Managing Short-term Assignments  

03 May 2022

Like all areas of the working world, global mobility is evolving. Businesses are providing employees with increased flexibility by offering different forms of international assignment. Where once expat assignments lasted three to five years, now assignments vary in range.


A short-term assignment can be a more cost effective way of achieving specific goals in another market without disrupting an employee’s life too much. 

  1. A short-term assignment (STA) is an international project that usually lasts between 3 and 12 months. They allow organisations to transfer resources, knowledge and skills cost effectively and quickly providing fast response to business needs. For some companies short-term assignments are becoming more popular than their long-term equivalent due to changing workforce demographics, skills shortages and the need to provide more flexibility to employees. 
  3. Just because employees are away for less  time does not make STA’s easier. In fact, short-term assignments may be more difficult as there is a need to hit the ground running and accomplish a lot quickly.
  5. When it comes to short-term assignments, thorough preparation is more important. Potential pitfalls that can cause problems for professionals in an overseas office for a short period include:
  • Failure to build key relationships
  • Culture shock
  • Alienating local colleagues
  1. When planning an STA pre-departure training is important but pre-departure preparation is essential.

Preparing for a short-term assignment is challenging. It may need to go further than providing the soon to be expat with clear understanding of their role or overview of the local culture. Short-term assignees with aggressive deadlines may fall into a common expat error of trying to introduce initiatives without sufficient knowledge of local circumstances or alienating colleagues. 

For these kinds of assignments pre-departure preparation must go much further than training on what to expect, it should allow the soon to be expat to begin their assignment before they leave. 

Help employees prepare in advance for life in their temporary home by doing everything possible to acquire relevant information about life there:

  • Arrange meetings with employees from the host country that are working in your current location
  • Encourage the employee to join groups from that country in your city 
  • Make the most of web-based platforms like LinkedIn or Meetup to enable future expats to become more aware of life and work etiquette before they leave
Encourage soon to be expats to develop a list of key stakeholders for the project at hand and arrange virtual meetings before leaving their home country. Virtual meetings are rarely as successful as in person but they are significantly better than email. Taking the time to introduce themselves and outlining in a broad way what they hope to achieve should make for a warmer welcome when they arrive in the office. 
Following on from the above is the need to understand if there is local support for the project? This will depend on where the initial project request came from. If it was a request from the office the expat is moving to, it may not be too difficult to get local support, however it may be more challenging for goals driven by headquarters. Either way, neglecting to gauge local support and understand may result in expat failure or outright rejection of the proposal. 
While on assignment, STA’s will require as much, if not more support than their long-term counterparts. 
When an employee begins an assignment, they are often ‘borrowing’ a team for the duration of the assignment. It is important that the team and their usual manager are fully on board. Mobility and HR teams can further assist with additional meetings during the assignment to identify and resolve any potential pitfalls. It is often useful to have a more neutral third party to discuss issues in order to resolve them early and with as little negative feeling as possible.

At the outset of the assignment it is important for the expat to share:

  • The assignment goals
  • Timeline
  • Objectives
  • The expat’s role
  • Expectations for employees

This does not have to be completed on day one but may be useful within a few weeks of the assignment starting. This way, any gaps in expectation or issues that arise can be ironed out quickly to provide the assignment with the best chance of success. 

Even though short-term assignees are not going to be overseas for long, having a support network outside of work still matters. This is where the groundwork put in before the assignee arrived should pay dividends. Help expats find work life balance by continuing a hobby they have at home, locally, from yoga to rock climbing, hopefully there’ll be a group or venue where they can let off some steam after a busy day in the office. 


It is also important STA’s remain connected to colleagues in head office particularly if the medium term plan is they return to a role there. Arranging intermittent virtual check ins is a great way to ensure there are no surprises when they return to head office. 

Achieving the goals of a short-term assignment is rarely an entirely smooth path but there are some ways you can improve a candidate’s chances.
Even short-term assignment goals must be SMART, including being realistic within a limited time frame. When goals are being created ensure the time allowed is at least double what head office would expect to spend rolling out this initiative locally. This should provide the expat with sufficient additional time to get a local team on board and resolve any issues.

The last thing your business wants is to spend all that time and money on an STA only for everything to revert to how it was previously as soon as that person leaves. Key to long-term implementation is ensuring there are local owners of the initiative who will continue to grow the programme once the assignment is over. 


Ultimately any global mobility practice should aim to create solutions that are employee centric while also being relevant and cost effective ways to achieve company goals. Although there is likely to always be place for longer term assignments, their short-term counterparts may be the right solution in certain scenarios.   

Managing short-term assignees may be challenging but looking after their health while they are away does not have to be. We have group international health insurance schemes tailored to the needs of your business.