'Life-swapping' with colleagues from around the world

'Life-swapping' enables colleagues around the world to swap places, then bring new skills back home.

For two months, Phil MacLaren left his life in New York behind to swap identities with his colleague, Steve Wilcox. MacLaren abandoned his Brooklyn bachelor pad, kissed his girlfriend goodbye and headed for London, England. At the same time, Wilcox unwound his London life and moved to New York – and into MacLaren’s apartment.

This was no Internet-based house exchange but a “life swap” organized by Wilcox and MacLaren’s employer, the London-based marketing agency Iris. Life-swapping (not to be confused with wife-swapping), allows high-performing junior talent to exchange identities: cities, jobs, apartments, even cars and friends. The firm prides itself on being “people oriented,” and started the practice to give workers the possibility of adventure.

“We want people to be happy at work,” says Kathryn Pritchard, Iris’s global talent director. (Indeed, Iris workers are happy: in 2009, it was ranked 10th nationally in The Sunday Times’ Best 100 Companies to Work For.) Not only is life-swapping part of Iris’s retention strategy, but as the company globalizes – moving into places like Russia and Brazil – swappers become the vehicle by which Iris’s culture and methods are transported. Plus, adds Pritchard, “[Life-swapping] sets a flexible attitude to geography quite early in people’s careers.”

Iris’s program is just one example of the mobility frameworks human-resources teams are dreaming up to meet the demands of globalization, improve brand consistency and keep young employees motivated. At Ernst & Young, for example, Karen Wensley, Canada’s HR director, highlights the company’s “corporate responsibilities fellows program,” which pays for the firm’s most talented young people to be seconded to the developing world, where they work on pro bono assignments with entrepreneurs. But the benefits go beyond altruism, she adds: “We’re a global firm, most of our clients are big global multinationals, so the more experience our employees have in dealing with businesses that are operating within other economies, the better they’ll be able to advise global clients.”

PricewaterhouseCoopers also views its mobility programs as a means for allowing staff to develop global networks and learn local business customs so they are better positioned in emerging markets. “As our clients become more global,” says Hazel Claxton, PwC’s human capital leader, “it’s important for us to have people who have had those global experiences, who can call upon those connections to help us serve our clients.” There are currently about 100 Canadian employees participating in the program, and about 1,000 globally each year.

According to the Iris swappers, these exchanges broaden their thinking and help to build global career paths. “I moved into Steve’s place,” says MacLaren, who never met Steve. “Steve’s a very precise guy. You can just tell from how he organizes his house.” In London, MacLaren walks to work (instead of taking the subway, as he does in New York), pauses for tea breaks with colleagues, and frequents pubs when the office shuts down in the evenings.

At work, MacLaren is also gaining insight into how the New York office may look as it grows, by observing how Iris’s headquarters operate. While his home office is highly integrated with about 30 staff, the London outfit has 350, and jobs are more specialized. As a digital creative, he now collaborates with a team of 80, and is learning new tech skills he can bring back home.

Alan Levy, a specialist in human resources and organizational behaviour, believes more HR departments should nurture and grow flexibility programs that appeal to young high flyers. “Organizations need to be creative in their human resources and have progressive retention processes,” he explains. “Gen X and Y have greater commitments to their careers than they do to the corporation. Things like life-swapping and mobility frameworks will help keep this group interested in their jobs.”

There can be pitfalls, however, to these exchanges. Howard Book, a psychiatrist and organizational consultant, points out that they are costly and complex to organize, some employees leave a gap in their home office and find a steep learning curve abroad, and swaps can be disruptive. However, he adds, “A lot of people in business think disruption is a good thing.”

Phil MacLaren, near the end of his life swap and just before a bit of travel on the way back to New York, admits, “I knew coming into it, you’ll reach a point around a month when you feel very comfortable, when you start to know the place, start to find your feet. And just as you get to that point, you’re ready to go.”