Re-envisioning the Expat Experience
Thanks to COVID-19, remote work, video conferences and task outsourcing are today’s accepted work standards. What does this mean for the future of professional overseas assignments?
In this article, Vivacarta’s founders share their thoughts on the expat experience within this new operating context. They believe that today’s accelerated uptake of technology can both enhance the expat experience and lower barriers to working overseas. Furthermore, they believe that today’s context presents a unique opportunity to prepare for an eventual overseas assignment.
When you can’t go local, you go global
Just two years ago, networking with people living in other countries was nearly unthinkable, unless you traveled to those locations as an expat or a visitor.
Each of us has been forced to adapt to a new set of connection realities within the COVID-19 context.
We have incorporated technology to help us build and nurture long-distance relationships that cross traditional geographic borders, and this ‘new expat reality’ has been a source of satisfaction and joy to me.
Today, you can seek out and cement connections around the world using the enabling technology that has become globally ubiquitous. I currently live in a log cabin in a rural New England community, but my international connections have exploded thanks to technology.
I agree, Kirsten. I was working for a company that had a lot of remote workers and managing a relationship with a partner company in Japan prior to the pandemic. We used this kind of technology extensively to coordinate activities and work together so we knew it was incredibly useful.
While the pandemic has accelerated adoption of technology and introduced us to new, more intimate ways of working together remotely, the last 18 months have also made me feel that there still is a real need for in-person contact from time to time. While technology can bridge the gap, it can’t completely substitute for that.
I agree that these technologies can’t replace face-to-face encounters. Yet, new, adaptive “connecting” behaviors have exploded, which has, in turn, fostered growth in relationships that cross borders.
The barriers are much lower now to meeting online — no taboo, very little hesitancy. You can say, “let’s just jump on a call for five minutes” and then you’re on. We also carry our meetings anywhere today. The other day, I was on a zoom call while gardening .
You are quite literally invited into someone’s home and personal space when you have a meeting now. Seeing a colleague’s baby, or hearing a client’s dog barking humanizes the meeting experience. We are fostering more meaningful connections. In-person meetings in airless conference rooms don’t set the stage for building deeper relationships. Perhaps those environments put walls up between us, and COVID-19 will end up being an incredible anthropological experiment!
The pandemic has punched a hole in the expat experience. Technology plugs it.
Living an expat lifestyle stretches your mind. The total immersion in an unfamiliar culture, and the sensory overload of a foreign experience is, by definition, going to stretch you.
What’s been interesting to me is that, with technology, you enjoy a different type of immersive, sensory, “near-expat” experience.
Think about it: people give you small glimpses into their personal existence and geographic surroundings on a regular basis now! For example, this morning I had a very quick WhatsApp video call with someone who was in a London Tube station. We chatted for a few minutes while she was waiting for the train. During the call, I saw the graffiti behind her in the station, heard transit announcements on the loudspeaker and heard several trains stop and go — all during a 5 minute call. I could sense the vibrancy of her environment, hear the same sounds as someone commuting through London and fully relate to her experience, even though I was 3000 miles away!
Those are small micro opportunities to take the pulse of life around the world — it’s much more fulfilling than guide books, anecdotal novels or blogs!
Agreed! It may not allow us depth but it certainly enables breadth.
You do get a real sense of a person’s surroundings and their lifestyle by plugging into their life via technology.
My wife works with virtual reality (VR) technology. Our daughter is currently hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Yesterday, my wife used her VR headset to experience the trail, immersing herself in the environment, the people and the weather. That technology gave her a near-real experience that enabled her to “travel” there — without leaving her desk
Building an on-ramp for the expat experience
I think technology is today’s global enabler. On social media for example, you are able to follow friends and associates with photographs and videos about what’s happening locally. You get a flavor of what’s going on. COVID-19 lockdowns intensified the hunger to remain connected and social media filled that gap.
Isn’t that marvelous? I recently joined an interesting networking platform. Once a week, an artificial intelligence algorithm matches me with a person somewhere on the planet. The two of us then enjoy a conversation together!
There’s absolutely no goal, no ulterior motive, no objective. It’s all about getting to know someone. Those 45 minutes in my week are incredibly powerful. I met one fellow from Madagascar, another from Pakistan. These are locations that, even as a fairly experienced global citizen — I would never get the chance to live in.
I live in France and audio platforms like Clubhouse enable me to experience the unique qualities of different cities by having live conversations with people who live there. For example, I know the real-time weather in the Bay Area because I am in frequent communication with people who live there. These opportunities have opened my eyes to the culture, the history and the current events of what makes the Bay Area “tick.” I also get to learn about small communities near the Bay Area. Previously, unless you lived there, you’d never know about these places. One crazy example: I’ve learned that karaoke bar laws differ between towns and cities located in the Bay Area. These little details add color to the view that I now have of these part of the world.
Has video killed the travel star?
Remember when employment contracts or employment offers used to be “Are you willing to move?” Now that question is totally obsolete! Companies are finding talent in the most remote places on earth and hiring that talent.
My view of the expat experience has changed considerably over the past two years. I used to believe that the only way to become an expat was to live overseas. Maybe the term ‘expat’ is now antiquated. Perhaps in today’s context, one’s goal should be to be a culturally aware member of the human race — no matter where you reside.
So are you saying that someone doesn’t need to live overseas to have an “expat experience” any more?
It’s not all or nothing. People who contemplate life outside of their home culture can get overwhelmed. “I’ve got to physically move my house, my spouse, my kids, their school, my job and my network.” If you reframe the goal from living overseas to making friends who hail from other cultures, your context changes. Previously, so many of us were held back from being expats because we weren’t able to figure out all the mechanics of overseas employment, school, language, housing etc. Today, technology is the enabler that gives wings to one’s passionate desire to meet humanity. The experience can now be frictionless. All voices are heard and all voices are welcomed.
I agree that technology and our changing behaviors in response to COVID-19 have created lots of new opportunities — we can experience the reality of life in other locations more viscerally without actually having to overcome some of the relocation challenges.
The same technology that brings us closer virtually also helps to overcome some of those traditional barriers to moving abroad like finding work, finding housing, exploring and registering for school, and building and keeping in touch with different communities.
Maybe the ease with which people can see and understand life abroad will make them more inclined to take the next step and move abroad.
And while I welcome having easier, cheaper and more immediate access to people across the world, I think that this may be a great time for people to start planning an expat experience.
I still believe that nothing will replace the lived experience that we’ve all talked about and enjoyed so much.
I think the rest of this decade is going to be a grand experiment in how humanity chooses to live, work, communicate and engage. For me, the ultimate irony is that, as much as COVID-19 closed down the world, it simultaneously opened it up.
A few years ago, you’d read about a place and then you got on an airplane and **bam** — you were thrown into your new environment. As we hold our collective breath and await a return to free movement across borders, we can build an on-ramp to the destination of our choice.
The accelerated uptake of technologies due to the pandemic allows us to be so much more prepared for an expat life than ever before. Today, technology allows us to step onto the on-ramp of an expat existence. I believe that after taking that first step, it will be even easier to take that next step — embarking on a true “expat” experience, where you live and work in an unfamiliar culture.
Steve Pollock, his wife and their two teenage girls moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Japan for a 1-year overseas experience, which they subsequently extended to two years. They accomplished their dream of living overseas by relocating his consulting work and drawing on the help of friends and clients.
Kirsten Detrick started her family’s 8-year expat adventure in Zürich, Switzerland, moving there from Southern California for a job with a new employer. Sponsored by a large corporation, her family of four later “doubled-down” on expat life, moving to Vienna, Austria. Today she lives in New England and works remotely as CCO of an emerging biotech based in Palo Alto, CA.
Sean Yap, a passionate multiculturalist, was born in Malaysia, grew up in Australia and has lived and worked in Belgium, France and Switzerland. He and his family of five now split their time between Switzerland and France. He runs his business remotely.