Expat housing tied to assignment success

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Expatica HR Top 5 Industry Survey Awards’ second place winner offers recommendations on how to maximize chances of a successful assignment by focusing on housing.

The  Expatica Top 5 industry Survey Awards’ second place winner, The Interchange Institute’s At Home Abroad:  A Study of Expatriates’ Housing and Its Ties to Assignment Success, was noted for its importance as an accessible and clear reference guide to HR professionals.

The study assessed the ways in which expatriate housing selection is related to subsequent assignment satisfaction.  It detailed, in particular, the ways in which a home affects a family’s interaction patterns, giving special consideration to aspects of a home that change when moving to a new country.  It offers HR professionals data-based recommendations about how to maximize the chances of a successful assignment in the context of a satisfied home dweller.

The survey sample comprised 130 expatriates from 24 countries, living in one of 48 countries; 50 percent were US citizens.  The mean age was 41; 81 percent were female and 79 percent were married.  Thirty-two percent had moved to the current country because of their own jobs or education, 56 percent were accompanying spouses, and the rest had moved for personal reasons.  Fifty-one percent had children living with them.  

Participants were contacted via a variety of expatriate support and information sites, and completed an on-line survey about the role their homes played in their expatriate experience.  In addition to questions related to housing, participants were asked to complete separate inventories of general satisfaction and mental health.

Homes really do make a difference

The study clearly documented the importance of careful home selection and efficient settling-in for the overall well-being of expatriate assignments: efficient settling in and satisfaction with home were consistently related to participants’ loyalty to their employer, their rating of the assignment and their mental health.  Moreover, participants who said they would pick the same house again were more loyal to their (or their spouse’s) employer, were happier with their assignment, gave the assignment a higher rating and said their spouse would too, felt more settled in their home and community, and had better mental health.

The survey did find, however, that Americans were the group least satisfied with their homes on a number of dimensions: its level of luxury and modernity, its proximity to activities they enjoy, the amount of outdoor land accessible to them, and whether the home was an apartment or a house.

What matters to families, whether they know it or not

Of particular note, the survey identified an important dimension of how home layout affects families.  ‘Centrifugal’ vs. ‘centripetal’ home layouts were uniquely related to outcome indicators.  Centrifugal homes lead family members to be more separate from each other, and to spend time alone in separate spaces, often a feature of increased space that people think they like.  Centripetal homes lead family members to spend more time in common space.

This dimension was largely invisible to participants yet was one of the most predictive aspects of their response to the assignment. Those in centripetal homes rated the assignment consistently more positively than those in centrifugal homes.

Thus, one major conclusion of the study suggested that when choosing a new home, consideration should be given to how a home’s layout and arrangement of furniture and appliances will influence family interaction. The most satisfied expatriate families were those living in homes that promoted more and easier communication within the family.

Further, the study traced which aspects of an expatriate home are the most relevant for assignment outcome.  ‘Décor’ and ‘quality of neighborhood’ were more important than ‘proximity to work.’  Of those who would pick the same house again, 100 percent spontaneously mentioned its location as something they liked.  Of those who would not pick the same house again, almost 82 percent mentioned that they did not like its location.

Some people care more about homes than others

Homes were more consistently related to feelings about the assignment for spouses than for those whose jobs brought them to the assignment.  Moreover, the aspects of a home most consistently related to outcome for spouses were its privacy for family members, décor, and levels of comfort, luxuriousness and formality.  By contrast, for the employees themselves, quality of neighborhood was the most important single aspect of the home.

People’s internal ideal home affects their perceptions and evaluations of their current home

A particularly unique aspect of the study examined the way in which people have an internal “ideal” home that they use to compare their new homes against.  The survey then documented which aspects of these internal homes are most important to satisfaction.

Americans, more than any other group, reported that their current home compared less positively to their favorite or ideal home.

More generally, participants whose favorite homes were the ones they had most recently left, and perhaps felt “torn away from,” were particularly sensitive to aspects of their current homes.  If this group felt more satisfied with their homes and saw them as similar to those favorite homes, they scored higher on the mental health index, rated the assignment more positively and felt more settled. The suggestion arises, therefore, that HR professionals assess how expatriates feel about leaving their current homes and treat those leaving an idealized home with special care.

Relocation assistance makes a difference

Advice arising from inquiry into relocation assistance suggested that housing policy generosity and flexibility, and the provision of relocation assistance are clearly related to expatriates’ feeling settled in their new homes.

Findings in the area of relocation assistance included the following:

Americans were significantly more likely to have moved under terms of a housing policy than non- Americans.

Females reported having more choice in where they would live, both temporarily and permanently, and in general.
Compared to participants from other countries, Americans had less choice about how much money to spend on housing, and where they could live temporarily or permanently.

Americans were more likely than those from other countries to receive assistance in finding a home, negotiating a rental or sales agreement, buying internet or cable service, and setting up their computer or television.
Participants who received more help in finding a home, negotiating a sales or rental agreement, and with tax preparation took less time to feel settled than those who received less help.

How people settle in makes a difference

The final section of the study determined what people who are happy on their expatriate assignments actually do when they first move into their homes, and how this differs from those who are unhappy.  In general, happy ones “nest” and make connections with neighbors. The study found that:

Participants who were quicker to display their family photos said they felt modestly more settled in their home and community than those who took a longer time to display photos, or had not done it yet.

Those who were quicker to hang art work on their walls felt more settled in their home and community, and felt more loyal to their employer, than those who took longer to hang art work on the walls.

Participants who were quicker to meet at least one neighbor felt modestly more settled in.

Participants who were quicker to organize their kitchen had better mental health and felt more loyal to their employer than those who took longer to organize their kitchen.

Not surprisingly, participants who were quicker to unpack their moving boxes felt settled more quickly than those who unpacked their boxes more slowly

Interestingly, it was noted that the following ‘settling-in tasks’ were not related to any outcome indicators: cleaning the home, re-painting or re-decorating at least one room, arranging furniture, having visitors, and having a holiday meal.

The survey did note that It is important to remember that the direction of causality is not clear in this area — it could be that settling in quickly causes people to feel better, or that those who feel better have the energy to settle in quickly.

Finally, the study drew upon participant advice in the form of open questions.  The following themes were traced:
  • Before making your final choice of home, visit the location, take your time, make sure you see the big picture.
  • Personalize the home and make it yours, by using cherished and personal items.
  • Pay careful attention to the location of your home.
  • Be flexible and don’t expect your new home to be exactly like the last one you had.
  • Make your family’s happiness a priority.
  • Meet your neighbors and make community connections as quickly as possible.
The question of home and its connection to indexes of happiness and employee satisfaction and performance presents researchers with a rich and multifaceted field of inquiry.  The most human facet of the study is perhaps found in one respondent’s eloquent summary: “But with each overseas assignment, 'home' becomes less of an architectural construct and more of an internal feeling, a haven where we know we will find familiar warmth in each other.”
Expatica / Erin Russell Thiessen

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