Putting work-life balance into relocation planning

By Donna Bergles and Lisa Da Rocha
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/10/2002

Work-life balance is an increasing priority in human resources management for very good reasons, driven by the rise of the dual-career family and the attendant need to juggle responsibilities on the home front. Forward-looking companies have responded with family-friendly policies and support programs.

Yet with corporate relocations, life balance issues are generally overlooked, despite the fact that the sheer nature of the relocation process throws the work-life balance of employees and their families completely out of whack.

In human terms, a relocation may become a total “dislocation,” with employees and their families feeling cut off from friends and relatives, workmates, familiar surroundings, lifestyle routines and social connections. After a relocation, it takes time for all involved to settle in and develop connections to the new job and new community.

If the transition isn’t handled effectively, the relocation often results in failure of both the business goals of the corporation and the personal goals of the employee.

Given the rising costs of relocations, a heightened focus on family support issues is an important strategic investment — a relatively modest cost reaping major dividends.

Destination and settling-in services have been an increasing feature of international relocations, primarily due to awareness of cultural and language challenges. But relocations within Canada, and even cross border to the United States, have not been traditionally viewed in the same way because North America is considered familiar territory. Yet a move to another city or province, or even a relatively short-distance move (to a small community from a large city, for instance) brings some level of culture shock and means lifestyle adjustments in unfamiliar territory.

This is why employee relocations have become a tougher sell in recent years. The deal-breaker today is generally not the job prospect or salary, rather it is likely to be the candidate’s concerns about a mother-in-law’s home care, kids’ education, a spouse’s career or the ability to adjust to new surroundings and juggle lifestyle responsibilities while focusing on the job.

Family support issues have long been considered the “soft” issues of the relocation process, secondary to “hard” issues such as home sale and search and moving household goods, but attitudes toward soft issues are hardening with the rise in dual-career households (now 70 per cent of Canadian families), the aging population (with about 50 per cent of Canadian employees facing elder-care responsibilities) and concerns about the quality of health care and education in different communities and provinces.

Two of the top reasons for declining a transfer are spousal employment issues and reluctance to disturb children’s education. Concerns about elder care are also on the rise.

Even when the career opportunity wins out and the employee accepts a transfer to a new location, the relocation may be a disaster if employees and their families fail to adapt to the new location or if employees are so distracted and stressed that their productivity slides and they are unable to bring positive energies to the new job, team and workplace.

For employees and families, successfully creating connections in their new communities is the difference between a positive move and a relocation failure. For the companies they serve, a relocation failure means lost productivity, considerable expense, poor employee morale and challenges in achieving corporate goals.

There are four emerging relocation challenges that require increased time, focus and specialization:

•career assistance (for the spouse and the employee);

•elder-care assistance for elder dependents or semi-dependents of the employee;

•education program and school selection assistance; and

•assistance with settling in and familiarization with the new community.

These are the work-life balance issues most affected by a move. Whether using an external relocation service provider of handling relocations in-house, all companies and employees will benefit if these issues are understood and handled effectively.

Career connections for the employee...

Relocations create career challenges for all families, whether single or dual career. The employee’s adjustment to a new position in a new location, with new workmates and responsibilities brings its own stresses and strains, which can exacerbate the family’s transition and the employee’s effectiveness.

Furthermore, research has shown that 15 per cent of failed relocations are due to a lack of adaptability and a mismatch of skills between the employee and the new job.

As well, there are numerous instances where morale in the employee’s new team has been adversely affected by the career challenges and family challenges facing the employee. Career assistance for the employee during the early months in the new location has proven to be a critical success factor.

Relocated employees can benefit from career coaching in their new work environment. This involves professional, experienced coaches assigned to each employee, and education and resources on best practices and career-related topics.

The key to a successful career transition, regardless of the circumstance, is to develop a specialized plan for the person based on an assessment of individual strengths, interests and potential. With the plan in place and a personal coach providing guidance, the individual will be able to make purposeful and meaningful decisions about a new job.

...And for the spouse

Interruption of a spouse’s career to facilitate the employee’s relocation may cause financial concerns, as well as having an impact on the spouse’s career aspirations and self-esteem.

Spousal career assistance should begin before the move with a personal assessment, followed by professional career counselling, which is focused on understanding how the spouse’s aptitudes and career experience may be utilized in the new location.

National and local knowledge of the job market should be used to spearhead and support the spouse through an appropriate and targeted job search.

Relocating children with education connections

Parents worry about their children’s education prospects and futures, while children worry about fitting in and making new friends. Too often, orientation tours by the family are brief, and amount to a short house-hunting trip.

In reality, a good house-hunting trip for a well-planned relocation also includes well-thought out neighbourhood searches, with an understanding of where the “good schools” are, rather than having school selection as an afterthought.

As well, parents may not be aware of local, regional and provincial differences in school systems, available activities and sports programs, or special needs capabilities at different schools in the new community.

Ensuring educational needs are met is best served by assessment prior to the move to determine special needs, interests and priorities. Compile comprehensive information and guidance about public and private school choices in the new community, along with support and assistance with tours, interviews, assessments, documentation and registration.

Managing elder-care challenges

Elder care is a growing concern in Canada, given the aging population. It’s a particular concern for baby boomers who dominate the executive and professional ranks in Canada, and have parents and in-laws in their 70s and 80s. In many cases, a parent may live with the employee’s family, live close by and depend on the assistance of the family, or they may be in a nearby nursing home.

There may be a level of financial interdependence, as when families move into the parental home on the death of one of the parents and care for the surviving parent.

These issues are challenging for all employees, and many forward-looking corporations have developed policies and support programs, but with relocation, this challenging issue can become daunting, as distance and new arrangements must be considered.

Health-care professionals can provide an assessment of current needs and services, action plans on changes that may be required if elderly relatives are not relocating with the family and expert assistance on lining up similar services in the new location if the relative decides to relocate to the employee’s new community.

Making connections in the new community

When families move to a new community, the employee may be absorbed in the new job, the spouse may be taking care of the move but also embarking on a job search, the children may be adjusting to a new school and no-one has the time or knowledge of the community to take care of basics of everyday life like finding a doctor, signing up for utilities, being there for the gas company hook-up, changing a driver’s licence.

In previous generations, before the rise of dual-career families, neighbourhood “Welcome Wagons” helped fill the gap, but in today’s world, families may have a challenging time making the initial basic connections they need to begin to restore their life balance in a new community.

Each basic connection, be it with a plumber or a Girl Guide leader, may seem trivial in the scheme of things, but they all contribute to the fabric of a new life for the family. Helping employees take care of the basics eases the transition and contributes to relocation success.

Relocation success

From the individual perspective, creating connections in the new location and thereby achieving a work-life balance may be the most important relocation solution. Equally as important, from the business perspective, work-life balance solutions help to broaden the pool of relocation candidates while providing the opportunity to maximize the very significant investment required to relocate an employee and achieve business goals.

When work-life balance issues that are most affected by relocations are managed effectively, they become the deal-maker rather than the deal-breaker. Rather than fearing dislocation, employees and their families can look forward to the opportunity of a better life and a positive lifestyle experience, while employers can look forward to happier, more productive employees.

Donna Bergles is the manager of international services at Royal LePage Relocation Services. She can be reached at (416) 510-5619 or dbergles@royallepage2.com. Lisa Da Rocha is the manager of business development at Royal LePage Relocation Services. She can be reached at (416) 510-5677 or ldarocha@royallepage2.com.

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