Relocated—Just for a Few Months

By Laura Bianchi

May. 7, 2008

Five years after joining Aon Corp. in Chicago, attorney Samantha Caldwell took a six-month assignment in the insurance company’s London law division. Single and childless, with her parents in good health, Caldwell’s only extracurricular obligation was teaching Sunday school.

    After clearing that commitment with her pastor, she packed her bags.

    “I had been sitting in the same cubicle with the same view, and I wanted something different,” says Caldwell, 36, who had visited London twice before. “It was a great opportunity to get questions answered about the way business happens in other countries.”

    Caldwell is part of a boom in short-term global assignments at American companies. During the past seven years, assignments of less than one year nearly tripled, from 10 percent to 27 percent of total overseas relocations, according to the 2007 Global Relocation Trends Survey Report by Woodridge, Illinois-based GMAC Global Relocation Services.

    Global business and cost-cutting account for the spurt in shorter-term assignments. An employee who is absent for more than a year often must be replaced; his or her income is taxed in both countries, and benefits costs soar for transportation, housing, cost-of-living adjustments and education for the employee’s children.

    “Most people agree that longer-term gives you deeper skills and a better cultural introduction, but it is expensive,” says Mark Daniels, director of global relocation for Aon. “Short-term relocations can effectively introduce you to some of those same skills, and we can do more of them.”

    Short-term assignments can also be less disruptive: Families don’t have to be uprooted, apartments or condos need not be sublet, and pets can be cared for by friends. Still, any duration inevitably makes waves back home.

    Caldwell missed the funerals of a colleague and a great-uncle, whom she mourned alone at a London church. A competitive runner, she sat out a handful of major races in the Chicago area.

    Perhaps more challenging, she had to transfer much of her stateside workload to the U.K. and juggle it alongside her new responsibilities, requiring “working more hours and more efficiently,” Caldwell says. “Several U.S. colleagues didn’t even know I was overseas, even though they interacted with me on a regular basis.”

    New hires, accustomed to study-abroad programs and with fewer family commitments, are driving growth, too, says Aidan Walsh, partner in charge of international for accounting giant KPMG in Chicago. Just five or six years ago, 40 percent to 50 percent of recruits were interested in international assignments, he says.

    “Today, there’s probably not a kid graduating from a professional course who doesn’t have a passport,” and at least 90 percent expect to use it on the job, he says. “Kids are asking the question [during interviews] and absolutely will go elsewhere” if international experience is not on the table.

    For employers, the assignments help groom promising young employees: The stints overseas “help them understand how other parts of KPMG work and to start building up their network at peer level,” Walsh says.

A few apprehensions
   Mark Brusius, 27, a senior associate in the tax practice at KPMG in Chicago, had traveled extensively before he accepted an assignment in Kochi, India, but he owns up to some apprehension about working there.

    “My concerns were around normal, day-to-day things—food, health care, transportation,” he says. After consulting co-workers, he went because “good or bad, it is only three months.”

    Brusius left his Chicago apartment in his roommate’s hands, rented a parking spot to store his car for three months and kissed his girlfriend, Ashley Hutti, goodbye.

    “I wanted him to go,” says Hutti, 25, a teacher. “It was a good experience for him, and during Christmas break I visited him for 10 days.”

    Brusius missed a friend’s wedding and was unable to watch his alma mater, the University of Illinois, compete in the Rose Bowl, but says those missed opportunities “do not get anywhere close to topping the experiences I had in India.”

    His early concerns about dropping out of the loop in the home office proved unfounded. Brusius says the experience raised his profile within the company and pushed him into new responsibilities.

    “I had never led a two-hour training session for 80 people, but I’ve had to do that here [in India] lots of times,” he says.

    Sarah Ellison, 26, a senior associate in the audit practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Chicago, passed around her job responsibilities at home while she spent three months in Sydney, Australia. She lent a hand during Australia’s tax season last year, and some of their people returned the favor in Chicago from January through March.

    There were wrinkles in housekeeping while she was away: Her bank made a mistake that created a large deficit in her account, which she didn’t know about until her roommate spotted an urgent letter in the mail. Such headaches aside, “I believe it will help my advancement,” she says. “I was exposed to information and issues that were new to me.”

    With her overseas project measured in months rather than years, family and friends didn’t object too strenuously.

    “We only see her a few times a year anyway, so it wasn’t really different,” says Ellison’s mother, Sue, who lives in Michigan and visited her daughter in Australia. “The thing that came to me was, ‘I hope she doesn’t like it so much she wants to stay.’ We didn’t want to lose her.”

Global networking
   David Zydek, 29, was a middle manager in the tax practice at KPMG two years ago when he accepted a three-month assignment to Amsterdam, Netherlands, from July to October.

    Interspersed with his own concerns about adjusting to new colleagues, food, housing and medical care abroad, Zydek had to get past fearful feedback from his parents and some friends who had never lived overseas.

    “Their international exposure is what they see on television,” he says. “Given how the U.S. media covers overseas locations, they make it out to be really scary.”

    Amsterdam’s perceived drug problems and legal prostitution raised concerns, he says. Also, some friends were surprised that Zydek was willing to spend almost two months apart from his wife.

    “A lot of my friends wouldn’t dream of spending more than a week away from their significant other,” he says. “You have to make sure you are not too persuaded by what they say.”

    His wife, Jackie, joined him for the first six weeks. A schoolteacher, she says the toughest challenge was trying to fill her days in Amsterdam while her husband was working.

    “After the first week, it was very emotional,” says Zydek, who usually packs her days with work and activities. “It hit me: I’m away from home and not working. I always want to be doing something.”

    After all that, her husband says the assignment paid off.

    “I met all the senior tax partners [from numerous countries], built a name for myself and formed networks that will prove to be invaluable,” Zydek says.

    Last year, he was promoted to senior manager.

    “I’m not sure if [the promotion] was because of that assignment,” he says, “but the assignment surely helped.”

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