Social media create another form of expatriate – a virtual one

As my previous blog entry focused on the role of social media in expatriates’ personal life, now it is time to take a look at this from the professional side. Not only do communication technologies ease expat blues while living away from family and friends, they enable a new way, a virtual way, of organizing an international assignment.

In their Global Mobility 2020 Survey, PricewaterhouseCoopers envision that by the year 2020 only a minority of assignments will be traditional home-to-host country international assignments.

Global mobility may not refer strictly to the physical movement of people from one location to another. We’re already seeing an emergence of career challenges predicated on demonstrating leadership ability and organisational agility in managing global teams on specific projects from home base, aided by an ever-expanding bag of technological tools (PwC International Limited).

What this statement refers to is a new form of international assignments: virtual assignments. A virtual assignment does not require the individual to physically relocate to a foreign organizational unit but rather distributes international responsibilities as managed from the individual’s home base, with the help of information technology (Welch, Worm, & Fenwick, 2003).

The 2010 Brookfield Global Relocation Trends survey data state that currently virtual team policies are in place in only 7% of their pool of 120 responding companies. However globalization, decentralization and interrelation of work processes are likely to significantly increase the use of virtual assignments in the future. Today, with constant improvements in information technologies companies aim to bridge the distance between their company units by creating global virtual teams that collaborate effectively across organizational boundaries, different countries, cultures and time zones. So, is it time for a world without borders?

One of the Financial Times Business Education MBA bloggers linked virtual teams to the “global village” phenomenon and described his experience as follows:

After all, although we are scattered around the globe, we are all inhabitants of the same global village. Accepting the meaning of this concept through regular project tele-conferences is a truly inspiring experience.

However, despite the many advantages of virtual assignments over traditional expatriation, such as flexibility and cost savings, there are undisputable challenges. Virtual assignments will never entirely substitute traditional expatriation because face-to-face communication remains crucial in many circumstances. First of all, with only virtual communication there is an increased risk of misunderstandings and underlying conflicts as the richness of the information transmitted is reduced. George Bernard Shaw hinted at the many problems of communication when stating that “The problem with communication…is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” In a cross-cultural and virtual context, the risk of communication problems increases substantially. The lack of nonverbal and paraverbal cues (e.g. body language, tone of voice) make virtual communication possess less socio-emotional components and be more task-oriented (Warkentin, Sayeed & Hightower, 1997). There are simply less relational and affective links between the communication parties, which makes it more difficult to maintain close relationships and develop trust. Finally, certain types of tasks and knowledge can only be shared or explained in person (e.g. showing how to operate a machine or how to conduct a meeting in a different cultural context).

Just as expatriates long to see their families and friends on a regular basis, they will also need to personally interact with their colleagues. Social media cannot entirely take care of that.

Further reading:

Warkentin, M., Sayeed, L., & Hightower, R. (1997). Virtual teams versus face-to-face teams: An exploratory study of a web-based conference system. Decision Sciences, 28(4), 975-996.

Welch, D. E., Worm, M., & Fenwick, M. (2003). Are Virtual International Assignments Feasible? Management International Review 43: Special Issue 1, pp. 95-114.

10 thoughts on “Social media create another form of expatriate – a virtual one

  1. As a social media expert who lives on a beach in Mexico, I can relate to this article. I am curious, however, about the use of the word “expatriot”. In most countries such as Mexico, one would have to renounce their original citizen ship to become and expatriot. I am a Visa carrying resident of Mexico, but not an “ex pat” as I would never let go of my US citizenship.

    1. Please note that the term ‘expatriate’ does not mean renouncing one’s original citizenship. It simply denotes temporarily living out of one’s home country (ex “out of” and patriā “fatherland”, see also overall blog title).

  2. I agree completely with the importance of face to face communication. I shutter when I hear that soon the majority of assignments will be virtual. I can’t imagine not being able to simply talk to a coworker without the use of technology. Communication would have to suffer along with the productivity.

    1. In the modern world of today. We expect that everything we will have to do can be managed through technology. I mean, technology is a source of communication, right? But most of us seem to get the wrong idea of what communication really is. As social beings, we need to have an actual interaction in order to fulfill this ‘hierarchial’ need.

  3. I’m not sure it will be practical for the majority of assignments to be conducted virtually – think about how much information is communicated by context and multiply that by the cultural and regional differences that would be ignored by someone not actually physically being in that location – it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

  4. You mentioned that you felt face to face communication was vital and could not be replaced. But isn’t this already happening with the inception of skipe and virtual webcam communications.

  5. I strongly agree that technology is a source of communication that will benefit very much but will never completely replace the traditional means for direct communication (face to face) remains important in many circumstances.

  6. Couldn’t agree more, in fact I’d go so far as to say it’s quite dangerous to rely on “online” social media based relationships alone.

    Because social media is so quick and accessible, it’s easy to fall into a trap of superficial exchanges which make people feel as though they’re building a relationship, but actually those nuances and details which really bond people can be lacking.

    It does depend on the individual too though – a great communicator will get their message across almost no matter what – but not everyone is up to that challenge.

  7. I would have to agree that although virtual communication is good, we still need to inter-act, because we are human we need personal face to face interaction. Social media is evolving everyday, but I hope we will keep our human behavior by improving our interactions.

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