Smart Moves: Going on line with the ex pats

An internet service has been set up to help employees and their families cope with the trauma caused by relocation. By Rachelle Thackray
PREPARE to be brought back to earth with a bump when you break the news to your partner that you finally managed to wangle that two-year placement to Singapore. For many couples and families, moving to a different part of the world - an increasingly common occurrence in a globalised economy - is more of a trauma than a tonic. Finding schools, medical services, social circles and a good hairdresser is challenge enough in a new part of the UK, let alone the Far East.

A new internet service designed by Arthur Andersen, in conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and business travel information firm Craigshead Publications, called CountryNet, aims to provide up-to- the-minute information on 84 countries, covering all aspects useful to expatriate workers from cultural and lifestyle advice to economic, tax and immigration information.

The site has proved so popular in the two weeks since its launch that its pioneer, Andersen partner Mark Williams, claims: "We are receiving an e-mail every ten minutes. We have 250 trial sites, and because of the publicity we've had, particularly in North America, people have been phoning all day long."

Months of research went into the project. Mr Williams says: "We brought out a disc-based product called The Essential Expatriate 18 months ago, and the initial reaction was great, but we are talking yesterday's medium.With this service, all the pieces of information are in one place."

Expatriates need to consider fiscal security, cost of living, and family needs. The on-line service provides suggestions for schooling, along with articles on coping with change and country specific recommendations on using electronic appliances. "There has been phenomenal growth in global expatriate assignments. Small companies which five years ago wouldn't have moved someone across borders are now having to move people across continents," says Mr Williams.

A recent survey by ECA International found that nearly ten per cent of employees returning from overseas left their companies within two years, at an estimated cost of pounds 1.2bn annually. "Reverse culture shock and the disorientation that can follow return to the home country and a change in job status are not widely acknowledged," says a spokesman.

Mr Williams adds: "In the UK you might be a small fish in a big pond, then abroad you become a big fish in a small pond. Coming back and being just another cog in the wheel is difficult, and it's hard to meet people's expectations."

Arthur Andersen has adjusted to this change, he says, by offering employees a 'vertical' chain of command rather than a regional area. "The emphasis is away from where you belong in the UK to where you are in a particular service area, and where you want to move to next." In less Westernised locations staff in some companies are flown in for a month, and then flown out to a more congenial venue for rest and recuperation.

CountryNet operates by use of passwords ($7,000 for one individual; far cheaper to buy in bulk), but has yet to incorporate an individual on-line advice service, although there are plans to develop a comprehensive news service. Those who feel the need to call home can participate in a 'chat- board' instead. Says Mr Williams: "Individuals can put up their own experiences, although we will be doing a little bit of checking to make sure it's positive."

For more information about CountryNet, contact Mark Williams at Arthur Andersen on 0118 950 8141 or e-mail your enquiry to ECA International produces a 'Returning Home' questionnaire to help expatriates adjust, along with a guide Planning to Work Abroad? Contact Emily Tuite on 0171 351 5000.