Repatriation: learning from employee experience

Repatriation is the most overlooked stage of international assignment planning. What can HR, talent managers and global mobility managers do to improve the expatriate experience?

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Autumn 2019 issue of Relocate magazine
This article is taken from the latest issue of Relocate magazine – the must read for HR, global managers and relocation professionals.
An innovative workshop hosted by Weichert Workforce Mobility at the Canadian Employee Relocation Council (CERC) annual conference this September leverages design thinking to improve the repatriation experience – the final, and often
the most overlooked stage, of international assignment planning. Ahead of the conference, Relocate’s HR and Global Mobility writer, Ruth Holmes, spoke to 
Ellie Sullivan, senior vice president of advisory services at Weichert Workforce Mobility, and Dario Kosarac, managing director and head of total rewards at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), to find out more.As any global mobility manager and returnee knows, repatriation is fraught with challenges. There are the practical issues of moving household goods, end-of-tenancy agreements, sometimes visa, immigration and tax considerations, and education.Then there are the career implications of the role an employee is returning to, with questions around how to best engage and use the skills and experience they gained overseas – and not lose them to a competitor.Add to this the emotional and social impact on the repatriating assignee and family. Reverse culture shock and feeling like a foreigner in your own country are real and unsettling features of repatriation. Despite these well-documented difficulties, surveys repeatedly show that for many employees, repatriation is a blind spot for employers in the relocation life cycle.

Designing an exceptional employee experience through repatriation

Even though repatriation is the end of the assignment life cycle, it seems a natural place to start the process of re-imagining an exceptional employee experience. That is the objective of a workshop happening at the CERC conference, which will use this as the starting point to look at the experience through the all-important lens of the employee.The event’s aim is both to help delegates better understand and improve their process and practices, and to equip people with tools and practices they can apply to other elements of the relocation life cycle.Workshop leader Ellie Sullivan, who in addition to her role at Weichert is a certified practitioner in design thinking – a user-focused approach to complex problem solving – explains, “This CERC session is an ‘experiential workshop’ designed to help global mobility managers and relocation providers better understand the repatriation process from the employee’s point of view. Here, they can explore what they can do to re-arrange, eliminate or add in terms of services or process to improve the experience.”

Understanding the repatriation journey

Joining Ms Sullivan during the workshop is Dario Kosarac, who will share his personal experiences as a frequent expatriate to talk through the details and impact of key aspects of his repatriation journey. Delegates will reflect on what he might have been doing, thinking and feeling and what the emotional, career, and family concerns were. The audience will create an empathy map along a timeline that starts six months before the repatriation notice and highlights milestone activities such as ‘advise family’ and ‘book household goods moving services’. Workshop participants will then select the most impactful touchpoints in the assignee journey.This experiential approach will help delegates to understand the pressures and pinch-points for assignees on multiple levels and, ultimately, inform and improve their practice. Ms Sullivan explained, “With dozens of touchpoints and unavoidable tax, compliance and security requirements, we know how confusing and challenging relocation can be.“By looking at the process from the employee’s point of view, we can develop a better understanding of what the experience is like and design an exceptional employee experience to drive better outcomes which in turn will result in better ROI.”
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Using design thinking is also part of Weichert’s stakeholding approach. This accents objective listening and systematic engagement, with everyone involved in the assignment life cycle. “By listening to their concerns and exploring the best way to overcome them, we can create an impartial roadmap to an ideal future state,” says Ms Sullivan.“Every stakeholder in the process – HR, compensation & benefits, finance, service provider, support functions, etc. – can have a voice in developing a better understanding of the process and how to improve the repatriation journey.”

Are you living the dream - or a nightmare?

To get a sense of the type of challenges and their impact, Mr Kosarac explains his experiences of repatriation and the lessons he is now applying from these in his current role, sharing them so they can be reflected on more widely to improve repatriation process and practices across the sector.Mr Kosarac first moved to Canada from the US, then to Hong Kong. His repatriation inbound to Canada was the result of a new job, and he is now in charge of moving the investment organisation’s growing number of employees across nine global offices.Having had a chance to process his experience and action new practices that are improving the assignment experience for colleagues and creating efficiencies, Mr Kosarac delineated the challenges as he sees them into three core areas: timing, logistics and social.“In terms of timing, I moved from Hong Kong to Canada in the middle of January – one of the coldest months of the year. This change in climate – from getting on a plane where it was about 65oF to arriving in Canada, and it was just under 0oF was a bit of a shock,” he says.To make the relocation even harder, Mr Kosarac’s shipment of household goods was delayed by nine weeks due to a storm in the Pacific and a strike at a port along the way. The challenge of timing meant he had to move from his furnished temporary apartment to his permanent apartment without any personal items or furniture.“I had no utensils, nothing to cook or prepare meals with,” he says. “This added to the significant challenges around the quality of life. To make matters worse, in one of the coldest times of the year, the apartment building’s heating system broke down on the first night. I was sleeping on a blow-up bed in an unfurnished, freezing apartment.”

How to deal with unforeseen challenges

Changing jobs is stressful enough without these additional logistical challenges. In Mr Kosarac’s case, in terms of social support, his partner was still in Hong Kong. Reconnecting with friends and family also doesn’t always come as easy as one might hope or expect, as circumstances change and shared experiences are fewer.Surveys and research show that Kosarac was not alone in having to live with and manage these types of repatriation challenges. “I sometimes joke that I was a victim of mobility before I became a manager of it!” says Mr Kosarac, who is now drawing on his experiences to improve the mobility experience for his people-centred role at CPPIB.“It is the interconnectedness of all these little things that add up to a pretty tough combination of experiences,” he believes. “While I did get lots of support and sympathy, people only saw small parts of what the repatriation meant for me from the perspective of their role in it. It was difficult for them to understand the whole picture.”

Rewriting repatriation

Mr Kosarac describes repatriation as a lonely and frustrating experience. To overcome this, he advocates for a two-pronged approach to make the process easier and more empathetic to individual needs and unique circumstances.The first step is realistic preparation, which includes providing more information on every aspect of the move and continuity of support, so there is a sense that someone is in charge of the whole process – whether that is through coaching or a mobility manager.“Every employee is unique,” says Mr Kosarac. “It would be great if there was someone there who could have said ‘right, your shipment didn’t make it in time, let me help you figure out how you might rent some furniture for a few weeks.’“It’s the importance of empathy and recognising the sacrifice employees make when they either go on assignment or are repatriated, and being able to make those creative, marginal decisions that make such a huge and often disproportionate difference to expatriates’ quality of life and well-being,” he adds.By the end of the workshop, attendees will have first-hand insights into the repatriation process and
newly acquired design-
thinking skills and will
have learned how to
design an exceptional
employee experience
from the beginning to
 end of the assignment
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