Short-Term Assignments, Long-Term Success

The popularity of international assignments is certainly on the rise. Companies from almost all industries are recognizing that international assignments do more than fill talent gaps or transfer corporate culture to international offices. Global assignments contribute to building a flexible, culturally competent workforce better able to support the future growth of the organization.  Many companies are now opting to send employees on short-term assignments as an investment in developing global talent.  In the process, they are finding that even short-term assignees need support in order to be productive employees and develop the skills the company seeks.

What the research shows

Of the 122 companies surveyed in the 2012 Cartus Trends in Global Relocation report, 57% reported an increase in short-term assignments.  Confirming this trend, Mercer’s 2013 Worldwide International Assignment Policies and Practices survey reported that over 70% expected to increase short-term assignments in 2013.

While as many as 96% of companies have long-term international assignment policies (Brookfield 2013 survey of 123 small, medium and large companies), fewer have policies in place for short-term assignees.  In the same Brookfield report, 33% of companies said they are considering international policies for short-term employees. But why do short-term assignees need support when short-term assignments average only one year and 5 months (Mercer 2013)?

Hitting the ground running

The reasons are clear.  Short-term assignees are expected to arrive and perform quickly to take full advantage of their time on the ground.  They don’t have time to gradually make sense of the culture or learn the language over the course of the assignment in the way that longer-term assignees may.  Imagine walking into a room full of new Chinese colleagues — all eyes on the “new guy” — and not understanding the proper way to introduce oneself in China. Or, even more complex, finding yourself in a heated discussion with German colleagues and not understanding if this is a personal attack, or just a business interaction.

Intercultural training, coaching, business briefings and on-line cultural content are essential for short-term assignees who must very quickly establish credibility in their new workplace environment.  In addition, some assignees will be leaving family members behind, and it is critical to spend some time exploring how they will manage the separation; how often they will see family members; channels of communication for both daily interactions and emergencies.  These topics should always be given consideration pre-departure and can be addressed in cultural training sessions or coaching discussions.

Also directly tied to establishing credibility and building important relationships is the ability to greet people and carry on simple conversations in the language of the host culture.  Short-term assignees who start language training pre-departure — as soon as they accept the assignment — can increase their confidence levels and get a head start on learning essential greetings and phrases for navigating those critical first few weeks of the assignment.

Selection of short-term assignees

Creating a talent pool for short-term assignments increasingly has the attention of both global mobility and talent management. The desire to accept an international assignment is a good first step, but not everyone who would like to go on assignment is qualified to represent the organization, be productive, adapt to their new living and work environment, and develop the skills the organization needs to justify the investment in the assignee.  Using assessment instruments allows the organization to choose who is ready now,  and who needs some development before embarking on an assignment.

Imagine Ruth is eager to go on assignment to India. She is an excellent employee with a high degree of technical skill. An intercultural assessment reveals that while she is resilient and has strong social skills that serve her well, she does not currently demonstrate a strong interest in global issues or an understanding of cultural differences and their impact on workplace behavior.  Knowing this will allow her organization to put a development plan in place for her that will enable her to prepare for an assignment in the future – one that will likely be much more successful.

When the assignees return

Finally, companies cannot ignore the skills and insights that assignees bring back from their international experience. As the number of assignments increase, it is important for managers who work with the returning assignees to know how to debrief their experiences and to recognize and use the skills that they bring back with them.  Assignees also need reintegration training or coaching to help them understand how they can apply the skills they have gained to benefit their organizations, and how they can transfer their knowledge to others in the organization. Some companies have started groups for returned assignees to create a forum for employees to share experiences as well as an outstanding talent pool of mentors for future assignees.

Increasing short-term assignments can be a very effective way to continue to build a global organization. The experience and outcomes can be greatly enhanced with attention to the selection, training, development and retention of those who are willing to learn and grow with and for the organization.

Interested in learning more about what goes into Short-Term Assignments?  View our webinar, Short-Term Assignments, Long-Term Success: Essential Training for your STA’s.

Written by: Charisse Kosova, M.Ad.Ed., Director, Intercultural Training & Development. Contact her here.

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