A “traditional” expatriate is an executive or employee of a company who relocates—often with his or her family or significant other—to the country in which the expatriate assignment is located. In contrast, a virtual expatriate does not physically relocate to the host country. Instead, the virtual expatriate manages the responsibilities of the assignment through frequent business trips and the use of teleconferences and electronic communication. A virtual expatriate assignment differs from a traditional expatriate assignment not only in the physical location of the expatriate but also in the cost and the duration of the assignment.
The concept of virtual expatriates is new and offers logistical flexibility that a traditional expatriate assignment does not provide. Perhaps the most significant benefit of the virtual expatriate assignment is that the partner and/or children of the expatriate are not uprooted from their jobs and schools. This concern is becoming more relevant with the increased prevalence of dual-career families. Another significant cause of stress in the traditional expatriate arrangement is the adjustment of the expatriate’s family to the new country’s culture. Some employees have refused expatriate assignments because they prefer not to move their families. The virtual expatriate assignment allows the significant other or family member to remain in the home country while the expatriate travels to the assignment location.
Traditional expatriate assignments are costly to organizations. They typically include cost of living allowances and housing allowances in addition to compensation that would be competitive in the home country. Generally, it costs a company two to four times more to place an expatriate in a role than it would cost to place a host country employee in the role. Despite the extensive travel required to manage the responsibilities of virtual expatriate assignments, they tend to be less expensive for employers compared to traditional expatriate assignments.
Virtual expatriate assignments also tend to be shorter in duration than traditional expatriate assignments. Virtual expatriate assignments often last between two and four years, whereas traditional assignments often last up to five years.
Because the virtual expatriate is not on location in the host county on a continuing basis, a potential drawback of this approach is that the expatriate may have difficulties becoming integrated with his or her work team. This situation could lead to relationship-building issues with the host country employees.
The concept of a virtual expatriate is relatively new. Moreover, there is little theoretical or empirical research on virtual expatriates. As a result, the long-term benefits and drawbacks of the virtual expatriate assignment for companies and employees are yet to be determined.
- Ali, A., Van der Zee, K. and Sanders, G. 2003. “Determinants of Intercultural Adjustment among Expatriate Spouses.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 27:563-580.
- Flynn, J. 1999. “E-mail, Cellphones and Frequent-flier Miles Let ‘Virtual’ Expats Work Abroad but Live at Home.” Wall Street Journal, October 25, p. A26.
- Solomon, C. M. 1998. “Business Travel Enhances Global Mobility.” Workforce 3:14.