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WFH during the ECQ: CIMB Bank’s Vijay Manoharan

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VIJAY MANOHARAN

WHAT has it been like to be an expat in the Philippines during an extraordinary mandated work from home situation?

For CIMB Bank Philippines CEO Vijay Manoharan he has found joy in gardening and he has had his dog interrupt an online board meeting. Beyond being the country chief of one of Malaysia’s largest banks, Mr. Manoharan talked about how being a father changed while in the midst of a lockdown.

This interview was lightly edited.

TELL US ABOUT WHAT IT’S LIKE TO HEAD CIMB PHILIPPINES DURING A LOCKDOWN. HOW HAS THE TEAM FARED SO FAR?
Nobody had planned to be put in this situation to the extent of the current arrangement. We always had discussions about doing some form of alternate work arrangement, but nothing mandatory like this. But I’m quite optimistic with how the team has been working. We actually have pulled through this in the sense that for us, the business almost has not skipped a beat.

When I speak to my people, they tell me they are as productive as [they are] focused. Surprisingly, they even say that relationships and connections with their fellow colleagues have actually improved with this remote arrangement.

In the early days, the first week of getting into this arrangement, I was quite worried. I didn’t know whether we could run the bank, effectively serve our customers, effectively fulfill our regulatory obligations. But now, it’s a pleasant surprise, we have actually been able to meet all our must do’s.

HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN “NORMALCY” WITH YOUR TEAM AND WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED SO FAR FROM HOW YOU’VE CONDUCTED OPERATIONS DURING THE LOCKDOWN?
We do twice a day check-ins, morning and evening, so that the team engagement stays. Sometimes it’s a bit light-hearted. There’s also business. But there’s also some time for just some casual stuff to catch up and see how everyone is doing.

We also have held our virtual town hall meeting, once a month for March and April. So we get 150 to 200 people, everyone on video, for a virtual town hall. During our physical town hall, we only have 50% attendance. With a virtual town hall everybody can attend.

During online meetings, I noticed people seem to be more focused because we are looking at each other. But in the [physical] meeting room, sometimes people tend to get distracted, so this video set-up works too.

HOW DOES A WORK DAY AT HOME FOR YOU LOOK LIKE? DO YOU HAVE A DEDICATED PLACE AT HOME WHERE YOU WORK?
Some days it’s rigid, and some days there’s actually some flexibility. Some days I have a free 30 minutes or an hour with no meetings and I can go play with my dog. I can go to the garden and look at the plants. I can sit down with my son and look at his homework.

I have a fixed place which is here in my second living room. Because I have two kids, we each have our own fixed spaces. It helps in terms of the laptop setup. Nobody crosses my corner and I don’t cross theirs. We have our “safety zones.” We don’t hear each other whenever we have our own calls.

CAN YOU SHARE AN INTERESTING STORY THAT HAPPENED WHILE YOU WERE WORKING FROM HOME?

So I was on an online board meeting with the chairman in Malaysia and my dog goes crazy and starts to bark and bark. That was quite embarrassing. I had to mute myself because I had to shout at my dog to be quiet. He just got excited for no reason at all — during my board meeting.

WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE AN EXPAT LIVING IN MANILA DURING A LOCKDOWN?
For me, my immediate family is here, so Manila is home. It would be different if I was here and my family was left in Malaysia. But now it’s going to be two months [since the lockdown started]. And there are certain obligations in Malaysia for some extended family which I have responsibility over, and those things start to loom. At least for me, I used to go back once a month. That sort of lingers in your mind.

HAVE YOU ANY NEW HOBBIES?
I started gardening by growing vegetables — which I’ve never done in my life. But I noticed it’s a Filipino thing. Even my neighbors, they all started doing it. So I thought, okay, if they’re doing it, and I’ve got time on my hands and I’m not going anywhere on the weekends, I’ll try it too. I have corn, okra, pechay, and radish, among others.

Normally when you had [to go to] work, and you’d want to release your stress, you’d grab a drink at the bar. Now, I walk up to the vegetable plot and look at the vegetables and it’s probably my stress reliever.

WHAT LESSONS HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM THIS SITUATION THAT YOU WILL LIKELY BRING WITH YOU WHEN THINGS GET BETTER AND WORK GOES BACK TO “NORMAL”?

No matter how much I’ve spoken about this setup being effective, there is still something about social interaction. There is an element about holding someone, touching someone, seeing someone, which makes us humans unable to go on completely virtually. I also think about the psychology of people. How do different people think about being remote? We are learning that even though we are separate, we are still a team.

I think I’ve also learned to appreciate family. I get to see my kids the whole day. When I’m in the office, I only see them 30 minutes in the morning, one hour at night. I think that the family bonding certainly has improved a hundred fold. Honestly, once I go back to office, I’m gonna miss this arrangement. It will feel different. — Luz Wendy Noble





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