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The Commuter Family is the New Type of International Assignment

Are you considering an international assignment of the commuter type – where the assignee moves abroad to work and the other family members continue everyday life in the homeland? Then there are many things to think about as a family. Read on and get good advice from C3’s intercultural trainer and Russia-specialist Helena Drewes, who herself has been an expat or lived in commuter families since 1998.

Even though the world is changing fast and we can now communicate on a variety of virtual platforms, an international assignment is still among the most effective ways to transfer the necessary skills to a company’s foreign subsidiary.

But what does an international assignment mean for the family?

In the ”traditional” type of international assignment the entire family moves along with the assignee. The “global mobility package” in these cases includes nice accommodation, paid schooling expenses and perhaps a plan for the accompanying partner who’s not working.

In reality the latter is too rare though, and since many families today consist of two persons having each their career, alternatives are needed.

An increasingly popular choice is an international assignment of the “commuter type”, where the assignee moves abroad to live and work and the rest of the family stay back home in Denmark – or where in the world “home” might be. The assignee then commutes between the work and the home country. As a side benefit, this is a far cheaper solution for the company than the traditional type of assignment.

But choosing this solution doesn’t mean that there are no challenges for the family. Below are 6 things that it’s important to think about as a family, if you’re considering an international assignment of the commuter type.

1. How to handle day-to-day communication?

There are a myriad of virtual communication platforms today. Common for them is that they provide immediate contact, also visually. That is a gift. But it can also be a burden, if the one living abroad is online with everyone and everything all the time. Try to strike a good balance.

Like in the ’real world’ it’s in the close relationships, typically to a spouse and children, that you need to keep in touch on a daily basis. Here tools like Skype are useful. It’s not uncommon that the assignee coordinates his/her dinner with the family at home so that you can have dinner together via Skype. That’s a good way to share everyday life with each other.

If you’re able to get the older generation to use for instance Skype, it can ease your conscience living far from home. In this house we’re communicating every week via Skype with my 92 years old in-laws and my 90 years old father.

A closed family group on Facebook is a model that allows reaching a little further – to siblings, aunts, uncles, and the closest friends. Here the family can share everyday things that other people might find trivial; the kid’s grades, dinners with friends, photos from everyday life, the assignee’s comings and goings in detail that the ”non-family” might see as showing off.

All these things enable you to keep in touch with each other’s everyday lives so that you don’t have to spend a lot of time on handling everyday things when you meet in person.

But do keep in mind that the virtual platforms can in no way replace face-to-face interaction. There are too many emotions that are difficult to communicate virtually, and anyone who has tried quarrelling via Skype knows how difficult that is! So be sure to make some good agreements in advance on how to handle conflicts. And be careful not to postpone trips back home because work gets in the way.

2. How about the tasks that the assignee used to take care of?

At first glance, this might not sound like a big problem, but I strongly urge you to take a closer look at the practicalities of your day-to-day life.

Most couples divide the household chores according to skills and preferences. So the one moving abroad might leave tasks behind that the other partner doesn’t feel like doing or lacks the skills to perform.  It’s therefore a good idea to talk things through on how to get these tasks solved. Should someone be hired to, for instance, clean the gutter and mow the lawn?

In one family it was the one in charge of the cooking who moved abroad. The solution here was to spend more money on healthy, ready-made dishes. Another family chose to hire some young people to drop off kids in the morning.

If you decide that the tasks have to wait until the one living abroad visits back home, then keep in mind that it can cause stress in the short weekends or holidays you have together.

3. Accept that there will be two social lives

It’s indisputable that each of you will now have your own social life. And I won’t recommended putting your social life on hold because you “lack” the other partner to share your experiences with. It will become too boring and will taste of self-sacrifice, which does not bring any good.

Instead, look at the situation as an opportunity to enrich you everyday life. Watch the movies and listen to the concerts that your partner doesn’t like. Grab the chance to spend some time with old friends.

The one living abroad will get a new social network, often consisting of people the partner back home has never met. In these expat communities people share experiences of living and working in the specific country that it will be difficult for outsiders to fully understand.

So accept as a couple that for a period of time you’ll be living two different social lives. And keep each other posted on what’s going on and with whom. Being open and honest creates peace of mind at the other end of the Skype-call.

4. Should the assignee be the only one commuting?

Consider a model where “the one living at home” also visits “the one living abroad” – so that commuting the one way becomes just as natural as commuting the other way. I’ve seen this done with great success in several families.

Of course, this model is simplest to realize if the one living in the home country has job tasks in the country of relocation, or if he/she is able to work from a home office on a regular basis.

If you’re travelling while “working from home”, then make it clear to your employer that you’re not on vacation, but working from home, just from another country. This situation might be hard to understand for colleagues with little or no international experience, so be sure to use email and Skype to make yourself visible when working “from home” at an “exotic” place.

5. Share experiences with others in the same situation

As mentioned above it can be difficult for people who haven’t travelled much themselves to fully understand what everyday life looks like for a commuter-family.

These people might only see all the nice flights, exciting countries, and Facebook-updates from interesting events (which is also why I suggest that you create a closed group for those who have a real interest in keeping up). My experience is that the same is true at all levels of the typical home company.

They don’t see the all the logistic and practical challenges that most commuter-families face. And my experience is: don't bother trying to explain it. Instead, find people who share the same frame of reference – families who have tried it themselves – and use this group to share your experiences with.

People who haven’t tried it themselves will always be able to say; “Well, but you’ve chosen it yourself”. And they are somewhat right about that.

6. Miss you

Missing things is something you just can’t avoid if you choose living as a commuter family.

The family back home will miss the one living abroad. And the one living abroad will miss the family and the old everyday life back home.

If the timing is right for your family, these emotions can actually help to bind your family closer together. If the timing isn’t right, choosing life as a commuter family is probably a bad idea.

But there is no doubt that the future will show more and more commuter families. And for a commuter family to be successful, don’t see it as a single person living in a foreign country for a period of time, but rather: As a family that changes its structure for a period of time.Helena Bollesen, intercultural consultant and trainer, Russia country specialist, C3 Consulting

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