Working Abroad

Making the Most of an Overseas Placement

Working Abroad - Making the Most of an Overseas Placement

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Try to fit in to your new surroundings.

Despite the march of globalization, corporate culture is far from uniform across the globe. From Bangladesh to Bermuda, cultural identities remain strong and effect how people work and interact. If you're about to embark on an overseas placement with your organization, it's advisable to prepare well for what could otherwise be a sharp culture shock.

Companies still see huge benefits in sending people to do a stint in their offices abroad. Maybe you've been particularly successful in your field, and your company wants you to replicate that success in one of its international branches. Perhaps your organization values its staff getting a fresh perspective from time to time. Or it could be that you've requested a transfer, keen to sample a new culture and experience a different lifestyle, or simply to escape the weather back home!

Whatever the reasons for your move, changing countries or continents throws up all manner of challenges. In this article, we highlight the main issues you need to consider as you begin your time overseas, and offer some practical tips that should help smooth your way, both in the workplace and outside it.


The advice here applies to extended periods – six months or more – spent working abroad, which involve setting up home in a new country. For more about making the most of shorter trips, see our article on Surviving Business Travel.

What to Expect

Some people find moving to a new country with a different culture and language much easier than others, but it generally takes three to six months to feel at home in a new location. At the start of your stay it is not unusual to experience feelings of frustration, confusion, and loneliness; and to doubt whether you've done the right thing. You may get frequent waves of nostalgia about how things are back home. And, of course, all these feelings will also apply to your family if you are taking a partner and children with you.

Before You Go

Do Your Research

You can reduce the potential stress, headaches and embarrassment that come with a move to a new culture by spending time researching the norms and traditions of your next location before you set off.

Take a look at Terri Morrison's book Do I Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands? for more on the cultural differences between nations. It's a valuable companion for anyone involved in international business.

Another useful concept is explained in our article on Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions, which has become an internationally recognized standard that can help you learn about a country's attitude to, for example, women or professional hierarchy. You can use this information to help you gauge whether your instinctive decisions and actions are appropriate in a particular society.

For more tips, also read our article on Cross Cultural Business Etiquette.

If you're moving to a major city, the internet is likely to be a good source of information on international schools, expatriate (ex-pat) opportunities and even accommodation options. If someone from your company has done a placement there before, get in touch with them. Particularly if you have children, you'll want to find out about local medical facilities. If your employer won't be providing you with a car, you may want to research the pros and cons of buying one locally, versus importing one.

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And don't forget to read a couple of general guidebooks so that you can look forward to all that your new location has to offer in terms of culture and local travel.

Time Your Move

If the timing of the move is within your control, give careful consideration to when you want to go. If you have a family can you arrive at the start of the school year? Do you want to avoid arriving at the start of the rainy season in India, or when temperatures are at their highest in the Middle East?

Learn the Language

Even if you'll be working in your native language and socializing with ex-pats, your stay will be much more rewarding if you take time to learn the local language. Try to fit in language lessons before you leave, so that you can hit the ground running.

Embrace the new language as soon as you arrive and use every opportunity to practice it, from your first taxi ride from the airport or your first encounter with the office receptionist. Overcoming the initial embarrassment of speaking in another tongue is key, and you'll progress much faster if you throw yourself in at the deep end. You'll find that speaking to people in their local language will earn you respect and help you integrate more quickly. It may even get you cheaper fruit in the local market!

Living abroad is, of course, an excellent opportunity to bring up your children bilingually. Make the most of it by encouraging them to learn the local language, and giving them opportunities to speak it.

Adapting to a New Work Environment

The most successful international businesses are those that take care to fit in well with local customs. This also goes for the individuals who work for them! Here are some key areas to be aware of:

  • Timing and punctuality
    Some cultures strive for punctuality, while others have a much more relaxed approach to time. In some Latin American or Asian countries, you may need to cultivate the art of patience when it comes to start times for meetings. However, cultures are definitely changing with the times and the traditional three-hour lunch break of many Latin countries is gradually disappearing.
  • Pace of working

    You may find yourself getting frustrated if you're working in a culture that doesn't share your haste to get the job done. Deals that only take hours to strike in the United States could drag on for weeks in Asia.

    Business may be restricted to the boardroom in some countries, while in others lunches and dinners will be the key negotiating arena. In Russia, you might even find yourself clinching a deal in the sauna! Again, Terri Morrison's book provides great insight in this area.

  • Tension between local and international staff
    Be aware that some local staff may resent the fact that their foreign colleagues are earning in dollars or sterling while they're earning in the local, often volatile, currency. And if you're lucky enough to be on a generous international package, try not to flaunt its benefits in front of local workers who may be much worse off.
  • Eating and drinking

    You may be presented with a meal that you find hard to stomach. For example, if you're a vegetarian in cultures where meat is the most important dish, you'll often have to decide between pleasing your hosts and sticking to your own principles.

    Check out the local culture with respect to alcohol too. You could be expected to join in several bottles of wine over lunch, or drinking might be frowned upon. And in the Former Soviet Union, you may well be expected not just to drink vodka but to give eloquent toasts as you do so!

  • Office culture
    The corporate structure might be much more hierarchical than you are used to, even within the same organization. And you may also find that women aren't treated as equals.

But above all, make sure you stay focused on why you're doing this overseas posting. Perhaps you're there to learn more about what the overseas office does that's substantially different, or simply to gain an understanding of a similar operation in another country.

Alternatively, if you're there to share your experience with local staff, plan who you'll need to work with, and how you're going to do it. Whatever the purpose, the relationships you build during the course of your placement will be invaluable to you when you get back home, so pay particular attention to professional networking during your time abroad.

Fitting in Socially

In most big cities, you'll find a large ex-pat community. It's generally very easy to become part of such groups, which are always willing to accept new members to replace those who have inevitably just left. International and American Women's Associations often publish comprehensive guidebooks, full of practical tips gathered by ex-pats over the years. These might range from how to find an emergency plumber or a children's entertainer to how to buy train tickets. It's usually well worth getting hold of a copy at the start of your stay!

If you're keen to be immersed in the local culture, take stock of what local people do in their leisure time and consider joining in rather than carrying on with exactly the same hobbies that you do at home. For example, in Australia, it's very common for women to play netball with a local team. So if you like team sports, perhaps give that a go!

Key Points

Moving to a new country with a different culture can be exciting and invigorating but it can also be fraught with potential pitfalls.

Preparation is key to success, as are flexibility and patience.

Do your research before you leave and ask plenty of questions of your colleagues and other ex-pats upon arrival. Learn from other people's mistakes, and from your own!

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Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago Fidget wrote
    I thought this was ever such an interesting article - not least because my best friend and her family have spent most of the last 10 years living abroad because of her husband's job, and now I understand a lot of her experience a bit better.

    Two of her three children were born abroad, and because of them, I've learned about the concept of "Third Culture Kids" - children of ex-pat parents, particularly ex-pat parents who spend substantial parts of their working life abroad, often in different places, moving from posting to posting. In the same way that Jann pointed out that repatriation can be hard because people back home aren't used to welcoming in newcomers in the same way that the ever-changing ex-pat community abroad is, Third Culture Kids tend to be very sociable, because they're used to changing schools often and constantly having to make new friends. Later in life, they're often highly valued by global employers as they have the life skills to be sent off on overseas assignments without reeling from the culture shock (and often they will already have friends in the country to which they're sent).

    But they can also be weak at forging particularly close or long-term relationships with anyone other than their close family, because they're used to friends coming and going all the time, and so not only do they not have the experience of having the same "best friend" right through school, say, but they also develop a coping mechanism to deal with the constant loss of good friends, by not getting too close.

    Just an interesting thought, anyway. Your kids don't just come back from a foreign posting with good language skills.

  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Yann,
    You raise a very interesting point here about repatriation, and, something that people should be aware of. We all know that adjusting to a new culture, country and way of doing things has it's challenges. Yet few people recognize that 'going back home' equally has it's challenges. You've had your experiences in the new country and your old friends and colleagues have had their experiences back home. Yet somehow, at times, it feels like you don't fit back into place.

    I'm currently back in Canada (from the UK) and asking myself the question ... could I come back here to live/work? And, I do not have a clear or easy answer!! It's great seeing old friends and catching up ... yet it's hard to imagine actually living back here!

  • Over a month ago yann wrote
    From personal and shared experiences the most difficult aspect of expatriation is actually repatriation. After a few years abroad you are changed: you may have struggled a bit to adapt to the new culture but you have also absorbed the new culture. By the time you go back you have become in part a stranger to your home country. And chances are that nobody in your home country will hear the message that you need to re-adapt. Hence, a lot of the advice given in the article for expatriation also stands for repatriation. The basic mistake is to consider that repatriation will be natural.