the returning position. This establishes a clear path for the transferee’s return and they will feel acknowledged and appreciated, decreasing the chance the employee looks for another opportunity,” she says.
An employee with a newfound sense of confidence and adventure may not be satisfied returning home to the same work duties, Morris says, so organizations need to acknowledge their success, evaluate the new skills they bring to the table, and set a new challenge in the new position. “After completing such an assignment, an employee should expect an outlet for knowledge-sharing and employers should ensure a forum for these opportunities,” he adds.