Balancing the Grind with Mario Van Der Meulen, Head of CX at Tribal Worldwide

Mario Van Der Meulen is the Head of Customer Experience at global creative agency Tribal Worldwide, as well as a keynote speaker, workshop facilitator and author.

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

My name is Mario, I am a designer/strategist with over 25 years of international experience. I am from Belgium originally but have been living and working in Asia all of this century.

Based in Singapore, I currently work as Head of CX for Tribal Worldwide and am a keynote speaker, workshop facilitator and an author on Creativity, Change and Design Mindset.

While I am trained as an old school graphic designer (I graduated before computers ruled the world) I work across design, service and strategy methodologies, and across touch points, channels and platforms.

My passion is to cultivate design and communication intelligence while enhancing decision velocity for teams and clients. In short, I facilitate how people come together, work together, create together and change the world.

The design I care most about is humanity, and how we can craft thoughtful, empathetic acts of design that bring people closer to the meaningful, the purpose-led. Doing so will see brands and technology work on human terms, and create a future that looks and feels more human by design, not less because of it.

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

I tend to rise early, around 4:30am, and be out the door by 5 for a run. I’m back by 6:30, usually in time to wish my son a good day at school.

After breakfast, coffee and grooming I will start checking emails and double check my calendar if anything moved or changed. Depending on my energy, I start work activities by 8am.

From 9-9:30am onwards, calls and meeting start to pop up. Some are fixtures; I check in with the team every morning, and have fixed reviews with clients. Other meetings mushroom all over the calendar, so I have the pre-caution to block time out for actual work.

Every day is a little different, and rather dynamic. Not much fixed routines, more like a daily new steeplechase race to complete. To handle that I try to listen to my body, mind my energy, and take mini breaks throughout the day.

That keeps my focus and energy going while jumping on and off calls and video chats, and facilitate reviews, ideation, planning, mentoring and everything else. I

try to wrap my working day up before 7pm. Apart from personal email, I rarely check inboxes thereafter.

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

As like for most of us, due to Covid-19, it’s not only business as unusual — it is business life as we don’t know it. There is no boundary between work and home anymore. It’s all one and the same.

We’re line managing team members while line managing our child. Maybe all this is a temporary disruption only, and we soon fall back to the comfort of how things used to be. But I doubt this will happen.

There already are long-term behavioural changes in how we live and work. We have more flexibility to decide when they work, be it in the morning, afternoon or evening.

As long as we get our tasks done. Whereas in an office environment we are working synchronous by default, I see more creative potential in being able to work asynchronous.

When the lockdown/work-from-home policies kicked in, I had just started a new role with a new agency. I’m now working with people I have not met in person. And have had to remotely form relationships, be it with clients, peers, reports or my managers.

I’ve noticed how much more demanding – and exhausting – it is to hold conversations remotely. Speaking to a screen all day has made it clear to me that humans need other humans to feel human.

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

The fact is that work is a fundamental part of life; who we are and what we do merge. For me that there is no such thing as a work vs life balance. If I see it this way, it would imply that work is the opposite condition to life.

While my reality is that work is a fundamental part of life. It is who I am, who I express myself to be, and what actions and thinking I do. And all that really merges together during the so-called working hours and free time — and sometimes it is enjoyable, sometimes it is not.

How I approach what we call ‘balance’ is by staying aware on how and when I spend time for my external me, my internal me, and for others. That is not a rigid plan, but rather a fluent dance.

My inner-me, my physical and mental wellbeing, is as important as my work-me and as important as my family/friends/community-me. There are days one has more attention and care than the other. But it is not about doing too much or too little of one versus the other.

The trick is learning to be present in whatever you are doing. If you are at work; then work. If you are having dinner with family, be with them. I make an effort to follow Ram Dass’ advice at all times: Be Here Now. Bring your whole self to what you do, without distractions or concerns.

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

I’ve continued my very low social media engagement. It’s been a few years now since I checked a Facebook page, for example.

As mentioned earlier, I have a cut-off time to end the work part of the day. We have no TV at home, and have no desire to binge-watch stuff so that I have something to talk about. Instead, I have time to meditate, workout and go on long runs, and have time to just be quiet.

I don’t see that as unplugging, or unwinding. In fact for me it is the opposite; I plug back in. These habits and mindsets are less about changing my life, and a lot more about having awareness that I am living my life.

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

In other words; what inspires me that I think will inspire you. I honestly cannot answer that. I do have favourite books (anything Murakami, or human science topics for example) and there are podcasts I find bring knowledge and value to me (for example Designdrives).

But it may not do for you what it does to me. Nor should it; inspiration and learning is an elusive and personal event. What inspires me may not inspire you. And what inspired me yesterday may not have the same magic for me tomorrow.

My recommendation would be to try and understand what is it that stimulates ideas, learning and thinking for you. And develop the eyes, ears and senses for you to notice.

What gives you energy, to the point where you feel passionate? It’s likely something you observe, relate and connect with past thoughts and observations. Meaning, the more you note and catalogue why this stimulated you, the easier it is to find inspiration everywhere and be inspirational for others.

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

I would be annoyed and inconvenienced when I am without a phone, but I have few apps on it. My laptop is important for me, but I can spend a weekend without touching it. I don’t even have a habit of wearing a watch.

My devices hold my book and music collections and the photos I store on them, which makes them important. But for me the real indispensables are a nice hot cup of coffee, some dark chocolate, and time spent with my son and wife, friends and family.

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

I find that a difficult question. It wasn’t on my mind about wanting to understand that from anyone in particular – that is to say that being asked this question is making me aware that I have no immediate answer. No one comes to mind.

I would think we each have a story in how we reach an acceptance of “how we do what we do”. In that light; perhaps hearing a musician or a professional athlete share their experience about managing craft and life could offer me new insights.

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

That – for me – there is no balance. There is no construct other than the awareness of caring for self and others. It’s not proportional, there is no formula or golden ratio to this.

When you bring your whole self to the moment, it will not have guilt or fear over not doing enough of one thing and too little of another.

It will instead feel like a flow. Like home. And the least we can do in our always-on culture is to make sure we feel at home in it. So we can share that feeling with everybody else.

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This conversation is brought to you by marketing data consultancy Venntifact, helping organisations build and enable high-performance digital teams to harness data and technology assets, empowering digital innovation.

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.