Welcome home: hostalgia and the future of talent mobility

Re-integrating into your home culture after working abroad can be hard. Here’s how companies could help


“Let go!” “Move on!” “Don’t live in the past!” Today’s pressure to live in the present weighs so heavy it can become suffocating. With the rise of mindfulness – the psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences in the present moment – is it any wonder we are focusing more on the here-and-now and less on the years gone by?

But as Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” What if savouring our past held the key to unlocking a happier present? What if we opened ourselves up to nostalgia?

Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, teamed up with Xi Zou, Associate Professor at Nanyang Business School, and Tim Wildschut and Constantine Sedikides (both at the University of Southampton), to apply this question to repatriation: the act of returning home after having lived abroad. As firms move employees across borders – to fix problems, enable global growth, manage projects – talent mobility has become a hallmark of an organisation’s success. Equipping companies with the right talent at the right time is more important than ever.

You’d think that the biggest shock would be adapting to the foreign culture. Makes sense, you’re outside your cultural comfort zone – acclimatising to mysterious food, travelling on unfamiliar commutes, engaging in new working norms. In fact, reverse culture shock – the jolt of returning home – can be just as psychosocially distressing.

Reverse culture shock

Those sent on international assignments are wrapped in a protective cloak when they leave. Some are told they’ll gain much-needed international exposure which will position them perfectly for a promotion when they return. Others are flattered, “You have been chosen especially. Only the elite few are handpicked to represent us abroad.” Yet, few organisations have structured programmes in place to keep such promises. Too many firms are short-sighted, focusing on the start of the journey and side-stepping the end. Few prepare their people for the shock of coming home again.

“Nostalgia is a powerful, bittersweet concept,” says Professor Cable, a social psychologist who examines the ‘self’. “It seems obvious that when in Rome you’re supposed to do as the Romans do and immerse yourself in a new situation. But our research implies that it's better to be a bit nostalgic about your home. It’s better to savour and remember the things that you missed,” he says. What’s more, when expats re-enter their home workforce, they may experience what Dr Zou calls “hostalgia”, nostalgia for cherished experiences in the country that hosted them.

Research in brief

The collaborators hypothesised that feeling nostalgic about the host culture could contribute to repatriation success because it would increase their feeling of continuity. They surveyed more than 700 international teachers from 41 different countries who worked in the US (host culture) and then returned to their home countries. The teachers were asked to rate how nostalgic they felt about their time in the US, for instance, to recall the friends they made or the town they lived in. Then, they measured their sense of self-continuity – a sense of connection between their past and present selves. Finally, they used three measures – self-esteem, motivation, job satisfaction – to track how well sojourners settled back into life at home. To measure self-esteem they asked pointed questions such as did the teachers feel better about themselves, were they more confident? Did they show fewer signs of loneliness, anxiety and depression? On motivation, they examined whether the teachers were more enthusiastic about dealing with new challenges. To trace job satisfaction they inquired whether the teachers were more satisfied in their new work environment. Did they truly believe that they could apply what they had learnt in their host culture and that doing so would help further their career success?

The findings revealed nostalgia provided vigour: people who savoured their home country when they were at their host country and who savoured their host country when they returned home did better across all three measures. Their ‘selves’ felt more cohesive, more consistent. They were happier in their jobs and happier in their lives.

Nostalgia as a tool

Nostalgia, says Professor Cable, echoes our fondness for umami: the ‘fifth taste’ after salt, sweet, sour and bitter, and a recent addition to our gastronomic evolution. “Nostalgia is a new sense that most of us don't think about too often. But when you long for the past or a certain time and place in your life, it tugs on your heart. It’s a close cousin to pain. But it also makes you feel cohesive about yourself. It makes you remember that you are an entity moving through time.”

Rather than boxing up their overseas lives and locking away their memories, the research found that recounting tales and actively remembering helped the teachers psychologically adjust to being at home. Dr Zou says: “Hostalgia knits the elements of their lives into a coherent and continuous self. In reverse, when they deny the host culture they risk losing a valued part of their selves.”

In other words, nostalgia is an important tool – one that organisations should use to craft their repatriation programmes.

Why care about repatriation?

As companies grow they spread across the globe like arterial blood in the circulatory system. The metaphorical oxygenated blood creates more international career opportunities. PwC has forecasted international talent mobility to increase by more than 50% by 2020. Still, an underwhelming 18% of companies surveyed in Brookfield Global Relocation Services’ ‘2016 Global Mobility Trends Survey’ reported having a formal repatriation strategy linked to career management, planning and retention.

The most common reasons for assignees quitting their jobs after repatriation? The new role didn’t meet their expectations (34%). They couldn’t find opportunities to use their new experience (16%). Imagine that, feeling too stifled to put your whole self – the part you left behind and the newly-developed part of you – to work. Is it any wonder that some of those re-entering the workforce end up walking away?

Professor Cable says: “While firms often see international assignments as learning opportunities and growth steps, research suggests that when people return they can lose status in their careers. The culture has changed, the organisation has moved on. They are stuck in the hinterlands acting like it’s 2017 when it’s 2018. They almost become irrelevant. There’s something counterintuitive about being sent away and then being punished for coming back.”

If managed well, international assignments can pay off – personally, professionally and strategically for the firm. A deep well of research demonstrates that experience in foreign countries encourages out-of-the-box thinking, enhances the capacity for complex and sophisticated thought and increases the ability to land promotions. For instance, in one study, academics measured three dimensions of foreign work experience – breadth, depth and cultural distance. The researchers found that the world's top fashion companies delivered more creative innovations if their creative directors had professional experiences abroad. The breadth, depth and cultural distance all had positive effects on the creativity of their firm's fashion lines.

So, to be clear, it isn’t a question of whether or not people should seek opportunities to develop cultural richness. Rather, it’s a question of whether organisations are willing to manage the end-to-end process of sending people away and then welcoming them back.

What you – and your organisation – can try

“Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving”

Terry Pratchett (2004)

A Hat Full of Sky

1. Set the finish line before pushing off the blocks

Employers should think about the end result before sending talent abroad. For example, to overcome an out-of-sight-out-of-mind perception, Adidas introduced new contracts for fixed-term assignments, guaranteeing people a right of return and help finding their next role. “That’s good HR – making a foreign assignment a rite of passage and having a job waiting for you when you return,” says Professor Cable. “But great HR could be more than a dichotomous metric of going away and returning home. What if leaders asked their people to focus on certain skills while they were away?”. Great organisations could try guiding individuals to zoom in on new perspectives, asking them to think about how they could apply their new knowledge when they return. Directly comparing the work patterns, for example, is one way to be nostalgic about home while growing abroad.

2. Share real-time updates abroad

Leaders may also help their expats share real-time updates through collaboration platforms. Professor Cable says: “For example, imagine McDonald's sent 50 people to different locations. What if they were encouraged to share what they learnt with those back at home while they were abroad? Perhaps journalling to share their trials and tribulations but also sharing new ideas with the people in their home country. This would be more than a mechanism to stay in touch: it would be a way to share live, applicable lessons.” In this way, linking the past with the present could become a powerful tool to help promote self-continuity.

3. Reflect when back at home

“Organisations could develop programmes that encourage returning individuals to reflect on their experiences,” says Dr Zou. “It could be as simple as sharing a craft or a game they had learnt during their posting. Other strategies include encouraging returning employees to continue with a hobby, such as origami or jogging, they had taken up while overseas.” Further, executives could be prompted to reflect in strategic ways. For example, imagine a networking dinner where conversation focused on: “What was the hardest part of the language for you?” “Did the working styles match your expectations?” Pointed questions could help surface unknown insights and help the re-entry process.

4. Add value in the workplace

To combat a culture of bragging – “When I was in Madrid, we did it like this” – and to stimulate a culture of new thinking, individuals could apply their new-found knowledge to a current challenge.

“It’s in the framing,” notes Professor Cable. “You’re not holding court, you’re adding value. As the newly returned expat, you could savour that part of yourself when you're thinking about problems and solutions back in the workplace. By accessing that part of yourself you could trigger other's creativity and stimulate diverse thinking. In this way, you contribute to the team. Holding court is the threat; it’s pontification. But if you're using new perspectives to layer new thinking on an old problem, people are more likely to value your expertise.”

Boosting employees’ nostalgia for their experiences abroad could be an effective yet low-cost strategy to support re-entry. Too many leaders who manage expat employees view their return home as an afterthought. The truth is, repatriation is a time of major upheaval. The phenomenon of hostalgia has practical implications. Companies that recognise this fact could help returning sojourners by dreaming up ways to mesh the past with the present, allowing re-entrants to bring their new skills – and their whole selves – to work.

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