An Expat Guide To Settling Into A New Workplace

The majority of expats jet off into the world to take up a job offer: in many cases, their dream job. Filled with visions of being a business badass, sealing deals and combating competitors, making a name for themselves as a titan of their trade.

These idle daydreams can end with a rude awakening as they stand by the photocopier one day and realise that they have no idea what is going on in the office around them.However big a fish you may be and whatever size the pond, you’ll still be the new arrival, swimming in unfamiliar waters. This is true anytime you start a new job, but doing so in another country is an even greater challenge.

It’s the ultimate in culture shock, to be confined in an office for untold hours every day, surrounded by a set of customs that don’t apply to the general population, let alone your home culture. You may have a grasp of the national language, but the workplace may have a dialect all of its own. You’re disorientated, confused about your place in the hierarchy, and you don’t even know who to ask for help

It’s estimated that 10 to 20% of U.S. managers sent to work overseas return early because they cannot adjust to their new workplace. It can be an expensive false start; one expat can cost a company up to USD$1million a year.

Aside from being costly to the employer, a miserable few months abroad can be a blot on your resume and a really stressful experience. A little preparation can go a long way to giving you a running start at your time overseas, from learning the language to researching the company.

As much work as you can do ahead of time, you’ll still need to walk into the building on day one, take a deep breath, and start forging your place as a behemoth of business.

Here are some tips to help you get started.

Take a break

Don’t be tempted to walk straight off the plane and into the office. You’ll be snowed under with details of the move and still reeling from jetlag.

Take a week to deal with any unexpected hiccups from your move. As well as making sure all your luggage has arrived and you’ve got accommodation sorted, you can earn peace of mind knowing that the rest of the family are settled in.

Use the week to walk the tribe around the neighbourhood, explore the city and meet the neighbours. Help each other overcome the first stages of culture shock together and the whole family will quickly develop the confidence to face their own challenges.

Test drive your route to work and work out all those strange little quirks that might sideswipe you on your first commute in. Find somewhere to go for lunch and other nearby services that you might need. It may seem like over-preparing, but the last thing you want on day one is to be late because you got lost.

This time off will also help put a buffer between your last job and this one. You’ll be able to start with a clear mind and re-energized, ready to tackle new challenges.

Don’t say “we used to do it like this”

Don’t fall into the culture trap. Just because you did things one way somewhere else, doesn’t mean the new way is wrong. The new method may be just as effective or even better, as the playing field is slightly different.

Anyone who turns up and bleats this line at every opportunity will quickly be seen as a hindrance, someone who can’t adapt and isn’t smart enough to see the merit of the method.

Even more destructive is the manager who immediately starts making sweeping changes, often to stamp their own authority. Unless there is something that is in dire need of reform, hold off on throwing your weight around until you’ve learnt a little more about how the business functions.

When the time comes that you really understand how and why certain things are done, then feel free to make changes that benefit the business. Pitch ideas as something new and beneficial, selling the benefits first; ‘we can improve productivity if we…’, rather than; ‘in the London office we used to…’

Get friendly with HR

This is another case of who you know trumping what you know. You will be the anomaly in the office, with issues that no other employee has yet encountered.

Your HR team may have no idea about how to sponsor a visa, what your tax status should be, or which benefits your contract is supposed to include.

Make a point of introducing yourself and putting a face to the name, swing by their desk and say hello, and thank them whenever they solve an issue for you. Try to be a half step ahead of them, letting them know about issues that are on the horizon and be ready with documents or solutions that may help.

One survey suggested that less than 10% of HR managers looking after expats have any experience of working overseas themselves, so don’t expect them to immediately understand your problems.

Transferring from one territory to another in a large company can be both a blessing and a curse. In theory it should be easy for one HR manager to send your details and requirements to another; in practice both may think you are the other’s problem.

When discussing your potential move, insist on knowing who is responsible for handling your paperwork at all times, with deadlines in place for specified people to complete important tasks.

It’s important to understand that different countries have vastly different working practices, and even where employment laws exist, they aren’t always followed. Having a contact with HR means you have a direct line to those who can right wrongs and fix problems for both you and your staff.

Understand how communication works here

Every country is different and every company is different yet again. Age old financial institutions with strict hierarchy may occupy the same building as flat-management tech start ups.

Understand what works best in terms of getting information out to your team. A face-to-face chat may elicit smiles and nods but no results, whereas a formal memo may spark action.

Across Asia there is a working culture of avoiding confrontation at work. You get one answer and then see a totally different result because your staff were reluctant to tell you otherwise.

Japan is especially confusing, with an almost feudal respect for higher-ups, but a friendly dialect to be used just for co-workers of equal rank.

In France, business relationships are formal and respectful; don’t expect to be on first name terms with your boss. Be prepared for long, slow meetings where the ideas are discussed and nothing is decided – that’s just the way it is.

Know your place in the business

Many businesses are hierarchical, with strict but unwritten rules about who can say what to whom. Your status as a foreigner may complicate matters even more, giving you more or less sway in the boardroom.

In the Middle East, your opinion may be politely ignored when in a room full of locals, whilst in China you may just be ‘the face’ of the deal. It’s trendy for Chinese businesses to have a foreigner in the business, indicating an international outlook, but Chinese dealmakers like to parley with other Chinese dealmakers. It can be a rude awakening to find yourself suddenly sidelined and turned into a mascot rather than an active player.

Know who works under you and make sure you are familiar with their roles, don’t be afraid to make sure they are pulling their weight. In all workplaces there will be slackers, but in many countries you will need to demonstrate your intolerance of dead weight to prevent others from downing tools.

Learn the language

This applies not only to the language of the country, but also the office. You need to be able to hold your own in conversation and make sense of slang, acronyms and bywords for features of everyday business.

Every workplace has jargon and buzzwords, some of which may not be transferable outside the office doors. These phrases may even vary between offices in the same country. Buying into this lexicon helps you become part of the club and shows how adaptable you are.

Make an early effort to get used to understanding and using these shorthand phrases; it may make the difference between efficiency and utter confusion.

Cut through the red tape

Do your research and know just what is involved in transferring you, your family, your property and whatever else you are bringing into the country, then get cracking on it.

Untold expats have been held up by red tape, stuck in a bureaucratic limbo, waiting for one form in order to apply for the next one, all whilst their employer is left waiting for them to arrive.

Utilise your friends in HR, ask more experienced expats and hit the web, don’t be afraid to ask any question even if it sounds ridiculous. The embarrassment of being deported because your papers are not in order could be a black mark on your career.

Know why you have been sent

Any company that invests a sizable chunk of their cash in sending an expat to a far-flung office must have plan in mind for why they are there. Make sure you know what you are expected to deliver and by when.

Get a written out copy of your job description, make sure it’s been agreed to by whoever you will be reporting to. This is your ‘get out of jail free’ card if you find yourself being tasked with outrageous amounts of work.

Set yourself goals of when to have achieved each item on the list and break those into shorter term goals. Make sure you and your team are all aware of the need to be signing 10 new clients a month or turning over a million every quarter.

Set individual targets for each of the team, making sure these line up with the team goals. This gives each individual a responsibility for helping the team, and gives you the ability to hold them to account.

Remember that this may be a major departure from the way things have previously been done and may generate resistance. Make sure the first batch of short-term goals are easily achievable so that you can prove the system works.

Continually review the reason you were sent, it’s probably due to expert knowledge in a particular area combined with a knack for working with people. Make sure any targets play to your strengths so you can be of benefit to the company.

Be prepared for the working hours

The working day in Spain, famously, is broken into two by a long and sleepy afternoon break, whilst lunch in London is often eaten ‘al desko’.

Try to steel yourself for whatever for the working day takes and know what is expected of you. It may be that the nine-to-five doesn’t extend a minute outside these hours, or that you can be expected to take work home with you.

In Germany there is a widespread ban on answering emails or work calls outside of office hours, with the belief that anyone who can’t complete their tasks in the working day is inefficient.

China however focuses on a team mentality. Even if you are done for the day, you should linger until the last person has completed all their tasks. You may be hanging around in the office for hours after closing time, just waiting for one person to finish up. In Japan you may be sat there for just as long, as nobody can leave before the boss.

Find a mentor

There’s no better boost to your career than meeting someone who has already been there and done that.

If you are transferring within one business, ask to be put in touch with your predecessor. If they aren’t an expat find someone in the company who is.

You’ll need a helping hand when it comes to dealing with vast amounts of immigration paperwork and complex visa rules, but your mentor can also keep you on the right path when it comes to the business world. They can also be a valuable route into networking with local big wigs.

Join expat forums and brush up on blogs to find the trailblazers who came before you, learning from their mistakes and firing your questions at them.

Aside from steering your through the mire of international business, it’s good to have a second opinion on decisions and to have a friendly face to swap tales of woe and victory with.

Have you relocated abroad for work? Share your experiences in the comments!

Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer