Start-up versus mature: how do you manage the expat blues as a company? “Communication remains a stumbling block”
An expat has a new home, in a new city, in a new country. A new job, with new colleagues. Moreover, many things need to be arranged right away: a rental contract, registration with the municipality, proof of identity, insurance, you name it. That can be very nerve-wracking at times. It’s then easy to miss the social safety net of their home country: their family and friends. A sense of loneliness and isolation rears its head. Also known as the expat blues.
How do Limburg companies and entrepreneurs deal with the expat blues? We asked Kumiko Sawada, International Assignment Officer of Genk-based Nitto Belgium and engineer Sandro Iacovella, CEO and founder of the Genk start-up ThermoVault.
KUMIKO: “We have eight expats working for us in Belgium. Three of them live in Leuven and five in Genk. They are all from Japan. The expats working in Genk live in Hasselt, apart from one. The latter chose to live in Leuven because of the international school he chose for his children.”
SANDRO: “We have four, from the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. One person lives permanently in Belgium, while the others commute to our second office in Leuven on a regular basis.”
Exactly why do you work with expats?
KUMIKO: “Japan’s head office sends expats to Nitto ‘s various sites worldwide to maintain good communication with the parent company. Of course, there’s technology transfer and new product developments.”
SANDRO: “Our business is founded on the knowledge and drive of the very best individuals we can find. They can’t always be found within our own national borders.
How do you make them feel at home outside work?
SANDRO: “We are working on unique, breakthrough technology that has the potential to radically transform the rigid energy sector. Consequently, foreign colleagues are completely captivated by the company’s mission, vision and potential, resulting in a particularly low turnover rate. Customisation and flexibility are crucial for long-term cooperation. For example, one expat was willing to relocate permanently to Belgium, which of course comes with the additional benefit of holidays and telecommuting in case of family events in their home country.”
KUMIKO: “Communication remains a stumbling block and so that is what we are focusing on. For example, communication at Hasselt city departments is still only conducted in Dutch. Unlike the city of Leuven, where officials speak English. This makes their lives easier. Because they are not going to learn a new language for a three-year assignment. We thus provide professional Dutch and English language classes, paid for by us, for those who want them. Our expats are quite proactive and go out to explore Europe on their own in their free moments or join sports clubs.”
‘The majority of expats regularly travel to Belgium for short periods. Usually together, which establishes a bond between them.’
Sandro Iacovella, ThermoVault
SANDRO: “Employees with children largely work from home. In practical terms, customisation is needed to deal with employment arrangements in their home countries. Thus, the choice was made to cooperate with a social secretariat in Spain, while their Italian counterparts are employed under an intercompany contract. ‘The majority of expats regularly travel to Belgium for short periods. Usually together, which helps them create a bond. The Belgian team also takes part in team activities outside work. For example, every now and then we go for a drink together at the Oude Markt in Leuven.”