As a result of my recent repatriation survey, two main factors topped the list of challenges: lack of support provided by the company and family concerns. Here are 7 tips how to face the first challenge.
Lack of company support
Whether it's perceived or real, if you don't feel like your company's got your back, a lot of resentment can build over the course of your assignment. My favorite saying these days is: "you don't know what you don't know." Life is a learning process and since every assignment is different, even experienced ex- and repats can't possibly prepare for every single little detail. For first-timers it's that much harder, because they have no idea where to begin and which questions to ask. One solution is to:
I've said it before and I'll say it again: communication is a wonderful thing.
1. Talk to yourself, sit yourself down, and find out what you need, look forward to, expect, and are anxious about concerning your relocation.
2. Talk to those who will accompany you and ask them those same questions. Yes, even your kids. Especially your teenagers.
3. Identify your contact persons within your own company (mentors, managers, HR - in both home and host country) as well as outside (moving companies, relocation specialists, real estate agents, travel agents, immigration lawyers, tax attorneys, language teachers) who have an impact on your relocation. Ask them, in their opinion, what do you need to know to make the relocation process as smooth as possible for you. Ask them what their experience is, how often they have relocated before, and what it was like for them.
International relocation is a tremendously complex endeavor, and you'll be surprised by how many people have a hand in it and need you to fill out paperwork and answer questions. You will be contacted by so many different people it will be hard to keep track of them. Bonus tip: create a special address book just for relocation process contacts, keep it up to date and share it with your family. If you're relocating with your significant other, make sure they are also informed of everything that is going on. After all, it is their life, too, and I guarantee they will appreciated being kept in the loop from the very beginning. Not only that, there's nothing more empowering than the feeling of actually being included, being heard, and having a say. In other words, make sure all of the aforementioned contacts who have a hand in your relocation have and use both your and your spouse's / partner's email and phone numbers.
Understand the relocation process
I know you're busy doing your job, planning your move, saying good-bye to friends, and organizing your family. I'm not saying become an expert in relocation. I'm saying become an expert in what you need to know. What is your company's relocation strategy? What are the different packages available? What are that country's visa and medical requirements? Will your spouse / partner be allowed to work? What would you or your company need to do in order to get a work permit? How does your stay influence your 401(k), holidays, career development, taxation? It is crucial at this stage to manage your own expectations. Your company is still a business and trying to be profitable. I absolutely believe the company carries the responsibility in ensuring your current lifestyle be maintained as much as possible while on assignment abroad, however, you're not supposed to be able to retire on the expat package. What you can do is ask open-ended questions about what support is possible and available.
Note: Many companies nowadays operate under a base-flex approach. They have a base-line non-variable system and budget for every relocation, e.g. including air fair and shipping of one container of goods per family of four. On top of that, everything else is flexible and extra. Rental car, temporary accommodation, home leave - your colleague might have received that support due to his family's circumstances; you may not receive that support due to the nature of the country you're relocating to; and the next guy might not get it because he's single or didn't know to ask for it. Understand. Your. Company's. Relocation. Strategy.
Read up not only on your company's guidelines regarding relocation, also become pro-active in finding information about the host country and its culture. Make your decision whether to relocate or not based on what's best for you / your family and only after reviewing as much information as possible. Participate in forums, Google best practices, find possible neighborhoods online. I'm not saying do your HR or relocation specialist's job for them, I am saying be prepared to understand the alternatives you are being presented with. It is your job to be an educated consumer.
Unless you're going into the jungle, it is more than likely your destination has an existing expat community. Speak with those expats who have gone before you. If you're the first from your company, you can find other expats in specific international clubs or in the local chambers of commerce. I also recommend visiting your country's embassy's website and speaking to employees and consultants there for first-hand, in-person, on-the-ground tips.
Keep all the relocation information you're gathering organized and available at the touch of a button as well as on paper. Yes, you might be schlepping quite a substantial folder by the end of it, but when you forget to pack your smart phone's charger you'll be glad you can still access the necessary details.
Deadlines will also become very important as your relocation nears, and you can't always depend on your company to keep track of them. Know when your visa application has to be in, know how long it takes to get a signature, know how many weeks before moving you need to get your tetanus boost, know when your HR contact goes on holiday, know when to file taxes and mark the dates in your calendars.
Use your resources
Don't be shy to ask stupid questions. There are no stupid questions. The Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) have been invented for this very reason - to support you. And hey, seeing as you're reading this on my website - I'm a resource, too. Just sayin'.
Since last time, five more people have responded to the survey. Thank you! Here's one comment I just have to share, because it so nicely illustrates what I've been trying to explain in this post:
It would have helped us to be aware of the many groups and organizations that have popped up to facilitate this process. The hardest part was feeling alone - like we were the only ones struggling with repatriation. Certainly it wasn't something easily shared with friends and family.
It's too easy and, unfortunately, too impractical to expect the company to take care of everything. Now that you've educated yourself and taken responsibility for your share in making sure the relocation runs smoothly, specify your needs, wants, must haves, can't do withouts, would be nices (again, having involved everyone who will be locating), and share them with your company. Once you know where you are and where you want to be, it is so much easier to define which steps are necessary to getting there.
Depending on the size of your company and the international exposure of your HR team, keep in mind they might not know what they don't know, either.
Til next time, have a good one!
Image by Paul Phillips, Flickr, Creative Commons License.