A successful relocation to Germany depends on many factors.
Many of these are soft factors which HR departments do not consider, simply because frequently they either don’t understand them, or are missing the necessary resources and professional capabilities to provide them.
This often results in policies being drawn up where anyone below senior director level often doesn’t get any relocation support at all.
Ensuring expat well-being should continue after relocation to Germany
By this I do not mean financial incentives, which of course are helpful.
Sure, an HR department can throw money at an individual to hire a relocation agent or an international removals company. But this doesn’t solve the inherent problem of ensuring a new hire settles seamlessly into the working culture and lifestyle of their host country.
The company has a vested interest to ensure the success of the employee’s relocation when you consider:
- Money spent on headhunters or advertising to recruit foreign talent;
- Costs incurred by the employer to support the application for an EU Blue Card or Residence Permit (if the person is coming from outside the EU);
- The cost of lost productivity if the employee does not successfully adapt and integrate following their relocation to Germany, and as a result they decide to leave because they are unhappy.
Successful integration of foreign talent into their new country falls into 2 distinct categories:
- Those areas where the individual has the responsibility to be proactive and take accountability to ensure they approach expat life with the right mindset.
- Aspects where the employers should reasonably be expected to offer a helping hand.
The employee often requires assistance to understand, adapt and thrive in a new country that has laws, processes, cultural and social norms, which in some cases are completely alien to them.
An employee certainly cannot be expected to figure all of this out for themselves, whilst still performing their role effectively.
Offering support will provide a win-win outcome
For employees on a 12-month secondment, there is a case to argue that learning the language is a nice-to-have. However, for permanent hires, it’s a must.
Sadly many expats, especially native English speakers, just don’t bother.
Learning German will make other tasks inherently easier. It’s a means to an end.
Nobody expects an individual to be fluent within a few months, but they must take personal accountability for the situation, and persevere to achieve this as an ultimate goal.
Over time they will become less dependent upon colleagues, friends or professional service providers to solve life’s everyday problems, their confidence will grow and employers will begin to see the rewards as they feel more at home.
There are apps, podcasts and YouTube channels which can be used to get to a level where someone can hold a basic conversation beyond phrasebook stuff like “I have 2 cats” or “I like watching football”.
From that point onwards, it’s definitely possible to get to lower intermediate standard within a year – with discipline and focus.
Employers and bosses should support employees if they ask for help, but make it clear that it’s their responsibility to own the process.
Building up a network of social contacts is the logical next step of settling in, as soon as a newbie expat in Germany has dealt with all of the immediate bureaucratic and administrative necessities. Again, this is something which is inherently the responsibility of the individual.
Sure, it helps if there is a sociable working environment which includes team-building events or nights out, but this isn’t the sole responsibility of the employer.
There are several ways that as a newcomer it’s possible to make social contacts, even for people with no existing network in Germany.
With smartphones and the internet, it is easy to find events which match a person’s interests. Going to meet-ups is the easiest way to make friends. Many of these events are focussed on the expat community and ergo, many attendees will be in a similar situation.
To integrate faster and to meet locals, there are many ways to do this, depending on the individual’s hobbies and interests.
Where the employer can help
So what about those aspects of relocation which are not so easy for the individual to take the lead on.
Where may a person be reliant on the help of specialists and experts to settle in and understand how things work in their new country?
Employers underestimate the magnitude of these seemingly simple tasks for expats. HR departments and hiring managers often wrongly assume that once their employee has found an apartment, or dealt with the actual logistics of moving from home country to host country, then the relocation process is complete.
This is simply untrue.
In many ways, the physical relocation is the easy part!
The many “soft” factors involved in settling into a new country in the months following the actual move can often feel daunting. These can take up a disproportionate amount of an individual’s time.
Something simple to deal with back home can be a major headache in a new country because of the language barrier and lack of understanding of how the “system” works.
This is especially an issue with relocation to Germany, where bureaucrats and service providers have a reputation of not going out of their way to be particularly helpful to newcomers.
But each country has certain nuances, laws, and cultural norms which are not immediately apparent to newcomers. This is where an ongoing support network can be a huge help.
It’s easy for a new hire to feel overwhelmed during those first few months in Germany.
All it takes is an unsympathetic boss, a particularly stressful working environment or a spouse struggling with their new life in Germany. All of these can lead to unhappiness, despair and in extreme cases someone deciding that living and working in Germany isn’t for them.
A shame really, because such feelings of despair and being alone are perfectly avoidable with the right network of people to help and support.
Dealing with official bureaucracy is a pretty daunting task in any country, but especially so in Germany. Complicated, inefficient processes and an almost complete absence of digitisation make it even harder for expats to navigate than in other European countries.
In addition, traditional professional services providers are extremely expensive. That’s where we come in…as a virtual services provider, we can keep our costs down and help you solve specific issues via Skype!
Employers may offer help with work permits and temporary accommodation. However, the jungle of other bureaucratic processes (health insurance, rental contracts, finding a permanent apartment) are usually left to expats to figure out themselves.
These are places where the unsuspecting customer can easily get scammed, or lured into signing an unfavourable contract.
Understanding how to get a local drivers’ licence or a resident’s parking permit for example usually involves several trips to city hall or other government offices.
It doesn’t stop at dealing with government and municipal offices, however. Administrative processes such as your annual apartment service charges statement, choosing the right SIM card or mobile phone package, becoming a member of a relevant professional body, or dealing with less than helpful customer service agents can all be stressful experiences in a strange country and in a language you don’t understand.
Problems that would take 30 minutes to fix back home can often turn into tasks that can consume weeks of someone’s time and energy in Germany, simply because things work differently and you can’t resolve much online or outside of normal office hours.
It’s much easier to get in trouble with the law in Germany, simply because you often don’t know what the law you’re supposed to be abiding is!
From something as simple as not being able to read a notice saying “resident’s parking only”, all the way to disputes with neighbours over what is an acceptable level of noise, or getting in trouble with the tax authorities for not submitting a tax return because you didn’t think you needed to.
All of these occur long after relocation to Germany. But despite otherwise feeling settled by this point, an instance such as this can feel like one step forward, two steps back. What would be a relatively straightforward process to deal with in your home country can feel like a mountain to climb if you’re not fluent in the language or don’t know who to turn to for help.
Cultural differences can take time, effort and endless observation to adjust and adapt to.
While employers can help with adaptation in relation to the workplace and business culture, social nuances and norms are outside of that realm and not necessarily obvious to the newcomer.
Take for example the German obsession with planning and punctuality, which the expat from a more laid-back native culture may not fully appreciate. His or her actions may inadvertently offend or come across as inconsiderate. To understand and get to grips with this sooner, the only way is to participate in a more specialist cultural awareness program to make the expat employee aware of this.
A simple, distance-learning course will usually suffice and does not always require expensive, 1:1 coaching.
So, what’s the solution?
How can employers ensure they get a return on the often significant investment of hiring a foreign candidate, or relocating an existing employee to a new country?
Firstly, managers should check in with their expat employees every now and then on non-professional matters, to ensure that their relocation to Germany is working out on a personal level too, not only in regards to job satisfaction.
Just as many companies actively strive to ensure that they hire and retain ethnic minority and women leaders, expats who have recently moved to the country to take up a position may also need some additional coaching and mentoring.
Secondly, where HR has neither the competence nor the resources to assist in softer aspects around relocation and integration, they should turn to third-party providers who can help provide this support cost-effectively.
An employer cannot be expected to provide hand-holding in all aspects of ensuring foreign employees’ well-being.
But neither can they afford to rest on their laurels and expect that foreigners will seamlessly integrate into the culture and lifestyle of their host country, without some difficult challenges along the way.