CEOs / Founders / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Jane Toh, CEO & Founder of Staytion

Jane Toh is the CEO & Founder of Staytion, Asia’s first multi-concept lifestyle space provider, an extension of home and office.

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

My entire career has been about business and product development, this is in my DNA.

I am the eternal opportunist, and am always on the lookout for ways to do new things, or reinvent the same old things. 

This attitude was ingrained in me since childhood. I grew up in a humble family where my father is the sole breadwinner. My mother never allowed myself or my 2 other siblings to feel anything lesser despite our background. My parents constantly encouraged us to look for ways to improve and outperform ourselves. 

I started working part-time as a banquet and events server from the age of 15 years old. I learnt quickly from the seniors and climbed the ranks despite being a part-timer, and a teenager.

This is the same kind of grit that continues to have till today. My staff will see me doing everything with them and alongside them, from vacuuming the carpet, to corporate Board meetings, I do it all. I steer the overall direction of the venture, at the same time I empower them to make decisions in their respective workstreams. I always tell them, you can’t fight a battle you don’t believe in – they need to have the beliefs and conviction to make this business work.

The coworking industry is young compared to most trades. There are still a lot of unknowns and areas for growth. There is quite a bit of industry movement in terms of market consolidation, this means that there are more and more ‘bigger’ players now compared to 4-5 years ago when it was more fragmented. My role as Chief Executive is to make sure the team is fully integrated and are always swimming in the direction, regardless of market condition. 

I spend 85% of my time talking to the respective business heads, hearing their pain points and working with them to find meaningful solutions. I use the term “meaningful solutions” because this is a tough market, and each decision is very tough with upstream and downstream impact. An example is a simple decision like the type of coffee beans to use in Staytion centres.

We could have taken the easy route to buy cheaper beans to reduce operating cost. Our management team debated for days on this and decided in the end that this small detail will bring about a completely different experience for the users, hence we invest in quality beans from sustainable sources as we want to do good for our users and the environment, every step of the way.

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

My day starts at 545am where I get the kids ready and send them to school. 

Meetings start at 8am, with daily stand-ups led by the respective business Heads. We zoom in on the critical items to be resolved today, and what needs to be resolved by this week. We operate on a respectful and open platform where the voice of each individual is heard, but opinions must be conveyed in a professional manner.

It was hard in the beginning as each business Head had his own working style and preferred approach. It took us a while to build the current level of camaraderie and I’m proud to say that we have reached a level where there is inherent trust and intrinsic synergy amongst the team.

With new centres that are opening, time is spent for pre-opening preparation. I try to wrap up meetings by 6pm so that everyone can have dinner with their families and loved ones. As for myself, I typically wrap up around 1130pm as I need time to prepare for meetings happening the next day.

With my long hours and hectic schedule, I will only cook for the family on weekends. Cooking and cleaning is my way of unwinding, otherwise you will always see me with my laptop or tablet in my hand.

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

Work-life balance means spending quality time and not beating myself up about the quantity of time spent with my young children. I used to compare myself with my peers who are homemakers, and almost gave up my career to be a homemaker.

I decided that such thoughts are unhealthy and do not improve the situation I am in, so I told myself to take a step at a time, take a day at a time and just embrace the moment instead of keep beating myself up for not doing more for my kids, or doing more at work. It’s all about give and take. Some days I have to spend more time on work, while on other days I need to focus more on my kids. No single day is the same, so I learn to take it as it comes.

The phrase “it takes a village to raise a kid” completely applies in my situation. I am blessed with parents, siblings and a spouse who is available to lean in every now and then, to help me with my 2 kids and a dog.

My 2 children, aged 6 years old and 9 years old, also learn from a young age to take care of themselves and take care of each other. We don’t have a domestic helper, so they know that they need to clean up after themselves every single day. 

I am mindful that my team members and staff may not be as blessed as I am. They may have special circumstances at home, hence I make it a point to wrap meetings up by 6pm for their well-being and their work-life balance.

There is no recipe for work-life balance in my case. I take every day as it comes, and focus on what is the priority of the hour or priority of the day. As an entrepreneur, I don’t have the luxury of switching off my devices as there are matters to settle from Monday to Sunday. Instead, I learn to carve out certain hours of the day for certain things to better manage the balance between work and personal life. 

For example, my daughter was in the finals of an art competition last month and she told me she really wanted me to be there throughout the event to soothe her nerves. On the same day, I had an investor meeting, and the investor was flying into Singapore and was on a tight schedule. I had to prioritise my role as a mother, and explained to the investor that we would have to re-schedule.

In another case – we had a key meeting with a government official; and my son was ill on the same day. I made the decision to go ahead with the meeting, while leaving my son in my parents’ care. 

As a parent, I learn not to judge other parents on how they manage work-life balance or parenting styles. It’s extremely challenging to be a parent, and even tougher for employees with elderly parents. This is the reason why I adopt an outcome based management system, instead of micro-managing working hours and tasks. As long as the work gets done within the stipulated timeline, I will not interfere in work methods too much.

For my mental well-being, I started jogging and running during the pandemic lockdown period. I continue running frequently up till today, and I find that it’s a great way to relax the mind and re-energize the body. When work or personal matters worry me, my go-to activity is to hit the pavement for a good run.

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

I stopped looking at Instagram and Facebook a few months back as I prefer to spend time interacting with my family, loved ones and friends, instead of trawling social media. 

The lockdown was a period of awakening. After the lockdown restrictions were lifted, I made it a point to visit my parents and siblings every week. It can be as short as a 1-hr drop-in but I make it a point to meet them every week. 

Life is short, and I want to make sure that I spend as much time with my loved ones as much as possible.

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

The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew is an evergreen favourite of mine.

One of my favourite lines in the memoirs, along with the details of how he struggled to build and create modern day Singapore, “The task of the leaders must be to provide or create for them a strong framework within which they can learn, work hard, be productive and be rewarded accordingly. And this is not easy to achieve.”

This line relates to me in every sense of the word. Being a female leader is a double-edged sword. As much as we want to deny it, masculine leadership is indeed more commonplace in society. I work doubly, triply hard to make sure that I am a leader that inspires the team, and I maintain the right balance of carrot and stick to get things done. My staff call me “Mama Bear” at times, as I am as ferocious as a Grizzly Bear, yet maintain my protective motherly instincts over my staff and the business at all times. 

The venture journey is tough and many times I have to make tough decisions. One of the toughest things is to let go of people who are no longer a right fit. It is important to do it right, and to communicate properly to the affected individuals. It’s moments like this that I turn to Lee Kuan Yew’s memoir for inspiration and seek strength. 

Staytion strives to relook an existing product in the market, and re-interpreting it to make it closer to the needs of users. Up to 80% of coworking spaces are in the central business district and city fringe, travelling to the city to use a cowork centre drains energy levels of an employee.

It is no different in making the employee travel to the office, hence our key value proposition is to locate our Staytion spaces in heartland locations near home. We define Staytion as a lifestyle space – meant to be an office near home, an urban living room that is an extension of your home when you can’t work productively at home.

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

I recall an excellent work-life balance article by Allison Pohle, published in the Wall Street Journal on Mar-21.

Her articles are often witty and astute in capturing trending topics. The work-life balance article written by Pohle aptly points out that instead of thinking of work and life as opposite weights on a scale, the conundrum is resolved when individuals view work and life as an interface.

Her article brought me great comfort on days when I am guilt-tripping myself for not being able to do more at work or my personal life. She wrote “It is okay if some things don’t pan out, and it is okay to give up on something”. As a full-time career woman juggling 2 kids, having someone tell you it’s okay, is great affirmation and comfort. I still pull out this article from time to time to re-read the lines.

If I ever have the chance, I would love to read an interview about work-life balance by Shiromal Cooray, Chairman of Jetwing Hotels Limited and Jetwing Travels Limited. Being Jetwing’s second-generation leadership team is no easy feat, and she steered the business through civil strife and economic uncertainty. Would love to meet her in person if I ever have the chance.

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

My advice to entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs is to trust your business instincts instead of always questioning yourself if there is a better way for things to be done. I tend to overthink when making big decisions.

But now I learn that there will never be a right decision, as every decision is made based on the circumstances at that moment. So don’t beat yourself up if the decision wasn’t as great as it was supposed to be. Learn from it and treat it as one of the many episodes along this long journey.

Lastly, think of work and life as yin-and-yang, there are no rights or wrongs in setting boundaries or blurring the boundaries. Some days will be better than others, and keep moving forward regardless of how many “bad” days you may have. 

Everyone falls down, but the successful ones are those that climb back up faster and re-bound more effectively. Don’t judge yourself by the number of times that you fell. Be focused on how many times you were able to get yourself and your team out of a bad situation and make it better for all. Those are the moments that make the entire venture journey worth the while and worth the blood, sweat and tears.

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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.