International Assignments, a Corporate Perspective: Part One

We’ve been looking over past Newland Chase blog posts recently and realised in doing so that it has been some time since we wrote about global immigration developments.  There have been so many changes to the UK Immigration Rules over the last few months that we have focused largely on these in our blog.

You can find regular coverage of global developments in our news pages, but moving forward we are going to spend more time discussing and debating important immigration news from around the world, with a particular focus on the most common expatriate destinations.

International Assignments, an article written by Sebastian Reiche and Anne-Wil Harzing, has inspired us to look at global mobility from a corporate perspective.  Why do companies send staff on international assignments?  What are the different types of assignment and why should these be considered?  We’ll be discussing these questions and sharing our own experiences.

In our next global immigration post we will continue this theme and explore why assignments can fail, what companies should be doing to ensure their success and the effect of relocation on assignees and their families.

We will then look at individual countries over the coming weeks, sharing our experiences of assisting with relocations and offering practical advice for Human Resources staff when planning assignments.  We hope that you will continue to comment on the issues raised below…

Why send your staff overseas?

In their study which assesses the findings of various authors on the subject, Reiche and Harzing identify key motives which companies have for sending their staff abroad.  Some of these can be summarised as follows:

  • To ensure the transfer of knowledge between home and host companies;
  • Transfer of technological, administrative or sales knowledge or software;
  • To compensate for a lack of qualified local managers;
  • To assist with the training and development of local managers and a wish to broaden their global awareness;
  • The benefit of international experience to the assignee and their role in the home country;
  • Increased personal or managerial development for the assignee;
  • To facilitate communication and reciprocal information flows;
  • To ensure a uniform, coordinated company policy;
  • Filling vacant positions;
  • The internationalisation of the company as a whole;
  • Coordination.

As Reiche and Harzing suggest, the ultimate objective for sending employees overseas appears to be connected with ‘making sure that the various organizational units strive towards common organizational goals.’  This accords with much of our own experience of assisting with international assignments and indeed with bringing non-EEA nationals to work in a UK branch of the overseas company.  Many intra company transfers arise because there is a shortage of specific skills in the UK, and a foreign national who possesses these skills is required to ensure that the aims of the UK branch will not fail.

Knowledge sharing is also an important reason which prompts employers to send their staff abroad.  Obviously, the assignee arriving in the host country will be able to bring new information and experiences with them.  Equally, however, he or she will also be able to access local knowledge of systems and processes which can then be imparted when back in the home country.  There is a great difference between reading about a country’s processes and gaining firsthand experience.

Clearly, there are many compelling reasons for sending employees abroad and this need is only increasing as the world becomes a truly global playing field.  But as it becomes more vital for companies to send individuals overseas, the necessity for finding flexible alternatives to the traditional long term international assignments also increases.

Alternative types of international assignments

Reiche and Harzing point out that ‘there are increasing signs that barriers to mobility – especially the issue of dual-career couples – are becoming more and more important, leading to a decline in the willingness to accept an assignment abroad.’  It is true that in many couples both parties will have careers and international assignments can place substantial stress on a family as they decide whether to relocate or be separated for the duration of the assignment.

The article also highlights the fact that sending employees abroad can involve high costs for the employing company.  The assignee will need to be adequately compensated for spending time overseas and there are all the relocation costs from visas to accommodation which must be covered.

What, then, are the alternatives to sending assignees abroad for indefinite periods?  We will summarise some of the solutions posed in the article.

Inpatriate assignments

  • Involves the transfer of subsidiary managers to an overseas headquarters for a set period of time.
  • This allows key individuals to experience the policies and procedures of the parent company and develop informal communication networks, taking lessons learnt back to the subsidiary company.

Short term assignments

  • A short term assignment will typically last between 1 to 12 months in total and the assignee will be unaccompanied by his or her family.
  • These are especially useful when specific skills need to be transferred, such as when a project manager or engineer is required for multinational project work.  They are also more cost effective for companies and selection and preparation procedures for these assignments ‘tend to be more informal and ad hoc.’
  • We manage many short term intra company transfers for assignees who are needed to assist with project work in the UK.  These types of visa applications will generally be processed more expeditiously than applications for longer term visas due to less onerous documentary requirements.  Of course, a major benefit is that the assignee does not have to uproot his or her family.

Business trips

  • The numbers of assignees sent on business trips has increased significantly over the previous decade.
  • Business trips are especially useful for the preliminary stages of a project, as the business visitor is permitted to attend meetings, negotiations and seminars and can develop personal relationships with clients and key colleagues.
  • It is important to note, however, that the activities which are permitted on a business visitor are strictly limited and any non compliance with the rules will incur penalties for the assignee and their employer.  The permitted activities change on a country by country basis and one should therefore always check the relevant immigration rules before arranging business travel.

Self-initiated assignments

  • Growing numbers of individuals are making their own arrangements to work overseas, particularly in economic regions such as the European Union where free movement is permitted.
  • These ‘self-initiated assignees’ will be employed on local work contracts and generally view their relocation as a permanent move overseas.

Virtual assignments

  • The growth of ‘virtual assignments’ can be attributed to advances in information technology over the previous decade and the introduction of communication tools such as email, telephone, videoconferencing, Skype etc.
  • In these types of assignment, there will be no physical relocation by the assignee.  Rather, they will impart skills and knowledge to overseas colleagues through a combination of the methods mentioned above.
  • There are many obvious advantages to these assignments, but as Reiche and Harzing have suggested, ‘face-to-face communication remains crucial in many circumstances, thus limiting the use of virtual work arrangements.’

It is evident that the need for international assignments will only continue to grow as companies search for new investment and seek to expand their overseas operations. Statistics regularly demonstrate that overseas assignments are on the rise, for example, in the 2012 Global Mobility Survey, 45% of the companies surveyed predicted growth in the number of international assignments over the next 12 months. 

The variety of options for international assignments is very useful for any company which plans to send their staff overseas.  It is vital that companies take the wishes and needs of the assignee into consideration when planning an overseas assignment, and the individual concerned will not always agree to a longer term posting. 

We will be delving deeper into the reasons why assignments sometimes fail and will look at preventative measures which companies could take to ensure their success, as well as examining the impact of long term relocation on the assignee, in our next blog.

In the meantime, we welcome your views and stories in our comments section below.  For more specific enquiries, please contact us or call us on 0207 001 2121 and one of our specialists will be pleased to assist you.

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