Anywhere, Anytime

Standing on a tatami mat from my wife’s childhood bedroom in Niigata, Japan, a painting of a gigantic purple sunfish to my 3 o’clock, the hot July Sun seeping through the traditional Japanese window screen, I admit that it has taken a while to arrive at the point where I am, both physically and professionally. There are no standing desks in this room, but I’ve managed to jimmy one together by piling up various containers and drawers on top of one another — a wooden drawer filled with small items including a jade bracelet given to my wife years ago, an archaic calculator and two old phones, a metal case whose interior consists of art supplies and q-tips, an empty shoebox. None of these boxes or items were previously connected with my work as Chief Learning Officer (CLO), but now they make up my office space…my standing desk.

“Cawwwww, Cawwwwww, Cawwwww”

I lift my head up and slide open the screen to see a gigantic Japanese crow perched on one of the power lines. The only other sound in the room is the fan pointed at my kneecaps. Everything else is stillness. I look down at my computer and open up my Microsoft Teams and Planner list to see what’s on the agenda for today:

Dividing tasks into measurable chunks is a key success factor in working remotely because it helps with my own time and task management. I know that it’s ok to leave something unfinished, mid-task, because I will manage my own time, disciplining myself to return to the task the next day. While this may not be the way that everyone works, it has proven to be effective for certain work projects.

I ensure to pepper my day with work sprints where I focus on singular tasks for timed periods. Amongst all these tasks I manage to have lunch with my in laws, as well as fitting in some time for an afternoon exercise break. Taipei may be an ocean away, but the work that I do while facing my computer is no different than if I were sitting down in the office…it’s just that the Asahi beer tastes a bit fresher.

I enjoy the challenge that comes with being the only non-native Taiwanese working in a fully Taiwanese company. In addition to my foreign background, I’m also a complete outsider in the technology industry, and so when I accepted the role of CLO at Pershing Technology Services Corporation (PTSC), it was not only breaking new ground for the company, but for me as well. Up until this point, I’ve also yet to meet another CLO in all of Taiwan.

If one were to ask other employees of PTSC to describe the company culture and ways of doing things, “traditional”傳統 and “reliable”可靠 are two common modifiers after translation. Another Chinese character that hangs in the office and greets visitors upon entering the low-lit community table is the character 實 which really carries a number of meanings — realistic, pragmatic, methodical, down-to-Earth, slow and steady, etc. And yet, my role requires me to push the boundaries of the traditional mindset and look for ways to invigorate the company culture — just as the boxes that stack up beneath my laptop create a functional standing desk, I need to make sure that I’m constantly challenging myself and the company to think outside the box. If there’s a can of worms, it’s part of a CLO’s area of responsibilities to open it, even if we have to pry it open from time to time.

A tidbit that I’ve learned from my two plus years working in the IT industry is that there’s nothing more popular than a good acronym. Colleagues seem to toss around acronyms as if they were playing cards in a game of blackjack, with no one asking for any explanation as to their meaning. Best not to speak up when you don’t know something, put your head down and do your job, nod and get on with the next project — employees have to take some time to read the air and know when and who to talk with. Although not entirely an open culture, I have noticed change in the air within the organization, and part of that is connected with doing a better job of tapping into the energy of new hires and encouraging a growth mindset through leadership and management trainings in recent months. Spark the conversations and encourage questions from the start, and employees will be discussing acronyms, company culture, and innovation is soon to follow.

Prior to my month-long hiatus from the office for Japan and the US, I created a presentation listing out in detail the projects that I would be working on during this time. I approached my Work From Anywhere (WFA) status as a project that would take PTSC into a new era, allowing employees to test the hybrid workplace waters so that we could swim with the tides of the time. As this was unchartered territory, I named the project “The International Experiment,” allowing me to give my own month-long work the nifty acronym of “TIE.” The idea was novel for a traditionally focused mindset with more of a focus on management by objective (MBO), rather than traditional time and scheduled management where the only work that gets counted is that overseen by the boss. Working entirely remotely was not something that was new to me, as I had established myself as the head and sole employee of my previous company’s Taipei branch office for two years prior to Covid.

Appropriately, one of the TIE tasks which I tackled was to join an online Breakfast Club panel discussion focusing on the future of work. The other two panelists were located in the US and both working in the L&D sector of their respective organizations — The Children’s Law Center, and OpenSesame. Although I felt a bit of imposter syndrome at the start of the event, it was truly an honor to join and discuss the different challenges and opportunities that employees are facing regardless of where they are located or what they are doing. This was packed day for me as I was on the move from Niigata, Japan to Tokyo, taking bullet trains along the coastline and Japanese countryside for around two hours. During the ride I joined in for the kick-off of our company’s “Techathon” event.

On the evening of my bullet train into Tokyo, I would prepare for my Breakfast Club panel event in my hotel room outside of Shinagawa station. With a focus especially on Generation Z and engaging and upskilling of the future workforce, this was a great virtual space to share some of the projects and work practices that we are channeling our energy towards at PTSC. At the same time, joining the event was a unique real-time learning opportunity for me to listen and share experiences with two very experienced panelists. As I was calling from a very tiny bathroom in our hotel on our last night in Tokyo, I was very thankful to have a virtual background so that the other participants and audience members didn’t have to stare at my shower curtains.

Although there’s real value in the personal interaction and sense of belonging that accompanies a shared physical workspace, there are a couple of major benefits to having meetings online. I made sure to focus on both of these benefits within the panel discussion. First, the virtual setting has a tendency to erase or lessen the sense of status or hierarchy in a meeting. When we sit down to a meeting table, although there may be no clearly assigned seats; however, everyone in the company knows where the chairman, the CFO, the CEO, and all the colleagues with “Cs” in front of their titles sit. There can be a tension in the air as thick as refrigerated butter, and this can be especially intimidating for newer colleagues. There may be a wealth of innovative ideas that managers never get to hear, simply because the hierarchy stifles any room for open discussion. When we enter an online space, however, it may happen that an intern is seen side-by-side with the CEO. Having the grid visual aspect literally and visually flattens an organization in this respect.

Besides the visualization and potential flattening of the hierarchy, the other main benefit of having virtual meetings is that they can all be recorded. Although Taiwan and Japan only have an hour’s timezone difference, I was working twelve hours behind schedule during the second half of July while visiting family in Virginia. Unable to join meetings at 3am, I could always watch the recorded versions and catch up according to my own schedule. In addition to the convenience and accessibility of recordings, this material could also be excellent fodder for a CLO such as myself. To give a specific example, one colleague previously gave a 10 minute introduction of NFTs where he shared his screen and a short presentation. This was at the beginning of an hour-long meeting. Using Teams and Microsoft Stream, I was able to edit and record his section only and create an online introduction of NFTs in 3 separate micro-learning videos. Creating and editing micro-learning videos is something that can be done from any location with a good wi-fi connection, and it has helped to slowly accumulate a database of training and educational videos for our employees.

I do believe that this type of hybrid work is sustainable, viable, and attractive to a large percentage of employees, especially for those working in the tech industry. Working from anywhere may not necessarily be for everyone, as some individuals are more productive with the formality and structure that may come with an office workspace. Additionally, I am very much a believer in collaboration, communication, and teamwork, and I think all of these are much more efficient while in the same space.

Having the ability to work flexibly from different locations is a great motivating factor, at the same time. Part of the joy of leaving a place and leaving my colleagues for a month is the feeling I have for missing them, which increases motivation upon returning. Although I’m very much in the moment, I do know that having worked remotely for one month will give me a greater passion for when I return to see my colleagues and the workspace we share. Working from afar helps us to value those moments that we are together, streamlining our purpose and motivation whether we are on a bullet train speeding through the Japanese countryside, or side-by-side with a colleague in our office space. We need to make our time apart and our time together equally valuable by designing our work practices and mindsets according to the situations and locations we find ourselves in.

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The Clock Stops

The Clock Stops

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American residing in Asia since 2004. Blogs focusing on life observations, improv, food, creating a learning organisation, management, and stretching time.