Repatriation: Can social media make a difference?

Expatriates returning home at the end of their assignments face a number of repatriation challenges, including unanticipated negative career implications, loss of contacts and deterioration in relationships with family and friends. Yet in today’s highly social-media-connected world, are these traditional repatriation difficulties a thing of the past? Dr Sue Shortland explains why repatriation is problematic and explores the role of technology in improving repatriation outcomes.

Photo of a woman calling her family while on international assignment
The cost of transferring individuals and their families abroad is widely quoted as being between three and five times the home country salary. Loss of expertise gained on assignment is, therefore, expensive if individuals choose not to remain with their sending organisation at the end of their assignment term. Given the trend towards using international assignments for knowledge transfer and management development purposes, supporting the re-entry and retention of repatriates is crucial for multi-national corporations to benefit from international staff transfers in the long term.At the end of the assignment, the transferee may repatriate to the home country, be redeployed to another country or become localised in the host country. Ideally, repatriates will share the knowledge that they acquired during their assignments and also continue to access relevant knowledge from the host unit, facilitating ongoing cross-unit knowledge flows in the multi-national corporation. It is important that repatriates not only stay with the organisation long enough to share their experiences, but also build links between the sending unit staff and those employees in the repatriate’s previous host unit.

Challenges on re-entry

The move ‘back home’ can, however, be more difficult than the original move abroad. This is due to a number of factors. First, the repatriate is likely to have developed a number of expectations of their future career path as a result of being on assignment. Having gained in-depth professional and personal experience, as well as new cultural and wider job content understandings, often set within a remit of greater autonomy, there is an expectation of career advancement on return. Yet the following issues are more likely to represent the repatriate career reality:
  •  Firms often fail to use the experience or knowledge gained internationally and most likely do not consider the career implications of this experience
  •  The repatriate is reassigned to a position similar to the one he or she left two or three years before, while their colleagues may have been promoted
  •  Repatriates often find it difficult to relate the value of their global experience to managers with a domestic focus.
With regard to the repatriation of accompanying family members, working spouses may face similar career-related problems linked to finding employment on return at a suitable level and in a job that makes the most of their international competencies.Poor performance among repatriates is not uncommon and dissatisfied repatriates can also act as negative role models, discouraging others from going abroad. Ultimately, high turnover of repatriates results in wasted investment.Leaving a social circle in the host location can also be painful for employees, spouses/partners and accompanying children. However, it is reported that repatriates look forward to rekindling friendships and reconnecting with family members at home. This may also not be as straightforward as it seems, though. Living and working abroad means that all members of the family, having adapted to a different cultural environment, can face ‘reverse culture shock’ on return.Settling back into their home country culture brings with it a number of surprises that were unanticipated. Friends and family members who remained behind have not shared the same experiences as the expatriated family and may not understand, or be particularly interested in, hearing about the life that they experienced abroad. This can lead to disappointment, disillusionment and frustration on the part of the repatriates. When added to the potentially negative career issues, it is not surprising that repatriation is a very challenging prospect.

Support for repatriates

Keeping in touch with expatriates and their families while they are abroad reduces the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ problem. As such, organisations have known for many years that maintaining regular communications with their international assignees can aid repatriation. The provision of support for assignees and their families in both the home country and host country is needed to achieve this. Preparation and training for repatriation are also well known to be as important as providing such interventions for expatriation. This might include explanations of likely cultural changes that individuals will experience on return, together with an outline of the effects of reverse culture shock. The provision of a mentor or sponsor to assist returning assignees with career issues, who can help them to find appropriate roles and aid their resettlement, is also valuable. Although research has made clear that expatriates and their family members worrying over repatriation is one of the key reasons why assignments can fail, and that keeping in touch with employees and their families can reduce repatriation challenges, organisational attention to repatriation still falls way behind that given to expatriation. Preparation and training, extensive communications, career interventions and investment in retaining repatriates have not been widely embraced.

Can technology provide a solution?

With the level of sophisticated communications technology that we have at our disposal today, might there be a way to reduce some of these traditional repatriation challenges? Technology can keep employees linked into home country/head office career path systems, such that job opportunities mapped out within succession plans can be accessed. Online information on available openings can theoretically be accessed anywhere, enabling expatriates to keep abreast of career opportunities and actively manage their own career.Of course, this relies on organisations operating open and transparent systems, and employing selection techniques that provide opportunities for all to apply for relevant vacancies. Expatriates no longer need to remain ‘unseen’ or ‘invisible’ in their overseas postings. Communications technology enables conference calls and conversations where the face can be seen, as well as the voice heard. Given the opportunities that technology provides to create an inclusive workplace for everyone (even those working in remote locations), it would be expected that the career difficulties faced by repatriates would be a thing of the past. Yet this does not appear to be the case. Employers and expatriates must be mindful that it takes human effort to make connections and career-path planning requires active interventions by both parties.With respect to families on the move who are separated from friends and previous work colleagues, as well as parents and siblings, it is important to consider whether widely used communications media such as Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram and so on, actually make a difference to the reverse culture shock, loneliness and disillusionment so often reported in the literature as experienced by repatriates on their return home. For example, can regular Skype conversations enable a degree of closeness, similar to that which could be experienced from engaging in face-to-face conversations? Besides social media enabling communicating parties to keep up-to-date, can such communication tools contribute to building and maintaining friendships and relationships to reduce or eliminate the social difficulties experienced on repatriation?

Call for further research

Currently, there is little in the way of robust research material available that links the role of communications technologies and social media with assignee and family repatriation. This is a gap in knowledge in terms of improving international mobility outcomes and in helping to improve expatriate return on investment. Further research might take this issue forward, potentially comparing expatriates’ and family members’ views and experiences of using social media and communications technology to maintain and progress career outcomes and friendships. It would be particularly interesting to compare the experiences of those who have undertaken several postings to see how repatriation experiences have changed, not only as they become more experienced in handling repatriation, but also how advances in communications technology have given them new ways of managing the homecoming process.Global mobility professionals can play an active role in advancing our knowledge of repatriation and of improving its outcomes, both as part of talent management initiatives and within efforts to provide effective family support programmes. If organisations are to improve their track records on repatriation, increasing the value they receive back from returning assignees and reducing repatriate turnover, taking an active role in understanding how communications technology and social media can help support repatriation objectives is a necessity.
If your organisation is interested in participating in research into the role of communications technology in improving repatriation outcomes, please contact Fiona Murchie at ReLocate Global. 
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