In the 19th century, an overseas assignment was for life, with young men going to the ends of the Empire to run a business or a country. Their children were sent back to England to be educated and didn't see their parents for years on end. In contrast, 21st-century foreign assignments last for just weeks or months, says John Carolan, managing director of Black Horse Relocation.
'Serial tours, where an employee moves from one overseas post to another are dead,' he claims. 'Commuter assignments are on the increase with people spending a short period in one country to do a specific task.' The advantage of commuter assignments is that they save on relocation expenses for the employer. Further, they appeal to ambitious managers who are reluctant to be away from the centre for too long. A recent study by Roffey Park Management Institute found that 36% of respondents preferred a home-based international role involving travel to an expatriate post.
Overseas tours for Unilever staff are still usually between two and four years but they are interspersed with periods back at base. 'We don't like our bright managers to be abroad for too long as they lose touch,' says Monica Rhodes, overseas administration manager. The length of many assignments is shortening. Three years ago, BT's overseas posts were nearly all several years' duration but, with a large increase in joint ventures, a need arose for short-term technical skills at the set-up stage. 'Staff are often needed just for three to six months, so it's not feasible to move the family,' says David Gogerly, BT's manager for international assignments.
Yet this, in itself, results in management problems. 'People expect to come home several times a month but commuting shortens the working week, which doesn't always go down well with local staff,' explains Gogerly.
For longer assignments, BT offers a comprehensive relocation package, which includes help with house-hunting, advice on schooling and cultural issues, and financial support for the partner to help with career development or further education. Providing relocation support is a sound investment.
Research by UMIST has found that 40% of overseas postings fail because expat families cannot adjust.
Many companies still offer no support, says Jeff Toms of the Centre for International Briefing, which reports that there is a growing resistance among managers to accept an overseas posting automatically. 'The partner may be reluctant to interrupt their own career and finds that work permits are difficult to obtain in many countries,' says Toms. 'Also the move can disrupt children's schooling at a crucial stage.'
Research by US consultants Mercer reveals that the prospect of long-term assignments concerns people who are responsible for ageing parents, while loneliness and health issues remain a worry for those going to far-flung destinations. Rosemary Rowntree, a consultant with International Personnel Management warns of the social and emotional pressures on the family.
'Often both partners are independent, which can sometimes lead to serious problems,' she says. 'Employers need to anticipate these issues and arrange regular home leave or perhaps plan commuting over a two to three week cycle but with longer intervals at home.'
On a more mercenary note, assignments, however short term, are not ideal, Rowntree adds. The tax situation can be complex when people from the UK work elsewhere. Yet the benefits of overseas assignments still prove alluring.
Most managers see it as a useful career move, an opportunity to enhance their quality of life, broaden horizons and provide their children with an international education - and that will benefit the next generation of global managers.