Enhancing the Expat Experience – A deep psychology approach
Expat Experience

by @angieweinberger, the Global Mobility Coach

I recently held a talk where I was discussing the Expat Experience in Zurich and how to enhance it. Zurich is a typical inbound hub, so many ideas in this article will also fit to places like Dubai, London, Hong Kong or Singapore. As the most populated canton in Switzerland, Zurich is becoming home to an ever-growing population of expats

What attracts expat couples to Zurich? For a majority of them, the main reasons to move to Zurich are love, quality of life, the outdoor lifestyle, job opportunities and good salaries. I asked expats what they would change about Zurich that would be of benefit to them. Their answers ranged from “we would like to change the people so they would open up more” to “we would reduce the cost of renting apartments” and “we would reduce cost of living, especially essentials like food”. 

They also desired better career opportunities for expat spouses, which I’ve found is a recurring theme with most expat stories. 

“Lifestyle Expats” have different Challenges

As I explained in previous editions of “The Global Mobility Workbook”, we see a new breed of expats who move from country to country. This is generally because they grew up as Third-Culture Kids already, their spouse is offered a job in another country and they tag along and still wish to have a career or they are simply from a generation who feels entitled to international experience as part of their early-career experience.

They are on local contracts

Most “lifestyle expats” in Zurich are on local contracts.  It is already a challenge to have children in different school systems and moving them from country to country, even if they are in the international school system but it’s even harder when you have to pay yourself. As an international parent you need advice as you will not necessarily understand the Swiss school system.

They underestimate the effect of culture

The next underestimated challenge is Swiss culture. There is something in the culture here that seems to make it more difficult for people to arrive in Switzerland, more than in other cultures.

While we emphasize the importance for expats to learn about Swiss culture and to assimilate with the locals, we need to shoulder some of the responsibility as well. Granted, we cannot control what sort of neighbors expats will find, nor can we change all neighbors! However, is there any point of expats learning to integrate and still facing issues despite fitting in or blending perfectly, simply because the locals did not join intercultural training? 

We need to start with ourselves and raise our “global competency”. “Global Competency” is a model I developed for “The Global Mobility Workbook” as well.

We need to understand the little nuances, for instance how the word “service” has a different expectation for people from China, India or Brazil than for Swiss people or anyone from a European background. The demographics of Global Mobility are changing. We can expect from diversity of culture and backgrounds from expats – more dual career couples, more female expats, more same sex couples, more patchwork families. Only by learning things like this, we can understand how to serve expats from other backgrounds in a better way.

What does this mean for Global Mobility?

Basically, we are moving away from policies and focusing on individual offers and value propositions. The objective here is to provide better service while keeping the cost at the same levels. For example, we could say we have a budget we need to adhere to so we could provide spousal support but maybe the expat does not get support with the move. Or, we provide expat children with schooling, but they have to tackle housing on their own. 

We could also allow the expat more control over what type of service they would like instead of either/or scenarios. Essentially, our policies need to be geared more towards the individual. We are expecting that the scope of Global Mobility will be changing as more international hires and more international permanent transfers come in. In the past, the classical departments that took are of international assignments only took care of that “thing”. 

When we talk Global Mobility today, we mean departments that take care of all sorts of international movements, from business travelers to commuters, even digital nomads. In fact, digital nomads bring up interesting challenges. These are people who work through the internet and therefore theoretically could be working from anywhere. What would their home base be? And what implications would this have on their pensions?

I feel that we also need to re-evaluate our definition of the word expat. In the Global Mobility Workbook, I talk about the “Lifestyle Expat”. Contrast this to what we think of when we use the word migrants. I would say migrants move to another country because they want to find work there. Their expectations are of a better lifestyle and better living conditions in the new country, and they often move on a permanent basis while they still care for family members in their home country. The term “migrant” is considered to be a more general term but has a different connotation than “expat”

However, in some countries, the term migrant and expat are used interchangeably. We should be open to this too, an expat is not someone who is just being moved by a company with a fat package. They could also be migrants or lifestyle expats who move on local contracts. 

What we can do as service providers in this situation is to support global recruiting and talent acquisition. We could improve the experience for lifestyle expats by addressing some of the issues they face, such as issues with the immigration process, medical insurance, employment retention and language barriers.

Is Expat Experience (XX) the same as User Experience (UX)?

A recent survey by AIRINC found 63% of companies currently working on enhancing the employee experience, indicating that this is indeed a very prominent topic in Global Mobility. Let me call it “Expat Experience” for our purposes. “Expat Experience” is more than just a case of user experience. There are several components to it. As we start to develop the idea of the Expat Experience, I think we should focus on five components:

  1. the service expats receive at touch points, 
  2. the cultural adjustment process, 
  3. the learning journey
  4. the “deeper expat experience”
  5. the communication hole.

The five components of the Expat Experience

The Service at Certain Touch Points

While observing the interactions at touch points can help measure service quality, this is only one side of the coin. I think we fail to understand here that global couples aren’t robots. We cannot just send them through a move, open a bank account, help them sign a lease and expect them to be happy.

The Cultural Adjustment Process

Academics usually focus on the cultural adjustment process. They try to understand how expats adjust to their new surroundings and how it relates to their performance. It is commonly known that in the first six months expats generally don’t perform as well as in their home country due to the adjustment period and cultural transition. In the normal adjustment period curve, there is a phase where the adjustment almost always leads to psychological mood swings and symptoms close to depression – this is commonly referred to as “culture shock”



Nine Phases and Cultural Transitions (The Global Mobility Workbook, 2019)

The Communication Hole

In contrast, what we do in Global Mobility is that we focus on communicating with expats during the initial phases of the assignment (decision, move and arrival). When they have moved to the country, we sometimes provide intercultural training, help with settling in and then we expect them to handle the next steps on their own. Here expats often discover the true value of their packages. The spendable income in Zurich might be eaten up by daily necessities, medical expenses and lunch money. The commute to work might take longer than expected and the next person in the grocery line already shouted at them as they did not follow the protocol correctly.

Essentially, right when they need our support to keep them delivering high performance, we leave them alone. 


The Expat’s Feelings in the Process

The Learning Journey

That, I believe is actually an issue we could address quite easily. Why? Assume that an expat has already gone through a tough phase – the family isn’t happy, they are all experiencing culture shock, the expat’s performance is low. They’re all out of their comfort zone and are in fact in a panic zone. Simultaneously, they are also experiencing what it means to be alone because of the loss of their support network from back home. 

Here we could help by providing support in small, incremental steps and by listening to the expat couple and their needs.

The Deeper Expat Experience

The deeper expat experience that I alluded to earlier is something many of us don’t know about. Perhaps you have heard of the famous Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung? 

He talked about how we often reflect our “shadows” in another person. Being in a different culture could also make you reflect yourself in the people of the host culture. 

After the “honeymoon phase” for a while your reflection is negative – you will see things in other people you do not like about yourself. And you might not overcome this phase easily if you don’t discuss it with a professional coach. I think we still underestimate the consequences of the expat experience on our psyche: “Expatriation is a deep experience. You meet your core, the essence of who you are and who you could be, a true journey of self discovery.”

If you are in Global Mobility directly or if you are a service provider seeing an expat and their family as a client or customer will probably help. You are not only serving a company.

 In my view our higher purpose is to bring the human touch back into Global Mobility or as I said in my talk:

The higher purpose of Global Mobility professionals is to help expat couples discover themselves, guide them through the challenges and be there for them when they go through the valley of tears.” 

Kind regards 

Angie Weinberger


Related Links / References

2018 Global Assignment Policies and Practices Survey, KPMG International (2018)


Airinc (2019)




Project ZRH3039 – Final Report (2019)


Population with Migration Background


Revision Foreigner Law in Switzerland


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