When I was in college, most study abroad programs went something like this: You chose one that was faintly related to your major and moved into a junky dorm with a bunch of other American students in some foreign city. For the next 10–12 weeks, you’d take virtually no serious classes and do as much traveling and substance abusing as possible before hauling yourself back home, exhausted and largely as ignorant as you’d left. (For the record, mine didn't quite go that way.)
Still, universities decided decades ago that studying abroad enriched the on-campus educational experience, and students (and their parents) still seem to agree. The Institute of International Education found that 289,000 Americans spent part or all of their most recent year in college overseas, representing a 400% increase from 20 years ago.
Companies are catching on to this trend. The business world may not be grappling with an existential crisis in the way higher education is, as students and faculty question what knowledge acquisition should consist of, whom it should serve, and how much it should cost. But companies are struggling with a pretty serious problem of their own: employee retention.
By one recent estimate, nearly half of workers worldwide will leave their current jobs next year. And the effects of high turnover are bleeding into just about everything, curbing the effectiveness of diversity initiatives and even changing the nature of management. In contrast, data from PwC shows that moving staff to offices in other countries is not only good for their personal career growth, but also a positive driver of business success.
So maybe it was inevitable that businesses would start offering their employees grown-up versions of the experiences many of them had as undergrads in the form of overseas exchange programs.
Before his company sent him to its Tel Aviv headquarters for seven weeks last summer, Paul Michio McCarthy had never tried hummus.
This was odd, he admits, considering he grew up in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, where the large Jewish community ensured McCarthy's middle-school years were packed with bar and bat mitzvahs. Now a senior client services manager at AppsFlyer, a SaaS platform offering mobile marketing analytics, McCarthy was already well-traveled in the tech industry when he joined the company. He’d worked previously at both Google and LinkedIn, but he says his jobs there didn’t offer him many opportunities to interact with people outside his division, let alone spend time abroad.
That was important to him at AppsFlyer, though. "I wanted to know if this was the company I wanted to spend the next three or four years with," McCarthy says. Based in the Bangkok office, which had a headcount of just five people when he started (it’s since doubled), McCarthy felt that the only way to determine if he had a future at AppsFlyer was to spend "quality time" at the company’s Israeli headquarters.
Fortunately for him, AppsFlyer offers a "Global Employee Exchange Program," or "GeeP," which sends any employee who’s been with the company for at least a year on fully paid, two- to 12–week stints at any of its international offices in Tel Aviv, Bangkok, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Bangalore, San Francisco, New York, London, and Berlin.
McCarthy says the experience was eye opening. "I was having family dinners with a lot of my colleagues there for a lot of it," he recalls. Those personal interactions helped him feel more connected to the company’s culture, McCarthy says, a need often expressed by employees at companies with distributed workforces—which aren't just huge global corporations anymore.
McCarthy was surprised by how driven and occasionally grueling AppsFlyer’s culture really was. The hundred or so colleagues McCarthy met in Tel Aviv (AppsFlyer's total global headcount was under 200 at the time) kept longer hours, often working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., "and they’ll leave the office sometimes, but you’ll still see 40 to 50 people cranking," he recalls. "And they’re not just messing around, they’re getting stuff done."
It was tough, says McCarthy, who continued to work remotely with his Bangkok team during his time in Israel, but it was just the kind of insight he needed to experience firsthand before deciding whether he had a real career with the company. And anyway, he says, "I was bouncing around so much that I wasn’t sitting at a desk bored. I was jumping into sales calls to see how I could learn from them—stuff like that." Ultimately, McCarthy decided, "I was the right personality for it."
Exchange programs don’t just let employees experience their companies’ work cultures. They’re also designed to showcase foreign countries’ cultures overall. Johana Leeflang is an events and community marketing manager at AppLift, a marketing data platform. She spent a month in Bangalore at the tail end of a six-month experience called the "International Talent Program" (ITP). Prior to going abroad, Leeflang spent five months working remotely with three international team members on a specialized ITP project—theirs was on corporate culture—which took up roughly 10%–20% of her normal working hours on average.
Seeing how things were done in India was a fascinating way to cap off that work, Leeflang says. AppLift’s Bangalore office is staffed primarily by Indians, and many of her colleagues there, she discovered, "had moved all over the country for this job," including from Delhi and Kolkata (roughly the distance between New York and a Midwestern city like Omaha or Dallas). That gave Leeflang a feel for how their company—and the Indian tech sector at large—is rapidly reshaping the workforce she was a part of, in ways she couldn’t have realized in Berlin.
The challenges of operating far-flung multicultural workplaces are mounting, including for startups. And it’s not strictly business exigencies that are accelerating that change—employees like Leeflang and McCarthy are, too. "I wanted to work for an international company," says Leeflang, who studied and worked in the Netherlands before joining AppLift. Continuing that multicultural experience was a top career goal of hers, and AppLift’s ITP program wasn’t just the way to deliver it; it also helped train Leeflang with the skills she’d need to navigate the work culture the company immersed her in.
McCarthy says he returned home with sharper interpersonal skills and deeper relationships that still help him do his job better. After returning from Tel Aviv, he says, his direct messages on Slack "went from like 10 people to like 50. I get stuff done 10 times faster now. I know exactly who to talk to."
For her part, Leeflang "got to see from a business perspective how to do a show in another country. Mobile marketing is at a different stage in India," she says, and getting an immersive look at the market was invaluable. She was promoted before leaving India last April, and since then has been promoted once more. AppLift designed ITP explicitly in order to develop its most promising, high-performing talent.
McCarthy and Leeflang both sound likely to stick with their employers, and if they do, that means both companies’ exchange programs accomplished one of their major goals. AppsFlyer attributes its rapid growth (it’s increased its headcount by nearly 350% year over year) in part to GeeP, which is a big part of its employee brand. The company advertises the program to prospective hires, including in a series of YouTube videos.
If they do become more common, exchange programs may wind up being a normal part of the employment experience—like study abroad is for college students—that top talent demands. And who knows? It may even be enough to keep some people around longer than they’re used to.