Ensuring engagement in your expats

Written by
Changeboard Team

18 Sep 2015

18 Sep 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Are employees making the right connections?

When it comes to the expat, engagement is really all about the connection they feel with their host organisation, as demonstrated by their willingness and ability to help their host company succeed; largely by providing discretionary effort on a sustained basis. It also takes into account the rational part of the engagement equation - how employees connect with their host company’s goals and values - and their emotional connection; such as the employee’s pride in the host organisation. 

Our research shows that engagement among expats is particularly high; 92% agree with the goals and objectives of their host organisation, 84% would recommend their host organisation as a good place to work and 97% would be willing to offer discretionary effort to help their host organisation succeed. These scores outperform those of non-expats in similar positions in their home organisations.
The drivers of engagement among expats include a recognition of personal contribution, cooperation and teamwork, an adequate use of the expat’s skills and competencies, and good communication – all with the host organisation and its line management.

Is relocation a reward?

Most expats, especially those in their first assignment, consider their international assignment as recognition for their good work and an important step in their career progression. Not surprisingly, the key drivers of expat retention are the levels of satisfaction with their international assignment to date, good promotion and career prospects, and a good relationship with their line manager in their host organisation.
Interestingly enough, simple remuneration is not a key driver of retention though, of course, it is linked to the overall satisfaction of the expat’s assignment to date; the most significant key driver of retention.
The expatriation process involves many technical and professional aspects but also contains personal, social, cultural and organisational issues that are often the trigger that make expatriates choose to return to their home country ahead of schedule. 

So, what is the expat profile most at risk of leaving the international assignment earlier than scheduled?

•    Those aged between 45 and 54
•    Those single or married with their spouse in the home country
•    Those with a local/country level job role (rather than regional or global)
•    Those in their second non-consecutive expatriation
•    Those with short length assignments (less than six months)
•    Those close to finishing their assignments or recently repatriated
•    Those assigned to the Middle East
•    Female expats (1 in 4 surveyed expats were female) show less positive results than their male counterparts; especially in areas linked to productivity, empowerment, innovation, pay & benefits and the overall expatriation experience

How sustainable are those high levels of expat engagement?

The concept of ‘sustainable engagement’ adds an element of ‘enablement’ (a work environment that supports productivity and performance in the host organisation) and ‘energy’ (individual physical, social and emotional wellbeing at work in the host country) to the expatriate employee engagement equation. 
In general, expats feel enabled within their host organisations: 75% of expats feel they do not face obstacles at work, they consider they have all the necessary equipment, tools and resources to do their job well (76%) and, most importantly, the people they work with cooperate to get the job done (88%).
In terms of wellbeing (energy), expats feel they are able to sustain the necessary level of energy throughout the day to get the job done (90%) and the type of work they perform in their host organisations gives them a sense of personal accomplishment (89%). However, 58% feel that the level of stress that they experience at work seriously reduces their effectiveness; a result that is very much in-line with similar non-expat managerial positions.
We can determine that the high levels of expat engagement are sustainable in the mid to long term due to the high scores registered in the areas of enablement and wellbeing.

Has the expats productivity been affected by the international assignment?

In general, only 6% of expats feel that their productivity has decreased since they were assigned to their new host organisation, 40% feel there has not been any change and 54% feel that their productivity has increased. So, what drives productivity among expats?
•    Ensuring the level of responsibility in the host company matches the description that was given to the expat before departure
•    Adequate use of the expats’ skills and competencies
•    Clear understanding of the goals and objectives of the expats’ international assignment
•    The belief that the international assignment is beneficial to the expats’ future career advancement
•    The support provided by the host organisation to help the expat adapt to the new environment 
Expatriation success cannot be fully achieved without an understanding of the nature of the role that expats are playing in the company’s internationalisation process and what components of this role are open to change.
The company benefits that have contributed the most to the expatriate experience and subsequent levels of productivity are:
•    General logistical support (housing, car, schooling)
•    Allowance for flights to the home country
•    Administrative support (tax, medical, visa)
•    Introduction to new work environment (stakeholders, culture, markets)
•    Co-ordinated HR support from home and host countries
•    Understanding and relationship with the line management in the host country

Host support

Let’s not forget that the impact of expat employees is felt not only by those assigned to international postings but also by their host country managers and colleagues. Specific HR practices need to be put in place for expatriate employees to remain competitive and sustainably engaged. HR practitioners who are new to managing international assignees should not treat them in a similar fashion to those who are based in the home country. Due to the nature of the expatriate manager role in the company and their specific needs and expectations, the gap between non-expatriate and expatriate managers is noticeable; especially in the areas of pay and benefits, communication, development, efficiency and supervision.  These are areas where expats require additional support from their home and host organisations; it is a mistake to simply expect expatriate staff members to adapt to their host country ways of doing things. If HR practitioners take into account these gaps and support expats to integrate positively and effectively, this is likely to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding, uneasy working relationships and potential loss of business for both the home and host organisations. 

How are companies managing their international assignment processes?

Many companies concentrate on high cost expat compensation packages but tend to leave those areas that really impact retention and engagement. Our survey indicates that companies need to address the following areas:

•    Development: Although considered an important milestone in immediate career development, once abroad expats show uncertainty on their next assignment and long term professional development prospects due to the lack of contact with the home organisation.
•    Pay & Benefits: While not a driver of engagement, expats often feel other organisations in their host country offer better pay and benefits. The latter affects the levels of satisfaction with their international assignment to date; itself a driver of retention.
•    Supervision: The relationship between expats and their line managers in the host country is key. Expats would welcome additional support from their host organisations to help them adapt.
•    Communication: Although communications with colleagues and line managers are good, expats do not feel well informed about wider company matters.
•    Expatriation experience: Expats would appreciate additional support from their home organisation after being posted.  They measure efficiency as it relates to dealing with the logistics of settling in another country effectively: enabling systems and support for administrative tasks such as work permits, taxation, expenses, medical scheme support or schooling for children. It makes the whole moving process easier and enables the expatriate employee to focus quicker and more effectively on the job.