In the third installation of our Women@Work series, we had the opportunity to interview freelance workplace change manager, Vivien Chong. With a background in psychology, business, and interior design, Vivien delivers workplace transformation projects for Fortune 500 companies in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) and Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) regions. Before branching out on her own, she worked for Cushman & Wakefield in Singapore, Shanghai, and London, where she gained a diverse cultural and professional background.
Vivien’s experience gives her a unique perspective on workplace trends and what people truly need to be successful—the confidence to take chances, self-reflect, and engage in community.
Women@Work: What inspired you to get into real estate and workplace change management?
Vivien: My professional background is in psychology and accounting—but working in those fields made me miserable. I always liked design and beautiful things, and so I decided to do an evening course in interior design. To make a complete career switch when you don’t have a certificate or a foot in the door in the industry is hard, but for me it was worth it. After completing that course, I landed a job as a furniture salesperson. I never imagined that 17 years later I would be working as a workplace strategist in London. My professional journey has been dotted with a lot of “never in my wildest dreams” moments.
My advice to anyone is to go for it. If you are interested in something new, there is a way to explore it while holding your day job. Try a part-time course to test the waters without jumping in completely. You may think you are interested in that new thing, but you never know until you spend time doing it.
Women@Work: What sort of mindset do you think is needed to take the leap into a new opportunity when it presents itself?
Vivien: Sometimes when you are jumping into the unknown you just need to trust your “spider sense” or more plainly, your gut. Moving to London was such a big decision for me. I took a leap of faith—even though logically there were so many reasons why the move did not make sense. In the end, though, it worked out for the better.
Taking a leap into the unknown can be less daunting if you learn to mitigate the risks. I always try to have a plan B, and even a plan C in place, just in case things do not work themselves out. For example, when I was moving to the UK, I kept my network in Singapore. This served two purposes—it reduced my fear of moving and also gave me a fallback option if I needed it.
Women@Work: What has been your best professional decision?
Vivien: I wouldn’t say one decision has been my best, but rather, every career decision I make in my journey takes me one level higher. I often ask myself questions like: Does this give me joy? or Will this decision lead me closer to what I want to achieve in life?
Personally, I am most motivated by beauty—money isn’t a driving factor for me. Making the world a more beautiful place is my philosophy, but it doesn’t have to be yours.
Freelance Workplace Change Manager
We live in a very outward-looking world, and we are constantly seeing what other people are doing. This external view can cause pain and anxiety. We need to look inwards at ourselves from time to time and explore who we are, what makes us happy, and what we want out of life. I call this my cocoon time. It can be messy, but it gives you the comforting wrap of self-reflection and a bit of compression to squeeze out the best in you.
Women@Work: What is one of the biggest challenges in your life that you have worked to overcome?
Vivien: Compared to your stereotypical Asian woman, I am more outspoken—and this hasn’t always worked to my advantage. In my younger days, my rather sharp edge did not necessarily fit very well in the corporate world—I often rubbed people the wrong way.
I think I am still outspoken today, but I have learned to round out my sharper edges a bit. People are different and they receive messages in different ways. Through experience, I have learned to communicate my messages in ways that other people can absorb. I spend a lot of time observing senior leadership in meetings and watching how they handle difficult situations—then I blend what I view as successful into my own communication patterns.
Women@Work: Why do you think it is important to have a mentor, and how do you find one?
Vivien: It has been statistically proven that when you have a mentor to discuss situations like a raise or transfer, you are able to make a better case for yourself. Women tend not to ask for things—maybe because of social conditioning. Simply not asking leads to a lot of repercussions, such as having a lower salary as compared to male peers.
A good mentor can help you through that internal dialogue of feeling that you’re not worth it or feeling that your goals are too aggressive for a female. Once during a casual chat with my mentor, I said, “I’m very lucky in my career,” and as soon as he heard that he said, “You are not lucky. You work hard.” It’s a switch in thinking, and a mentor can help you turn that on.
Women@Work: What is your advice for a young person just starting out in their career?
Vivien: The sky is bigger than you think. Take the time you need to understand who you are. It can be a tough question to answer and a tough process to go through, but once you build that foundation, it will serve you well in the next 10, 20, or 30 years of your life.
Also, invest in yourself. Save 30% of your salary from the start. Doing so will give you a safety net just in case things are not going the way you want them to. A problem or issue does not have to be as extreme as a pandemic; perhaps it’s more that your values no longer align with the business, maybe you want to try different work, or you might desire to take time to be introspective—a financial safety net allows you the freedom to do that.
There you have it—our latest Women@Work interview. We are honored to be able to share our findings with you and hope you find inspiration in Vivien’s work and life experience.
If you know of any other women with interesting journeys in the fields of real estate, workplace strategy, or architecture at any stage of their career, connect with Adithi Khandadi and Nishtha Bali on LinkedIn.