So you’ve made the move, met the locals and are wowing the new boss. You’ve learned enough lingo to get by at the grocery store and you sound like you know what you’ve just ordered at the restaurant (never mind that you end up with a plateful of unidentifiable green gunge).
You’re making a new home for yourself abroad. But what about your house?
Would you pick the same house or flat again? If you answer yes to this question, then chances are you are happier at your job, more loyal to your boss, and more emotionally balanced. Plus, your spouse is more likely to be all the above, too.
Homes Really Do Make a Difference
A new study by the Interchange Institute looks at how expat housing is tied directly to assignment satisfaction and job success. The study found that the more satisfied expats were with their housing, the higher they rated their job satisfaction, the more loyal they were to their employer and the more likely they were to report good mental health.
The survey sample was made up of 130 expats 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.
The study looked at, 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.
One very surprising conclusion was that a home’s floor plan has a considerable effect on expats’ happiness – even if they don’t know it themselves. The study found that open floor plans, or ‘centripetal’ layouts led families to spend more time together. Employees and spouses in these homes consistently rated their overall satisfaction more highly than those living in closed-layout homes. This dimension was largely invisible to participants—many claimed they would prefer a closed layout home—but an open floor plan was one of the most predictive aspects of a high rating of job satisfaction.
Thus, a 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 expat families were those living in homes that promoted more and easier communication within the family.
Further, it was discovered that some aspects of a home were more closely tied to measures of assignment satisfaction than others. For example, 'décor' and 'quality of neighbourhood' were more important to respondents 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.
While 'quality of neighbourhood' was the most important aspect for employees, it would appear that trailing spouses require something more. The aspects of a home most consistently related to satisfaction for spouses were its privacy for family members, quality of décor, and levels of comfort, luxuriousness and formality. If these things were present, a spouse was likely to have a high level of loyalty to the employing company.
The survey did find 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.
So, if you’re living in a closed-floor-plan home, have décor that was ugly in the seventies, and violent gangs surface in the neighbourhood after dark, it may be time to speak to your human resources department.
An ideal home
Another original 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 looked at which aspects of these internal homes are most important to assignment satisfaction.
Americans, more than any other group, reported that their current home compared less positively to their favourite or ideal home.
More generally, participants whose favourite homes were the ones they had most recently left, and felt “torn away from,” were particularly sensitive to aspects of their current homes. If these expats felt more satisfied with their homes and saw them as similar to those favourite homes, they scored higher on the mental health index, rated the assignment more positively and felt more settled.
The survey suggested that human resource professionals take a close look at how expatriates feel about leaving their current homes and treat those leaving an idealized home with special care.
Did you ‘nest’ upon arrival?
What do people who are happy on their expat assignments actually do when the first move into their homes? How does this differ from those who are unhappy?
It turns out that happy ones ‘nest’ and make connections with their neighbours. They display family photos and hang artwork on the walls. Also:
- those who were quicker to meet at least one neighbour felt modestly more settled in.
- those 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, those who were quicker to unpack their moving boxes felt settled more quickly than those who unpacked their boxes more slowly.
There were some ‘nesting’ or ‘settling in’ tasks, however, that did not seem to be related to any indicators of higher satisfaction. These included 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.
Making your home your own
The last part of the survey had participants share their own advice about how to best make a new home for yourself and your family abroad. The major themes that kept coming up were:
- 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 neighbours and make community connections as quickly as possible.
Finally, one participant offered perhaps the best summary of what an ideal home can and, perhaps, should be: “…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.”
Here’s to finding that warmth in the new countries we call home.
Erin Russell Thiessen / Expatica