What Motivates People to Take on Global Work?

Photo by Briana Tozour on Unsplash

Although travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic are taking a toll on physically mobile people such as expatriates or migrants, the number of people working across national boundaries is nowhere near stagnating. In fact, studies such as the Santa Fe Relocation Global Mobility Survey 2020/21 suggest that the nature of global mobility is evolving in ways to offer an even broader array of opportunities. For instance, the advance of hybrid forms of international assignments or global virtual team membership provide people with mobility options that do not require being physically present in other countries. It is therefore not surprising that the number of people working across borders is still growing. In this context, one question that has been appealing to both practitioners and academics but has still not been investigated sufficiently in depth is what motivates people to become involved in “global work”, or work that goes beyond national or cultural boundaries.

One might intuitively think that previous international experiences such as university study abroad programs or international assignments in multinational companies may be a trigger for future global work. However, people differ in how they make sense of their previous experiences and make decisions about their own careers. Focusing solely on previous international experience would yield an incomplete picture of global work motivations. For instance, challenges associated with global work such as intercultural frictions or potential hazards to one’s career may deter people with previous international experience from further mobility across borders. Therefore, how might previous international experiences motivate people to take on global work? To address this conundrum, my colleagues Eren Akkan, Yih-teen Lee and I embarked on a multi-year study to understand how and under which conditions previous international experiences trigger the motivation for and actual involvement in global work.

Our first finding is that people would be motivated to take on global work to the extent that their previous international experiences lead them to define themselves as suitable for future global work. We argued that those who spent longer time in culturally novel environments would retrospectively make sense of these dense, culturally novel international experiences as the basis for feeling more “global”. More specifically, dense international experiences provide the opportunity to bridge across cultures and be used to interact with people from distant cultural backgrounds. As a result, such experiences can make people feel part of a global village that goes beyond cultural boundaries, thereby becoming global citizens.

Furthermore, our results also showed that defining oneself as global by means of dense international experiences was an insufficient motivator for future global work. In fact, we observed that these individuals should also receive signals from their foreign colleagues regarding their capability to manage effectively across cultural boundaries. Such signals of cross-cultural competence should complement the feeling of being global to perceive a personal fit for future global work. In other words, a reality check is also necessary to assure these individuals of their suitability for global work, and consequently, aspire to take on future global work.

What do these findings mean for organizations? As career motivation is one important determinant of employee performance, multinational companies that rely on experience-related information in CVs and discard employees’ own perspectives may risk selecting employees that are not fit for global work. Furthermore, companies that lack rigorous mechanisms for providing intercultural competence feedback to their employees may miss the opportunity to motivate their employees for future global work. Therefore, it is crucial for organizations to thoroughly evaluate how previous international experiences influence their employees’ self-definitions and provide their employees with accurate feedback regarding their cultural competences. Implementing such evaluation and feedback mechanisms in tandem would be critical for selecting employees who are motivated to and thus more likely to succeed in global work, eventually aiding multinational organizations to effectively utilize their global workforce.

Further reading:

Akkan, E., Lee, Y.-t., & Reiche, B.S. (2022). How and when do prior international experiences lead to global work? A career motivation perspective. Human Resource Management, 61(1): 117-132.

NB: This research was supported by funding from the Spanish AEI (PID2019-103897GB-I00/AEI/10.13039/501100011033).

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