Near Yellow Mountain

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Office

After eight months back in the US, I am quite comfortable and settled. There is only one thing that I have yet to adapt to - spending more than a couple days a month in the US office. I am in the midst of three straight "office" weeks. I did this once before earlier in the year to prove to myself I could do it. This second run of three straight weeks was mostly for personal reasons - I didn't want to be away while my younger daughter was back from college so I had a very good reason to stay close to home.

My job is to make sure our worldwide customer base is buying product and satisfied with our service. The majority of our business is outside the US - so spending a lot of time in the office is, for the most part,  non productive. Of course, there is administrative work (planning, budgets, reviews, reports, face to face time key people, etc) but that doesn't take up more than 20% of my time. Most of the people who report to me live outside the US. Not much point to spending a lot of time in the North Carolina office.

For over a decade, I didn't have to worry too much about being bored in the office. Although I had completely different situations when I lived in Japan and China - neither presented the "office" challenge that I have here.

I spent over five years in Japan but almost never went to the same office more than once a week. Due to the fact that I had responsibility for both my company's Asia Pacific business and two joint ventures with Japanese partners, my office situation was a little complicated.

For my company's non-JV business, I had a small space in a "serviced" office where although there was only one of me (and no employees), the serviced office created the impression that the company footprint was much larger than my small room. One of the serviced office receptionists greeted the occasional visitor and answered my phone. If I needed a big, impressive, conference room, I could rent it by the hour and have an "office lady" (an actual job title in Japan not me being politically incorrect) bring coffee and tea creating the impression that we had a staff in the Osaka office. As President of two joint ventures, I had the "power" desk at the back of an room with many other desks in front of me. I guess the logic is the guy in the back can see what everyone is doing. Our partner company didn't particularly want a "gaijin" in the office even if he was the JV President. My time in that office was limited and largely ceremonial.

Often, I simply worked from home - our 19th floor apartment was on an island in Kobe bay - I will never live in a place with a better view. My wife was not always thrilled when I announced that I was working from home. I enjoyed the diversity of work environments. My time in Japan was completely different from the experience I had when we moved to Shanghai.

Shanghai was a major change - I was our division's first and only employee in China but my mandate was different. Instead of dealing with JV partners, I was to hire a local team, acquire land, form a local company and get a plant built while still spending a lot of time in Japan and traveling around Asia. I started with a serviced office office rented from the same international company I rented from in Japan. After that all similarity stopped.

As the China team grew, I began to get questions about "policies" - the lunch policy, the working time policy, the company trip policy. After working independently for so long; I had to get used to a constant stream of questions. In the end, delegation became my "policy" for all policy questions. I responded to all "what is the xxx policy questions" by asking "what do you think the policy should be?" and adding "since I am not Chinese I need your help". This system worked very well because I was lucky - I hired a great admin who enjoyed formulating policy. Time passed - we hired more people.

Sometimes we moved the Shanghai office outside

The next big hurdle was finding our own office space, getting it decorated and moving in. Serviced offices are great for one or two people but when you have several people, it usually is less expensive to get your own place. Being in the Shanghai office was never boring, we had a lot to do, a growing business and many customers from small cities in China that visited us because they wanted an excuse to visit Shanghai. Training the new team and more importantly learning from them kept me busy and I never had the feeling of ennui that I have in the US office. It also helped being the boss. In a Chinese office, the boss gets more respect than in a US office plus since salaries are lower and the culture of "full employment" exists, there was never a shortage of people trying to help me get things done or teach me the proper pronunciation for a Chinese word. I got spoiled in Shanghai and I am still going through withdrawal.