On February 19th of this year, at 6 AM Eastern Standard Time, together with my wife and our two children, I landed in Newark Airport from Tel Aviv. This was less than a month before COVID-19 suddenly made going into airports a new form of extreme sport. It was also the end of an almost year-long journey. And the beginning of another.
My name is Tal Valler, and I’m the Director of Global Marketing at Centrical, a fast-growing startup focused on helping companies help their employees become more productive, proficient, and engaged. I relocated to New York at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and yes, it makes sense.
Whether you are offered a relocation by your company or are considering relocating one of your employees, I hope this article will both help you determine if this is the right move for you, and if so, give you some insights about how to prepare.
Set Goals for Your Project
Before we get into the tips and tricks, there’s a big elephant in the room. Let’s address it. Does it still make sense to move employees around the world when everyone is working from home? In my view it does. Here’s why:
The first thing to understand is that relocation is a big project. It takes time, planning, and effort. And it has costs, risks, and potential rewards. Like any other project, your relocation, whether for an employee or for yourself, should have clear goals. In my case, the goal was to make the time with my team more effective while maintaining some semblance of a work-life balance. That meant my work hours had to better coincide with the hours when my kids were busy with kindergarten and activities. A difficult feat when my team, based in the United States, was always between seven to nine hours behind me. They would start their day two hours before I would have to pick up my kids from kindergarten and they would send me urgent notifications asking me to join meetings well after everyone had gone to bed.
In addition, Centrical, my company, had its own reasons for relocating me. Our New York team was all relatively new. Over the years, the company has developed marketing processes and an understanding of what channels, personas, and messaging work best for us. Spending more time with the New York team in person seemed the best way to get everyone aligned and up to speed — fast. Also, Israelis operate differently than Americans and vice versa. In a fast-growing company, there’s no time for misunderstandings, politics, or ongoing debates. “Embedding” an Israeli in the New York office makes it easier to push agendas, mitigate cultural frictions, and create alignment.
COVID or not, relocation can be the best way to achieve these goals, even when working from home. Whether your goal as a company is retention, knowledge transfer, having boots on the ground, building a bridge between cultures, or some combination of these, defining the goal/s well will clarify whether relocation during COVID or at all, makes sense. It will also help you recognize and measure success.
Getting Ready for (In)action
Even if you are one of the fortunate few that holds dual citizenship with your country of destination, immigration is never just a hop, skip, and a jump across the Passport Control desk. There are always complicated bureaucratic procedures to sort out, such as social security, rental agreements, and tax regulations.
If you need to get a visa, be prepared for a slow and cumbersome bureaucratic process. It takes time to process the request (and sometimes reprocess it). Also, depending on the type of visa you’re seeking, you will likely need to provide a vast array of proof points and documents to explain why your role is unique and can’t be accomplished by a new local hire. In my case, this meant scouring through old work emails to look for examples of authorizing budgets, creating organizational processes, conducting reviews for employees, and building organizational charts and in-depth role descriptions — things that in reality, one rarely can manage to do in a highly organized fashion while working in an up-and-coming startup. Being prepared will make this process easier. Work with a lawyer or someone who knows the ins and outs of this process for your target country. Then, start compiling these documents (or creating them) ASAP to avoid making the process even slower.
As a company, if this is the first time you’re going through this process, get a lawyer — or lawyers. Also, unless you’re their biggest client, don’t expect them to do anything beyond submitting the application. You’re not paying them to complete the application or review documents for you. Their real job is to enable you to avoid wasting time doing research and filing paperwork. The lawyers will tell you what documents you need to compile and which fees need to be paid, and they will send out final documents for approval. Also, take into consideration that while this legal help is not super expensive, it does involve an investment of several thousand dollars.
A funny anecdote about my relocation: A marriage certificate from your country of origin is the only document the U.S. immigration authorities accept for adding family members to your visa application. So my partner and I had to get hitched, something we never thought we would do. We’re both not big fans of ceremonies, especially not the kinds involving religious or civil authorities, but, if I wanted her and my kids to come with me to America, it just had to be done. And we did it.
The Cost of Leaving
In the United States and most of Western Europe, wages and the cost of living are significantly higher than in Israel. To maintain the same quality of life, you need to renegotiate your employment contract. In any event, to ensure that you get benefits and can pay taxes in your destination country, you’ll most likely need to be fired from your local legal employer and then be hired by its proxy in your destination. So how much should you ask for? Start by making a budget. A quick search on Google will yield multiple results for cost-of-living calculators in almost any country. Careful though — these should only give you a baseline benchmark. You should still do the research yourself. Look at house and apartment listings in the communities and neighborhoods where you want to live, pretend to do online shopping for food on a local website, ask questions on local Facebook groups and then add some buffer just in case. Shoot me an email if you want some relevant recommendations specific to the United States.
If you’re traveling alone, things are obviously cheaper. If you’re with family, though, as I was, and accustomed to a two-income household, you’ll have to factor in that in many cases, your spouse will not immediately receive a work permit or easily find a job. Also, quality education for children is not always free. Then, there are costs associated with the move itself, such as shipping a container, realtor fees, and flights.
I built an Excel file and plugged in all the costs to get an estimate of what my post-tax income needed to be in order to provide a decent standard of living. When I showed the final number to our CFO, he almost lost his lunch on my face but, as I said before, it’s a project. If you and your company understand the benefits, you need to understand and be ready to pay the costs.
Before You Go
You’ve got the visa and the contract, and you’re all packed up and ready to go. Hold your horses. Before you set off and buy your plane tickets, it’s probably a good idea to take a short trip to your new location to scout the area and make some final arrangements. This can make your landing much easier when you finally make your move. You should do this about a couple of weeks to a month before the actual move, with the goal of deciding on the exact area or neighborhood where you’ll want to live, doing some of the field research, and maybe even already renting an apartment and setting up bank and utility accounts.
Deciding which neighborhood you want to live in greatly depends on where you are in life and what you’re looking for. For some, the main consideration could be how long the commute is to the office, for others, it’s all about living in the trendiest neighborhood with the coolest bars. For me, it was about being close to the best schools for my kids and in an area that had a nice community vibe. Again, knowing your goals is the most important advice I can give.
Now is also the time to touch base with that long-lost army buddy who moved to sell AHAVA products in Los Angeles, or that neighbor’s son who is doing investment banking in East London. We had Alex, my wife’s high school buddy from Brooklyn. Having a friendly face who knows the ropes was super helpful when settling in.
Expect the Unexpected… and COVID-19
The last thing to consider before making the jump is that this will be an ongoing project, and you’ll constantly need to reassess its milestones. Ultimately, things will cost more than you planned and there will be unexpected processes and challenges you never anticipated. For me, it’s things like American medical insurance, which I’m still figuring out, and the U.S. credit system which, for the moment, means I can’t buy anything in installments and always have to pay upfront because I don’t yet have a credit rating.
The world is changing, too. COVID-19 is reshuffling legal requirements daily and, if I had delayed things back home a couple of more weeks, we might not have been allowed into the United States at all. Priorities in my company changed, New York City and the United States as a country are going through some strange times. And the distance from my Israeli family, colleagues, and the ad hoc conversations we used to have are taking their toll on my ability to stay relevant and connected.
Still, all in all, for the moment, I think our project has been a success. I get to spend more time with my family, I meet more often with my team, and my colleagues in Israel know they can count on me to translate Israeliness to their American counterparts. We never really got to experience a true relocation and I still rarely see New York beyond the window of our apartment, but that was never one of our primary goals. This might be the new normal, and we’ll have to adapt. If you ask me today whether I would do it all over again, I’d have to say… for today, yes, but, hey, ask me again tomorrow.
This blog was published by Aleph. Aleph is an early stage venture capital fund and equal partnership focused on partnering with great Israeli entrepreneurs to build large, meaningful companies and impactful global brands.