Growing up abroad, Toby Simpson lived in a different world to the one expatriates would recognise today.
Back in the late 1970s and ‘80s, countries like Hong Kong, where he was born, were still considered truly exotic, and an expat’s social life often revolved around their employer.
“In a time where many of the essential services of life were not always locally available and when a cultural indiscretion at the bazaar could end with a crowd of inconsolable chaiwallas [people who serve tea] at your heels, the all-encompassing embrace of the company in matters educational and administrative was essential,” says Mr Simpson, 38, who lived in several countries as a child, including Bahrain, and only moved to the UK permanently when he was 19. He is now managing director of The Gulf Recruitment Group.
“Then, perhaps the support offered by the company was more important than matters such as your monthly stipend, provided the chap in the mahogany desk next to you wasn’t getting much more.”
But times have changed. Globalisation has made the world smaller and people more culturally aware. Employees now also have different motivations and expect more from their postings.
Cigna, a global insurer, was interested in discovering more about what expats are looking for from their overseas assignments, so it conducted a study last summer of 2,700 expats in 156 countries, about 80 per cent of whom work for North American companies, including 500 in the Middle East, with a quarter living and working in the UAE.
The vast majority of the Mena respondents, 84 per cent, said they believed that an international assignment was essential to their career progression. And half, 51 per cent, said they would be willing to take on another overseas posting. Indeed, almost a third, 32 per cent, said they have accepted five or more assignments.
The survey also covered what people thought about the benefits associated with international postings. More than half, 54 per cent, agreed that the compensation and benefits offered by their employer were attractive, and one-third strongly agreed with the statement.
“You obviously make it attractive to those individuals to make sure it’s a successful assignment when you move someone into that area, so it’s not too much of a surprise and obviously the other benefit that the Middle East has is a low tax regime,” says Howard Gough, chief executive of the Mena region at Cigna.
“If you are coming from another country then this is one of the benefits that probably go into that mix of why people find that their overall compensation and benefits were attractive,” he adds.
However, money is by no means the only motivation for expats in the Middle East.
Other factors rated as very important included the healthcare plan, financial help with school fees and leave entitlements, along with quality of life, housing, security and the environment.
And they are typically among the concerns Mr Simpson sees from candidates when placing people in positions across the Middle East.
“Predominant concerns are around the nature, challenge, work environment and ladder ascending qualities of the role on offer, and of course monthly compensation,” says Mr Simpson.
“Little Jonny always plays on the mind so availability of schooling is important, but whether it is paid as a benefit or in cash is rarely of any great importance. Health care is expected if only because it is procured more cheaply through a company than on an individual basis and benefits such as flights or shipping are considered on the financial tally rather than as an indication of the soft embrace of a benevolent employer.”
The survey showed nearly three-quarters of respondents were happy with their access to health care, compared to an average globally of about half, at 56 per cent.
However, the study also revealed some areas employers in the Middle East could improve on, such as communication, which employees wanted to be more frequent and more personalised.
“Only 40 per cent said they did a good job in terms of communicating with globally mobile employees,” says Mr Gough.
“Another big area is the repatriation, so a lot of work is focused by employers on sending the person on assignment, but when you look into the data what the expats are also aware of is the repatriation back to their home countries. You spend all of the time investing on creating this global mindset in the employee and then they end up leaving the country because there isn’t an appropriate route back into the organisation.”
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