What Expats Demand in Terms of Flexibility and Customization in Assignments

What do expatriates like to change or add to their assignments? A resounding call for flexibility and customization permeated the recent
survey conducted by Cigna Global Health Benefit and the National Foreign Trade Council on global mobility trends. A total of 2,700 expats working in 156 countries participated in the survey.

The survey distinguishes itself by offering us a perspective from the professionals themselves, a refreshing break from the usual industry studies. Not only that, the respondents have had time to assess their life in their assigned countries.

Below are some highlights regarding their responses on healthcare, communications and lifestyle issues:

Healthcare. In 2015, the number one concern among expats is access to health care anywhere, including the United States. This was followed closely by emergency medical evacuation. Others cited were quick turnaround on out-of-pocket claim and access to health care services in assignment location paid directly to providers by the health plan.

It should be noted here how the proportion of expats accessing medical care on assignment stayed consistent from 2013 at 79 percent. Seventy-five percent of expats said they access local providers for routine medical care.

The rate at which men accessed care stayed about the same (78 percent this year versus 77 percent in 2013), while the share of women accessing care rose five percentage points to 83 percent.

Communications. Before, during and after assignment turn out to be critical to expats and the success of their assignment. Survey responses indicate that employers shouldn’t be worried about over-communicating.

  • 38 percent of respondents received only one communication prior to departure and nearly a third received two to three.
  • More than 75 percent received information about their global mobility program benefits during assignment. Of this group, one in four received messages on a quarterly basis.
  • Email and phone calls with HR/global mobility representatives were the top two forms of communication with 90 percent and 70 percent, respectively.

Suggestions from expats to improve communication include:

  • “Monthly check-in style communication for the first six to 12 months to evaluate employee adjustment and adaptation.”
  • “Talk to employees more, not just hand out booklets.”
  • “Always keep in contact with the employee when necessary, making sure that the employee is settled into a new environment in a new foreign country.”
  • “Simplify websites, consider that most foreign sites have low bandwidth, older computers, older web browsers. Also that employees often work long hours, and are stressed. Keep things simple.”

Lifestyle. The support employers have traditionally made available aligns with what expats say is needed. More than three-quarters of respondents said their employer provides help with moving household goods; setting up utilities and other settling-in needs, as well as help with finding doctors and getting vaccinations.

  • Only 20 percent of information sent to expats before assignment covered local lifestyle resources such as grocery stores, child care, etc. “Prepare employees better for the cultural shock they will experience, particularly for newcomers,” said one respondent.

Leah Cotterill of Cigna Global Health Benefits offers her observation. “A one-size-fits-all approach to mobility program services can lead to potential dissatisfaction, or worse, an unexpected end to a global assignment.”

She also warned about how “managing costs through benefits reduction might save companies money in the shorter term, the approach may not lead to longer term satisfaction, loyalty, trust or success.”

Overall, this year’s results demonstrate that global mobility is a lifestyle choice evolving into a career unto itself. As the survey states, the spirit of adventure, the potential to hone one’s qualifications and the appeal of living abroad remained the greatest influences on the decision to accept an assignment. (DC)