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Global trends in healthcare from Integra Global

Planning a successful international assignment

Abraham Lincoln once said: “Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Unfortunately, the concept of preparation being the key to success has not being acknowledged by companies across the world, when it comes to their international assignments. This is best illustrated by the statistic that nearly half (42 per cent) of international work assignments fail or don’t last for the full length of time they were scheduled1.

In addition to the failure rate, sending your staff abroad is getting more expensive, with some employers paying up to three times the amount of the assignees usual salary2. There has never been a better time for your businesses to properly invest in international assignments.

To help you increase the planning and overall success of your company’s international assignments, we’ve put together some helpful steps and considerations that can be built into any global mobility programme.

1. Make a business case for the assignment

For a business to make a considerable financial investment in anything, there should be a strong case for doing so. An international assignment is no different and there should be compelling reasons for sending employees abroad.

When building your case, consider the questions; what skills would outside talent bring to the region that would make the cost worth it? Is there a particular skill set needed that isn’t currently available on-site?Alternatively, is there a leadership gap needed filling by an employee that understands other areas of the business? Essentially, if you’re investing in an employee to live and work overseas, you need to be able to justify why the assignment cannot be carried out by a local or existing employee already there.

Clarifying your business case should be your first and only task before doing anything else.

2. Identify the right person for the job

The importance identifying the right person for an assignment can’t be overstated. It’s essential that during the early stages of planning for an overseas role, you assess its requirements and challenges, along with the skill set and experience needed by the person taking it on. If the role requires solitary working, identifying someone with that works well alone should become part of the person specification. Similarly, if the assignment requires managing a team, leadership qualities should be a must.

Of course this sounds simple, but many companies fail to even consider these questions and simply pick whoever is available or willing to re-locate. Once you’re clear on the skills and personality requirements of the assignee, you can begin to match these up with suitable candidates.

For best practice, some companies conduct medical and psychological screenings on these candidates. This can be useful in highlighting the potential impact an overseas assignments would have on an individual. The results of these screenings are also helpful following this, as they can reveal how best to support that employee with their transition and settlement overseas.

3. Provide them with training before they go

The more information and training you can give to an assignee ahead of their move, the less likely they will be to reject their new home or experience the negative effects of culture shock. The type of training you provide will obviously depend on where they’re being assigned to. However, all assignees should be given basic training on the food, climate and culture of the region. In addition, all assignees should be educated on the emotional challenges of moving abroad, with guidance on how to get settled. If they’re moving with their family, it’s essential that they have been briefed and set-up on how they can integrate them as well.

Companies that properly invest in their mobility programmes often offer assignees in-depth cultural or environmental training, to prepare them for any big challenges they could face. For instance, if you have a western employee moving to Asia for a year-long project, it can be hugely helpful to educate them on how the working culture or business etiquette is different to what they’re used to. Alternatively, if there are a number of health risks in the location, they should be briefed on health precautions.

Another good way to prepare an employee for moving away is to arrange for them to visit the destination before they go and familiarise themselves with the local environment.

4. Continually support them throughout their assignment

Checking in with your employees on assignment to ensure that are happy and healthy can be the difference between the project succeeding and failing. This includes establishing a clear line of support for work related challenges and mental wellbeing. This is particularly important as living away from friends – and sometimes family – can leave an assignee without a support network or anyone to speak with about the day-to-day professional or personal challenges they’re facing. If the assignee has moved with their family, it’s crucial that you ensure their needs are being met, as this is one of the most common reasons for assignment failure.

You can also help them initially to build their own support network by assigning someone else within the company to be their ‘buddy’ and show them the ropes. Not only will this help them with integration, but will also provide them with a local expert to assist them with any queries about work or the local area. Local relationships can undoubtedly speed up an assignment workers learning curve and adjustment. Having someone keep an eye on an assignee can also be useful to ensure that they aren’t being overloaded with work or being given too much responsibility prematurely.

For SMEs or smaller organisations that don’t have the local resources to support an assignee, it could be worth investing in an Employee or Expat Assistance Programme (EAP), which is a cost-effective tool for supporting the mental health of your staff. EAPs offer resources, guidance and even face-to-face local counselling sessions from qualified professionals to support mental health.

5. Prepare them for repatriation

Only 30 per cent of organisations currently provide repatriation support to their staff coming home from assignments3. However, an employer’s job isn’t done once it’s decided that an assignment is finished, as coming back from living abroad can be as difficult as moving away in the first place. This is largely due to reverse-culture shock. Often ‘repats’ build up unrealistic expectations of life at home which simply don’t match with their experience when they move back. Training on how they can ease the transition back to being a native is crucial, along with giving them much notice as possible to prepare for their move back.

Separately, some assignees will find when they come home that their old job no longer stimulates them, so you also need to speak with them about the role they are returning to. Roughly 15-25% of returning assignment workers leave their job within a year after moving home4. This figure increases to 40% after two years, as they look to leverage their international experience elsewhere, in search of a better offer where their new skills are better utilised. Ensuring that your employee is clear on their future role and happy with their position will assist in easing their repatriation.

Once again, the here is to establishing healthy communication with your staff before, during and after their assignment.

Preparation is key

Carrying out the above steps will not guarantee that your international assignments will be 100 per cent effective in the future. Business needs and priorities can change throughout an assignment. Screening for the right candidate can’t always ensure that they will be successful in the role. That said, implementing positive changes to improve your processes will provide your company with a much stronger chance of success.

Yes, it can be tempting to fast-track the preparation for an international assignment, and hope that it will work out. But to ensure that your company reaps the full benefits and potential of talent mobility, it’s absolutely essential that you spend more time sharpening your axe, before chopping down the tree.

Click here to read more about why internationals assignments fail
Click here to read more about the cost of a failed international assignment


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