Employers offer more flexibility in overseas assignments

January 24, 2013, 5:04 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: A friend sent me your recent column about increases in benefits for employees who are being relocated within the U.S., so I’m wondering if companies’ international policies are changing, too. Here’s the situation: I’ve been offered a really interesting promotion, which happens to be located in Brazil.

I’d like to jump at this job, but moving my family there would be very difficult. (We’ve already moved so many times in my career that I hesitate to even bring it up again, and now we have twin high school seniors who would never speak to me again if they couldn’t graduate with their friends.) My employer’s usual practice is to move managers’ whole families overseas, but would it make sense to try to negotiate for a different arrangement? For instance, what if I propose spending three weeks there and one week here every month, without uprooting my family? Your thoughts, please. — Flying Down to Rio

Dear F.D.R.: Your timing is good, because employers these days are offering staffers who transfer overseas more choices than ever. “Companies want to retain talent and encourage deployments,” notes a new study of over 1,000 big employers from the global mobility practice at PwC. So they’re now letting people like you have far more say in how international assignments are structured.

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One recent change: Over 20% of companies now encourage “commuter” policies — in other words, letting managers fly back and forth between an overseas post and their home base, as you’d like to do. That’s a leap from just 8% in 2002. “Employers used to move managers and their families from, say, New York to London or vice versa,” observes Eileen Mullaney, a PwC principal in charge of the firm’s global mobility practice. “You hardly ever see that now. People commute back and forth instead, without moving their families.”

About 80% of the companies PwC studied also have “extended travel” policies, allowing executives who spend most of their time on the road to let their families stay in one place. That percentage has more than doubled from 30% in 2002. “So many overseas jobs now have huge travel requirements,” says Mullaney. “So it often doesn’t make sense to uproot someone’s whole family if the employee is going to be away most of the time.”

What’s more, PwC’s research shows that many employers now offer “menus of benefits,” allowing those who transfer overseas to pick and choose among different options that the company is willing to pay for, similar to “cafeteria plans” in other areas like medical benefits. Some typical items on the menu: An assignment preview trip, an incentive bonus for taking the job, help with selling a home, or even, in some locations, a “hardship premium.”

“What’s important to one overseas transferee may not matter to another,” Mullaney notes. “I might want my employer to cover the cost of a bigger house, for example, while you’d rather rent an apartment instead and have the company pay for friends and family to visit you.” From the employer’s perspective, all this choice might be more complicated than the old standardized approach to moving people abroad. But it often results in cost savings when employees make choices that happen to be cheaper than what was automatically covered by a company’s old policy.

One reason for employers’ new willingness to bargain: They want to attract and retain talented twenty-somethings,  71% of whom said in a PwC poll that international experience is high on their wish lists. “Millennials expect to be assigned overseas, and they ask for it,” Mullaney notes. “They are not used to anything being ‘one size fits all’, and they’re not bashful about negotiating for what they want.” At the same time, with overall demand for globetrotting talent soaring, offering flexibility can be a competitive advantage in wooing and keeping the right people of any age.

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But what if your employer hasn’t caught up with the trend? How rigid the relocation policy is “varies tremendously from one corporate culture to another,” Mullaney says. “But often there is more room for negotiation than you might think.” It never hurts to ask, especially if you emphasize the cost advantages to the company of letting you fly to Rio and back instead of moving your whole family there.

For one thing, your plan wouldn’t call for any help with selling your current house — a big plus right there. “The cost of moving a family is a huge expense,” Mullaney notes. “Anything to do with buying and selling real estate is problematic these days. If the company doesn’t want you in the new location forever, it probably makes much more financial sense to let you commute.”

That’s particularly true since you may not be working in Brazil for all that long. The average length of an overseas gig is shrinking, PwC’s research shows, from three years or more to just 18 months.

The main disadvantage to going the commuting route, Mullaney says, is that “part of what you gain by living somewhere overseas is a deep understanding of the culture on lots of different levels. I’ve heard some executives say you don’t really get that unless you live there.”

Even so, she adds, “It can be done, especially if you have lots of locals working for you.” Good luck.

Talkback: If you’ve taken an international assignment recently, did you have a choice in whether to move there or commute? If so, which did you choose, and why? Leave a comment below.