Balancing the Grind with Alex Shirlow, Program Manager at American Express Project Management Office

Alex Shirlow is a Program Manager at American Express, a globally integrated payments company that provides customers with products, insights and experiences that enrich lives and build business success.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I am a long-time employee of American Express, I like to say I am in my Amex twenties. One of the things I love, and the reason why I have stuck around for so long, is that there are lots of opportunities to work in different parts of the business and in a variety of different roles.

My first role was in customer service. From there I moved into sales and partnership roles. I am currently a Program Manager in our Program Management Office, where I lead strategic projects to make change for the better.

Much of my day involves looking at ways that we can improve the customer experience which supports our company’s vision: to provide the world’s best customer experience every day. 

2) You recently elected to work fully virtually in your role and relocate to a regional town, why did you decide to make this significant life change?

I grew up in suburban Sydney but living in the country on a property has appealed to me for as long as I can remember. I have travelled across much of Australia- from Kiama to the Kimberly- and have an affinity with the vast differences in our landscape and the way different communities live. I assumed packing my bags to embark on ‘rural life’ was a retirement dream. Turns out, life had an entirely different plan!

While American Express has always had a flexible approach to work (I worked from home a few days a week for quite some time) and I’ve had very supportive leaders, the reality of working fully virtually did not really kick in until we were forced into it during COVID lockdowns.

Amex also introduced a new working model called Amex Flex. It gives colleagues the option of working fully virtual, where they work from home exclusively or for most of the time. 

My family researched places we might like to live, watched shows like River Cottage and Clarkson’s Farm to inspire us (though to be fair Jeremy Clarkson’s budget was probably a bit different to ours) and we took steps to make it happen.

We have ended up choosing to live in Armidale in NSW’s New England region. We purchased a 25-acre property, with a house that needs plenty of work – but for us it’s home. 

Lots of our life is the same as when we lived in Sydney: work, school, sports, dinners out to local restaurants etc, but much of my life today is very different. We have so much space and the pace of a regional town is different.

My kids have gone from riding push bikes down the street, to dirt bikes around the “backyard” and being able to drive a tractor. We are working towards a hobby farm, with chickens, cattle and sheep, as well as a big vegetable garden. It’s all a work-in-progress but we are enjoying the life change we have made.

3) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

My day starts with me creeping around in the dark from about 5:00am as I do my best to not wake anyone else up as I get to a 6am gym class most days. After my workout I chase my kids up and out the door for school.

Then I hit my desk. Over breakfast I scan my inbox and work out the most important task for the day. I have a dedicated home office, which I think is important when you are working from home all the time.

My day consists of project meetings with my team and stakeholders over WebEx, and in between I do what I can to progress activities and keep up to date on whatever I need to. When my workday is finished, I get back to my other job of being a mum and whatever that might entail, from cooking dinner, driving to sports training, or picking up my teenager from work. 

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I really like to think of it as life-balance. Work is busy, life is busy and I can get overwhelmed when I spend time worrying about all the things I have not got to yet.

My husband calls me out a bit when I get carried away and try to tackle too many things at once, and I have had some great leaders do that too in my work life. I find that having a consistent routine really helps me keep on top of things, as well as be realistic about what I can get done with the time I have.

I am a morning person so getting my workout done first thing is a great start. I try to be disciplined about when I start and finish work, though working for a global company I need to flex for meetings that happen out of core business hours, but I am very used to that and work it into my routine.

I try to be organised with things like dinner and to make life easier, I’m a big fan of time-savers like click and collect for groceries. It’s neither exciting nor spontaneous, but it reduces my stress so that’s fine with me. You can’t be busy all the time, so I make sure I fit in ‘me time’, whether that’s spending time with my kids watching our latest show or reading a book.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

Having a lunch break has become an important part of my day. Before I worked from home full time, I usually shovelled lunch in at my desk unless I was going out for a proper lunch with someone.

When you don’t have in-office interactions (or distractions), like a chat on the way to a meeting room or a random coffee chat in the kitchen, it’s essential to take a break. I love to get a walk in at lunch when the weather is good, even if it’s just a quick stroll in the sun for a recharge.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I usually have a few books on the go but am currently enjoying The Palace Papers, about the Royal Family which is a far cry from my reality and a great read if you like that type of thing.

I spend a bit more time in the car than I used to and am loving the Mamamia podcasts for my drive time. The Quicky gets me up to speed in the morning and I love the friendship and dynamic that comes from the Mamamia Out Loud team, as well as the variety of their content.

7) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

I am most interested in stories about real people. With no one specific in mind, I’d love to read more about how single mums manage their work-life balance, or how people with career responsibilities get their work done as well as balance their other life commitments.

I think this is how we learn how we can be more empathetic towards others and how organisations can help accommodate the different life situations people have. At American Express I co-lead the Families at Amex Network which supports carers and parents, so it’s a topic I’m passionate about.

8) What advice do you have for others who are contemplating a permanent fully-virtual working arrangement and what are some of the lessons you’ve learnt while embarking on your tree-change adventure.

Don’t underestimate the change – it’s massive. It was not something that we rushed. Think carefully about who and what will be impacted by the change you make. On the personal front that’s your friends and family but will vary depending on your own situation.

On the work side, your team, leaders and business stakeholders. This was a topic of conversation for me at home and work for a long time. I feel fortunate that American Express supports colleagues in giving them a choice about when and how they will work, but I still had to have many conversations on how I thought it was going to work and what the impacts would be.

Be patient, you may be keen to relocate tomorrow, but these things take time. There is much to do. For us we were trying to sell a house and buy a property at the same time, enrol our kids in schools, manage logistics of moving when COVID restrictions were still lingering, as well as do our day jobs, and parent. It was hectic to say the least.

Realistically we had no idea what we were doing. We had no experience in rural living, so we were researching what we thought was important and much of it on the fly. We hit a few road bumps, deals fell through, things didn’t quite go to plan A, B or C and we had to “pivot” quite a few times, but we all came through still smiling. Six months in I am 100% confident that we made the right decision- even if I do miss my mates and my mum a bit- I was expecting that.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

If I am feeling good about where I am at with work and home, then I am happy. It’s important to be happy. There are always things that will put you out of whack for a bit, from unforeseen problems in a project, to when your household has COVID, but if you can understand why you are out of balance then don’t let it bother you. Understand that it’s temporary and has an explanation. It’s when you can’t work out the why that I think you need to do a bit of realignment.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.