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Balancing the Grind with Jane Watson, Head of People and Operations at XY Sense

Jane Watson is the Head of People and Operations at XY Sense a Melbourne head-quartered technology startup using smart sensors and AI powered analytics to create workplaces people love.

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

My current role is leading the operations and people functions at XY Sense. Basically all the internal cogs that enable us to grow and to do so with as little growing pains as possible! 

To get to this point has been a varied and interesting path to me but looking back at each flexion point was an important paving stone to get to where I am. 

Growing up on a farm and very much being a country kid animals were my best friends. A country vet looking after cows, horses and dogs was my dream. When I got to uni I encountered another world of finance, business and people who had a very different childhood to me. My thinking shifted and I realised quickly I wanted to be in a proactive space building the future not responding to sick animals. 

I went down an Ag Sci/Commerce path which was very well rounded. I landed in Ag Funds management finding myself managing a large farmland portfolio and being a 23 year old female managing middle age farming males. Some really good life lessons learned! 

I was always ‘big’ and ‘more’ focused and moved from Melbourne to Sydney to take up a role in Infrastructure Funds Management. This is where I really cut my teeth in the corporate finance world and learned to be the little fish in a big pond. This moved me into a corporate consultancy role but included an interlude to establish a NFP boarding house in Maasai village in Kenya. 

This trip to Kenya and decision opened up my life. A guy I was dating at the time said to me why I kept on talking about wanting to go to Africa and not doing it. I realised I did not have a good answer and soon quit my job and booked a flight to Nairobi. 

I began a volunteer teaching placement in a village called Saikeri that sat at the bottom of the Rift Valley about 2 hours from Nairobi. It was a very traditional Maasai tribe area and I quickly saw that the number of girls finishing primary school was 4 girls to 20 boys. The drop off was apparent over later years and I began asking why. Being married off and falling pregnant was the answer. 

In the background to this an old building was sitting abandoned at the edge of the school perimeter. The idea came to turn this building into a boarding house allowing the older girls to stay at school, avoiding the long walks through the bush each day during which tended to be the place they fell pregnant and gaining themselves 3 hours a day to study and prove their mental worth at school as opposed to living in huts without electricity and no light to study and immense workloads. 

12 months after opening, Saikeri was awarded one of the most improved schools in Kenya. Girls were staying in school and for the first time out performing the boys – which also made the boys perform at a higher standard! Today the saikeri boarding house is self-sufficient and success to me is no longer being involved. This journey showed me how well suited I was to finding a solution and finding a way. It has been the ongoing story of my career and life and I love working with startups where there is no clear roadmap and will is the way forwards to create a vision that you hold. 

My role is therefore a great fit for me finding the building blocks to figuring out how to lay down the foundations to build a strong, lasting and ever evolving structure from. I also like it because it isn’t easy and every day brings a new challenge! 

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

I’m an early riser thanks to having grown up on a dairy farm and then competitive rowing. This means a 5 am alarm is no biggie to me and I love getting out before others to exercise and enjoy some time without interruptions. 

More recently my workdays at XY Sense have been starting earlier. We have recently expanded to the US with a team and operating entity there. This means many of my days start with US calls and responding to the overnight emails and messages that have come in so I can get responses back (ideally) before the end of their workday. 

In my role focusing on people and operations, a substantive part is making it easier for specialist technicians to conduct their work. Therefore my day and time tends to be very responsive rather than planned and in deep-work mode. To me this is both a blessing and curse. I enjoy juggling many balls, serving others, and do well under pressure so responding and prioritising others is not a big energy drain.

However I do often feel like I am not getting ahead on my own creation work. Finding time to dedicate to this and managing important but less urgent work is a big current focus of mine. I do also accept that it is not the core essence of role success as it may be for say an engineer but building and thinking needs as much time as doing. 

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Very much so. Before I joined XY sense (which was mid-pandemic) the company already had a very flexible and pragmatic view towards flexible working. Emma, who onboarded me (and was less than 6 months into her own role straight out of uni!) said to me very early on “people just trust you are working”.

I remember noting that someone who at the time was the most junior member of the company and new, looked at me like I was crazy for asking a question like “should i let people know on slack when finishing up for the day or where I am working for the day?” It was clear that trust and managing your own time with flexibility was genuinely the norm at XY and has continued now that restrictions have been listed. 

I do however want to make a call out to our hardware and manufacturing team who don’t necessarily have the privilege of such flexibility given their work is hands-on in the lab! 

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

Work life balance to me means doing what gives you energy and makes you feel good. I do long hours and I enjoy it as I get a lot out of my work. Career is important to me and so these hours and effort energise me. I also know when to back off and take the time out to put myself first and fully invest in time with other people who have nothing to do with work. 

It is a very individual thing that changes over time and I don’t like blanket assumptions or expectations on what work-life balance should be for people or at a particular time. Also sometimes the most rewarding and satisfying moments in life can come from when you worked your arse off and your life was all work. Embrace that!

I have learned over years to recognise when my energy is waning and what I need to do to restore it. As I have become older I have become more accepting of what it is that I do need to do and the choices I need to make for myself and others.

This has guided how I now make decisions and as an example, I am writing this on a weekend that I have actively chosen to be a work weekend rather than a fun and going out weekend as I know I want to and will feel better from catching up on work related stuff.

I don’t begrudge this and I believe this decision will set me up to be happier and more energised over the coming weeks. On the flip side I also know when I am socially exhausted and need to retreat to home with my dog. Being able to make these choices is work life balance. 

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

 Not being in lockdown! Huge change to me! I hated lockdowns and found having choices in the environment in which I spend my work and personal time very enhancing to my mental wellbeing.

I’m also noticing I am so much more energised for it although I am aware my tolerance and ability to be all go around others has softened and need more time on my own to recharge than I had previously required. 

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

A favourite book, show, blog depends on the time in which you experience it. Sometimes I am hungry to go deep into learning so podcasts like In Depth, Knowledge Project, Work Life I get a lot from. I also love global affairs and find the BBC does some great podcasts – as does the Wall Street Journal. 

Pivot is a podcast that I enjoy as a balance between market infor and lightness. I am a fan of Scott Galloway but recognise he can be abrasive to some. 

I’m also always reading multiple books at once and pick up the book to read when I feel like reading that suits the mood. Could be light, could be work related, could be something brand new. Variety is the spice of life. 

The same approach goes to TV/Netflix. 

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

AirPods and phones. Being able to do a call or join a meeting whilst being on the move and taking a break from sitting at the desk is underrated.

I regularly do calls with my team whilst making myself lunch or walking my dog and am able to give a lot more of my time and headspace to these calls when doing so as not feeling rushed and having pressure lifted from me. Walking meetings should be way more common than they are! 

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

As mentioned earlier, this is such an individualistic need and so dependent on the time and place any one person is in. Rather than admiring people for having achieved the perfect balance, I’d rather see us admire and respect people who are making the right choices for themselves and those people feeling like they have the freedom to make the right choices for themselves. 

I also think a forgotten and overlooked point in this debate is that it depends on your job. Some jobs have to be done on site or at certain hours and so flexibility to pop out and go to the gym or attend to a sick child/parent is actually really hard to do. Customer facing roles are beholden to customers. Manufacturing roles are beholden to being onsite. People and Ops roles are beholden to when people need you!  

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

I think I have already said them! 

Otherwise follow your own path and never stop learning or finding opportunities to grow. 

My favourite proverb that was shared with me in Kenya is a story told to children. Each child is handed a stick alight with fire and asked to blow on it to pass it onto the next child. That child whose breath does not cause that stick to glow and the flame goes out will be shamed. The essence of the story – each of us is passed an opportunity and it is up to each of us to make it burn bright. 

Before you go…

Check out more daily routines from Barack Obama, Arianna Huffington, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Michelle Obama, Sheryl Sandberg, Richard Branson, Warren Buffet and plenty others.

About Author

Balance the Grind is a work-life balance publication on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.