This blog post was written by Maja Meglic. Maja is an expat from Slovenia, living in Brussels for six years. She has 12 years of experience in telecommunication in three different countries and currently she is in a middle of career transition. She is also a certified professional coach, interested in work-life balance, well-being work, mindfulness… One of her big passions are people and their stories, life of expatriates and their experiences. You can follow her on LinkedIn!
Many companies are already well aware of the potential that international employees can bring to their organization and are therefore actively searching for international talent. What some companies
are not yet fully aware of is that all those expats, moving abroad for a new career challenge, are also facing many challenges while adjusting to the new (work and life) environment and would certainly benefit from more support from the organization that hired them.
I was very honored when I had a chance to share my point of view on this topic at the recent event by Talentree. For all of you who have missed this great event, I am happy to share my story and my point of view.
I am an expat myself. Self-initiated, to be precise. Meaning, I wasn’t one of those lucky expats recruited to move abroad comfortably and with a nice expatriation package. I searched for new career opportunities abroad on my own and accordingly initiated my own moves.
I found my first opportunity to move abroad after finding a job in Vienna, Austria. Being from Slovenia, my expatriation experience to the neighboring country of Austria was what I call “Expatriation for dummies”, meaning rather a simple one. Vienna is less than four hours drive from Ljubljana, so I could easily travel home every weekend to hang out will my friends and family and to go to every birthday party. Despite many differences in culture, both countries share the same historical background as parts of Austro-Hungarian Empire, thus having many similarities as well. I was quite familiar with Vienna, as I spent few weeks there taking Summer University Courses some years ago. Luckily I spoke some basic German, so reading the signs on the streets and understanding the basics in German around me was not a big challenge. The climate of Vienna is a very mild one, with lots of sun. Besides, Vienna holds a reputation of one of the cities with highest life quality ration in the world. The city has an amazing infrastructure and pretty much everywhere you go, it is very clean.
Now, the company experience was something else. I felt a bit like a black sheep. I was warmly accepted by my colleagues at company I worked, but I was one of the very few employees who hadn’t lived in Austria for years and accordingly wasn’t speaking fluent German. Buying bread with some basics in a foreign language is one thing, participating at team meetings or reading in-company corporate correspondence with only basic knowledge of the language is something else. Of course, in this case one shall take additional language courses, which is what I did, but we all know it takes a while to grasp the language to the level that allows proper use of it on a corporate level. Nevertheless, all in all, I guess due to being warmly welcomed by colleagues and due to the fact that I was able to return back home to Slovenia pretty much every weekend, the whole experience was a very smooth and positive one.
Some years later I was ready to move on. My desire to work for one of the best providers in the niche market of Wholesale telecommunications brought me to Brussels. “My second expatriation experience”, I thought, before I left. “This is going to be easy-peasy. I have done it before, so I know what needs to be done! I only need to repeat the steps and I will easily settle in”, I was thinking. Well, to my big surprise, the reality was totally different. From the job perspective the adjustment was actually smoother than the one in Vienna. I remember walking on the floor of my new company and immediately feeling like I belonged there. International environment, colleagues from all over the world, English being a common communication language. No longer a black sheep, but simply having a feeling “of belonging”, of “fitting in”. Only a few days into my new job I was already invited by some colleagues to join them for after-hours drinks. Wow! Cool! But adjusting to the new environment of Brussels…. ha, that was another story. Despite the fact that I moved within Europe, cultural differences of living in Brussels are huge compared to Slovenia. Home is now some two hours flight away, so commuting home to see my friends is no longer feasible. Tons of friends I used to have and hanging out with regularly was replaced with months of being on my own. Finding an apartment was another challenge. It took a long time to find something I kind of liked. Furthermore, I never thought how sensitive to the climate I could be. So when I was ready for some proper summer sunshine with 29C degrees in July and August, all we got that year was rain and rain again. Compared to Vienna, walking in the street of Brussels I just couldn’t accept all the trash laying all over. Not to mention what a struggle it was not speaking a word of French. You will probably say “Go and get a French class”. Sure. I also tried and enrolled, but to my surprise I just couldn’t continue. I guess after trying to improve my German skills for the past few years, starting a new challenging job and on top of it trying to absorb and store all the new information that comes with the move to the country, my brain was totally overloaded with all of it and I just didn’t have it in me to continue with another language course. So I still remember what a struggle it was to run simple errands like buying a few stamps at a post office or calling the telecommunication providers when my fixed line and TV bills were too high by hundreds of Euros.
What followed was two very tough years of adjustment. And me asking myself: “Am I the only one feeling that way? How come? Is this normal? Do other people have similar difficulties in new environment?”
In order to find answers to those questions, I decided to conduct a research. Timing was perfect, as I had to conclude my Masters in Management with a thesis. I have decided to concentrate on researching what challenges expatriates, adjusting to the new environment, are facing.
My results were interesting in many ways, but today I would like to emphasize two key take-aways. First, the majority of expatriates and other people (spouses, children, immigrants), moving abroad for various reasons, do struggle. So if you are one of them and you were at one point asking yourself similar questions as me, whether it is normal to struggle, to feel irritated, tired, overwhelmed, overstressed, here is the answer: “It is normal. It is OK.”
The second important take-away that I want to share with you is that challenges that expatriates are facing depend on many different factors and are very much individual, depending on the situation and circumstances of each individual. So whatever you are struggling with, the message is again “It is OK. It is normal. It is your own personal process of adjustment.”
How to overcome the challenges while adjusting? What worked for me to be able to adjust easier? What are the challenges that other expatriates mainly face, while adjusting? And what could you as a company do to better support your new colleagues, being expatriates, to have smoother adjustment?
Stay tuned, I will share them with you in the next blogpost.
Read her next blogpost here.