With nearly 5,000 km separating Alexandra Lawrence from her family and friends, social media has been her lifeline.
She moved from Britain to Halifax earlier this year for her partner’s job and a new life in Canada. While the move was exciting, she found herself searching for the kind of connections she had at home — until she discovered blogging and Twitter. A few posts later, she had local friends and a new writing career.
“Twitter has been a lifesaver and has helped me to connect with so many local people, find out about things going on and make contacts for my writing,” she wrote in a blog post.
Social media has changed the face of relocation, especially international postings, according to Tim McCarney, Boston-based manager of marketing communications at Weichert Relocation Resources, which has offices in Toronto and Calgary.
Sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube allow transferees to feel connected to the home and office they left behind and settle more quickly into life in a new country.
“The leading cause of relocation failure is that people don’t fit in, they can never quite adapt comfortably,” says McCarney. “With social media, there’s a certain immediacy. They can interact at any time and it helps ease the transition.”
The possibilities start with the move itself. YouTube, for example, offers tutorials on everything from choosing a mover to packing fine china, while sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn can help employees and their families learn about their new community.
“It allows you to do great mining for things like local amenities, neighbourhoods and schools before you even get there,” says Catherine O’Neill, manager of marketing and membership services at the Canadian Employee Relocation Council (CERC). “It does take away some of the excitement but it also takes away some of the fear.”
This is especially important for transferees with a family in tow. Facebook is a useful tool for posting photos, videos and messages for people back home, while LinkedIn can assist a spouse in making professional connections in the new city. Sites such as TripIt also ease trip planning for the move and future visits home.
Social media is a “critical element” in relocation because it helps with the smaller things that sometimes get missed, says Charles Freeman, national director of corporate service at Crown Relocations Canada in Toronto.
“When people are on assignment, it’s viewed as a bonus and there’s a lot of excitement,” he says. “But sometimes the small things get missed and they become big things. It’s things as simple as where to find a cake for your kid’s birthday.”
A quick tweet asking for tips is likely to garner a quick response — and new local contacts.
For transferees, sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter can help them quickly make contacts with others in their industry, work groups in the new location or colleagues they left behind.
Whether it’s following the CEO’s blog or company Twitter feed, social media allows employees to stay connected on a personal level, says O’Neill.
“It allows a continued conversation,” she says. “It’s not a hard stop from a project you’re working on or the colleagues you’re leaving behind. You don’t have that immediate end to relationships.”
One of the greatest risks of relocation is an employee will feel disconnected from the company and leave, says McCarney.
“People wonder, ‘When I get back, will they remember me?’” he says. “You risk losing these people and the loss of their knowledge, experience and expertise.”
By forming work groups on Facebook or LinkedIn, or posting on a company blog or Twitter feed, employees are less likely to feel like they’ve been banished to an outpost.
But there are risks to opening the door to social media, says McCarney. Setting up a site for expats, for example, allows international workers to share their experiences — good and bad.
“One of the great concerns with social media is, ‘What if people start saying bad things about our company?’” he says. “Well, it’s better to detect something while it’s happening, when you can still do something about it.”
Another potential pitfall is the overwhelming volume of information available online. Freeman recommends companies offer employees crash courses in social media through online learning to help them find the best platforms for their needs.
“It’s important that they get trained on how to do it properly because it’s a real minefield of information,” he says.
There’s also the danger employees and their families will spend too much time creating virtual connections and not enough time building real relationships, says O’Neill.
“It’s all good to have quick and great connections online but it’s also great to have resources where you can pick up the phone and talk to a real human being.”
Social media can make employees too dependent on the things they left behind rather than investing in new relationships and a new life in the new location, says McCarney.
Still, the benefits outweigh the risks, he says. The average cost of a failed international assignment is anywhere from two to five times an assignee’s annual salary, which can run in the millions of dollars for some companies.
The average cost to relocate a homeowner employee was $64,941 cross-border and $92,200 internationally, according to CERC’s 2009 International Relocation Policy and Assignment TrendsSurvey. Since most social media sites don’t cost anything to use, it makes sense for companies to support and encourage transferees to use them, says Freeman.
“It’s free — that’s the beautiful thing. With relocation, there are all of these costs and companies have to say, ‘We can’t give you this or that but what we can give you is this as guidance with social media.’”
Danielle Harder is a Brooklin, Ont.-based freelance writer.
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