Keeping the whole family happy on relocation

Preparation, flexibility and connections help keep spouses, children satisfied
By Donna Bergles and Charles Freeman
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/10/2012

The unhappiness of a partner or family is one of the major reasons for assignment failure.

And there are several reasons behind the discontentment. Relocation is not permanent, so it’s inherently more disruptive. Housing is also not permanent, so it is difficult for a family to make themselves at home. In addition, it often takes significant time for people to become fully connected and settled in a new location.

But an assignment can also be a life-enriching adventure. The key, as with all things, is in the details.

Pre-offer phase: Firstly, the corporation should include the spouse, if not the children, in any pre-offer suitability assessment. A spouse who is simply not interested in embarking on such an adventure will not be happy, no matter what is provided to the family. In such cases, it is better for the employer to extend the assignment to the employee alone and provide frequent home visits instead of relocating the family.

Recently, on a short assignment to the United Kingdom from the United States, an assignee expressed concern about how well his spouse was integrating with the new location because of her inability to drive comfortably there. Fortunately, the assignee’s employer had a flexible benefit plan that provided for driving lessons for his spouse, enabling her to explore her new surroundings with minimum stress.

Flexible costs: Even if a family is pre-qualified and excited by the prospect of a relocation, the “happiness quotient” could still be compromised if the details around travel, shipping of essentials, housing, schooling and cultural integration are not adequately addressed. An employer should consider a flexible spend on the assignment, allowing an assignee to better manage the specific needs of her family, rather than be bound to pre-established, generic benefits.

One family may be happier in a more centrally located, spacious and better amenitized housing unit, without a car allowance, whereas another family might prefer a more sparse housing facility but desire a larger car for side trips.

Cultural training: Another often missed opportunity to ensure a family’s (and an assignee’s) satisfaction in the new location is to provide at least some basic cultural integration training to the entire family. Even if the assignment is in another same-language country, the smallest of differences can become a major hurdle.

A good basic cultural orientation program may be all that’s needed to ensure a family is prepared for the inevitable differences between living at home and living in a new environment.

Career support: A spouse may also have a career he wants to pursue in the host location. Spousal career assistance provides a platform where the accompanying partner can explore all opportunities to continue with his own career or identify career alternatives with a professional career consultant.

Focus should also be directed to social aspects and developing strong, new relationships. A partner or spouse can sometimes feel as if she has lost her identity and her place in society through relocating and not having a job — she is suddenly identified as a partner or mother only.

A spousal assistance program gives back some of the self-control a spouse has lost through the transition and allows her to see regain her skills, experience and knowledge that will benefit a workforce or project that she chooses.

If a spouse is not able to pursue a career due to immigration restrictions, for example, then there are often activities he can undertake to help fill the void and provide him with a rewarding assignment experience.

Support for children: When the accompanying children are teenagers, the challenge of being happy on assignment can be magnified. Teenagers find leaving home more difficult than younger children. They have been building a life for themselves, with close friendships, school activities, jobs, family ties and memories of growing up in a community they call home — these challenges do not end once they arrive at their new location.

Parents should involve their teenage children in getting settled and discovering interesting things to do while on assignment. Teenagers are often more computer-savvy and conscious of online intricacies, so they can do research and ensure the family stays connected with friends and family back home.

Staying connected: Distance should not keep an assignee’s spouse and children apart — technology can be an effective means to stay in touch. Whether an employee is relocating to Australia or Zimbabwe, the distance and time differences separating him from friends and family are sure to make him feel isolated. Keeping in touch with loved ones can help reduce the feeling of homesickness.

There are a wide variety of low-cost, quick and user-friendly ways to maintain contact, such as online video calls, instant messaging, social networking websites, blogs, emails, lower-rate mobile phone calls and texting. It is crucial for the family to be able to connect and rely on loved ones for support from back home.

Flexibility, prequalification, adequate preparation and creative connectivity with home and assignment locations are a good happiness insurance policy for the family and will minimize an assignee’s chances of assignment failure.

Donna Bergles is director of North America Alliance and Charles Freeman is national director of corporate service at Crown World Mobility in Toronto. He can be reached at cfreeman@crownrelo.com. For more information, visit www.crownworldmobility.com.

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