Easing the Pain of Relocation

Easing the Pain of Relocation


The State of Texas has worked hard to attract companies. The combination of incentives, reasonably inexpensive real estate, low taxes, and great weather has been appealing enough get organizations including Toyota, Facebook, and Goodman to locate significant installations in the Lone Star State.

Once the ink is dry on the deal, many existing employees of the company have to go through a dreaded relocation. Lists of the most significant stressors almost always put moving near the top of the list of things that cause stress.

Any company that is going to move employees a long distance (even one that is not setting up a whole new office) needs to understand the stress caused by a move and to find ways to help minimize the stresses that it can control. Here are four aspects of relocation that cause stress.

Habits Don’t Work

The biggest source of stress when moving is that none of people’s habits work any more. Most people don’t realize how much of their lives are driven by mindless routines they have developed to take care of all of the tasks they perform daily. People can walk into a room in their house and flick on the light switch without thinking about where it is located. They can get washed and dressed in the morning without having to think about how to set the temperature in the shower or where to find their toothbrush.

In the six weeks after they move to a new house, everything is disrupted. Until they have a chance to develop new habits, they have to think about every single thing they are doing. That is tiring, and it makes them irritable.

When people relocate to a new city for a job, none of their routines work in any facet of their lives. Walking around the house, commuting to work, and navigating the office all require new habits. All of that happens at about the same time.

As a business leader, there isn’t much you can do to help people learn new habits more quickly. It is valuable to remember that everyone who has relocated is going to be a bit unsettled those first several weeks. So, try to give new people a little space in the workplace before they also have to make a significant positive impression on everyone.

This relocation may have a silver lining, though. If a large group relocates to a new region, remember that all of their habits have been disrupted. If there is a key new business process you want to implement, these transitions are a good time to do it, because everyone’s behaviors are in flux.

Broken Social Networks

Human beings are a deeply social species. We are not that impressive as individuals, but in groups we thrive. Relocating breaks a lot of people’s social connections both in their personal life and in their professional life.

It is valuable to help employees who have relocated to re-establish new social connections to ease their transition. Companies who are relocating employees should keep lists of key social resources in the new city including religious institutions, volunteer opportunities, and arts organizations to help people settle in their new home. These lists are important for the new employees and also for their families. Relocation changes the lives of the employees and also their partners and children. Helping families to integrate into the community removes a lot of stress.

Companies should also appoint mentors (think relocation ambassadors) who share interests with new employees to help them find a community. Ambassadors are important, because relocating employees needs to have someone they can call when they need to find something in town. They are often reluctant to want to be a bother, so identifying a specific point of contact will make them more comfortable with reaching out when they need help.

This service is especially important for employees who are moving to a new country, where they must also cope with a new culture and perhaps even a new language. Gina Qiao talks about the difficulty she had moving from China to the United States in the fascinating book The Lenovo Way. Her early interactions with her new colleagues often went badly, because she did not understand key cultural differences. She also felt isolated in her new location. Organizations should look for people in the office who share a cultural heritage with a new arrival and can make that person’s move smoother and more successful.

New Colleagues And New Roles

When people move to a new location, they have to re-establish their position within the organization. They often want to prove themselves quickly, particularly if they are moving into a new leadership role.

It can be helpful for new employees to meet their colleagues in a low-pressure situation before having to get down to business. Meals are a great way to help create opportunities for social interaction that do not have a specific goal. Giving new employees a chance to have breakfast or lunch with small groups of their new colleagues works well. Leaders who relocate to a new office should be encouraged to go on a listening tour. Group meetings in which people can express their hopes and concerns can help a leader to connect with the passions and problems of their new team.

A second reason for creating low-pressure meetings early in a relocated employee’s tenure is that they are going to be experiencing a lot of stress anyhow. Some people shine in stressful situations, but others may say or do things that are out of character when overwhelmed by stress. Giving people a chance to talk with their new colleagues as they are getting settled allows them to create a positive first impression before the inevitable pressures of the workplace kick in.

Job Uncertainty

Relocating to a new place often comes in the midst of some kind of organizational transition. Sometimes that transition is positive. For example, an employee might be moved to a new office as the result of an important promotion, but, many relocations take place in times of uncertainty. For example, a regional office may have closed or a company might be exploring the possibility of opening a new location.

In these situations, discussion is crucial. The new employee’s supervisor should have an open discussion about what is going on and should give an honest assessment of expectations in the new role. It is never possible to remove all uncertainty, but it is a natural tendency for people to worry about the unknown. The more that a supervisor can allay unnecessary fears, the simpler it will be for the new employee to get focused on the new position.

In the end, remember that communication is the ultimate social grease. The more opportunities given to new employees to interact, the faster they will settle into the new location. And after they have settled in, encourage them to serve as relocation ambassadors for the next wave of transfers.


Art Markman

Art Markman, Ph.D., is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He writes regularly for Fast Company, Inc and Harvard Business Review, and is co-host of the radio show and podcast “Two Guys on Your Head,” produced by KUT in Austin.

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