Post-Covid Adjustment: Could We Learn Something from Expats?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Some time ago I wrote about possible scenarios for the ‘post-corona world’ and it seems about time to contemplate on our situation again. As more and more countries begin to ease their lockdown measures, we are collectively entering into some form of normality again. Yet, many speak and write about the ‘new normal’, implying that we are not exactly resetting to where we were before the pandemic… which seems to make a lot of sense to me.

We are allowed out of our homes, there are more opportunities to visit our favorite cafés again, many return to the offices, and gyms are welcoming exercisers back. Not much has changed here, right? At the same time, many of us can feel that it is somewhat strange and alien, as if we have found ourselves in a different culture. Indeed, even though international travel is something we had to forget for some time, we still seem to have an opportunity to experience cultural shock, and the process of adaptation. In this new ‘post-corona’ culture, there is ambiguity about all kinds of ‘touchy-feely’ behaviors. At some point, you are sure to violate the rewritten norms of allowing sufficient personal space, it will continue to feel weird to communicate with supermarket cashiers over the plexiglass divider, a co-worker’s previously ignored cold symptoms will most certainly ignite quick social disapproval, and it is still not clear when and why some colleagues are granted remote meeting participation by management… As such, the new environment, though resembling the social context we were used to, is also quite different, unfamiliar and uncertain, which makes us all cultural newcomers, migrants or expatriates for a while.

Indeed, being myself an academic interested in expatriation, I see a lot of similarities between the current re-entry process into the new normal and expatriation adjustment processes. Relocating abroad as an expatriate implies confronting many novel, ambiguous, and challenging situations, which creates demands for fitting in and coping behaviors. In academic terms, we would speak of personal, social and work adjustment that takes place upon settling into a new culture. In the current situation, we too need all these types of adjustment. In personal life, it might be about the amount of time spent together and the variety of leisure activities at hand; in social life, adjustment for instance involves avoiding physical proximity and suppressing coughs in public; and in our work environment, we are experiencing more ZOOM meetings and less social encounters at the water cooler (or espresso bar) than before. Accepting the similarity to the expatriate adjustment process, we might as well glean a few insights from it.

A general consensus on expatriate adjustment is that it takes time and is unlikely to be an easy process. This suggests that our expectations of a quick and easy ‘return to normal’ may be misplaced. Even if we had to consider the current re-entry to normality without having to digest additional ‘newness’, there is no reason to expect anything easy. In fact, existing reentry research suggests that repatriation adjustment is as difficult, if not more difficult than adjustment in the host country context. As such, in our current context, if adjusting to the Coronavirus lockdown measures was difficult, re-adjusting back might pose several challenges as well.

One particular challenge I would like to emphasize here is the adaptation to the new roles we might have acquired recently. In one relevant research with my colleagues in 2016 we studied the adjustment of global professionals as a process of gaining psychological comfort in the new social roles a global professional takes on, both in the work and the family domain. The main implication of our study is that in order to adjust well, one needs to understand the needs and challenges of each new role and adapt to the associated task and relationship and responsibilities. Translating this into the current context, working more from home might require adaptation to the new role of ‘babysitting while being a working parent’ in our personal life, to new expectations of how we navigate public spaces, and to the role of a more ‘independent and tech-savvy employee’ at work.

Finally, drawing from another expatriation research, let me highlight the possible gains of the possibly uncomfortable adjustment process we are undergoing. Specifically, a study by Fee and Gray (2012) suggested that being ‘forced’ to let go of habitual thinking and behavioral patterns has the potential for significantly boosting expatriates’ creativity. Post-Covid normality is certainly challenging our habitual thinking and behaviors… so this seems like a good trade-off to me!


Further reading:

Fee, A., & Gray, S. J. (2012). The expatriate-creativity hypothesis: A longitudinal field test. Human Relations,65(12), 1515-1538.

Shaffer, M. A., Reiche, B. S., Dimitrova, M., Lazarova, M., Chen, S., Westman, M., & Wurtz, O. (2016). Work- and family-role adjustment of different types of global professionals: Scale development and validation. Journal of International Business Studies,47(2), 113-139.

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