Work-life balance is a difficult thing to achieve under any circumstances. And more so for people with young children to take care of. Communications veteran SY Phang managed to achieve it for herself by working as a freelancer early in her career and is now dedicated to training parents — especially stay-at-home mums and single mums — on how they can do work from home or do part-time work.
Phang talks to Savvy about the origins of her company, Flexxi Associates, that she set up to provide such training and her plans for tweaking the business model to offer her associates even more flexibility.
Why are you such an advocate of freelancing?
As a single girl, I went into freelancing in the 1970s when I was still new in the workforce as I valued job flexibility even back then. Family and friends were worried and told me that I was committing professional suicide because at that time, freelancing was far less common than it is now. But freelancing proved to be a right career choice for me. When I got married and had kids, this mode of work allowed me to have a career and yet be at home to take care of my children. I want other women in my situation to be able to do that too.
What type of companies did you do work for?
When I started out, I just did some small freelance work but things changed quite a bit after my stint working full time at Shell, which lasted about two years. I left on good terms and Shell was willing to outsource some work to me.
Because it’s a corporation, I had to set up a proper company to take on the work. So, I created Word Design Communication in 1991. Thanks to good word of mouth and associates’ recommendations, I also got work from the likes of Nestlé, Telekom Malaysia, Nissan, Petronas and Schlumberger.
What was your motivation for setting up Flexxi Associates?
I set up Flexxi Associates in 2001 with a business partner named Tham Yew Wai to explore business models that promote work-life balance and job flexibility. Tham was not able to re-enter the job market after her husband unexpectedly passed away. She was trained to be a secretary but having been a housewife for about two decades, she was too out of touch to be hired as a secretary. Her case made it clear to us that it’s vital for a homemaker to constantly upgrade her skill sets in case something were to happen to her marriage or spouse.
What kind of training courses does Flexxi run?
Our focus is on communications training for two key reasons. Firstly, communications is an industry I’m familiar with. Secondly, over the last three decades, I’ve built a network of communication practitioners who are very competent trainers. In a nutshell, we offer affordable editorial and social media courses.
Can non-writers really become good writers just by taking these courses?
Our associates don’t just go for training. They also get on-the-job experience working under the supervision of communication practitioners with between 20 and 30 years of industry experience. Apprenticeship is an effective way to master editorial skills. Once we have a pool of competent writers, we can look for suitable projects and outsource them to those who are keen to be part of our network.
In what ways does Flexxi’s business model promote work-life balance?
To promote flexibility and entrepreneurship we encourage our associates to set up their own companies which we can outsource to. It’s up to each entrepreneur how much work they want to take up, which will vary from person to person depending on their situation at home.
Is working from home the ultimate solution?
Working from home offers a lot of flexibility but it’s not without its challenges. As a stay-at-home mum, you have to deal with childcare, household chores and work simultaneously. Your children won’t understand why sometimes you can’t play with them even though you’re at home. Family members will ask you to run errands because they think you have all the time in the world. Work gets disrupted. So, it’s not so easy.
What could be an alternative to working from home?
Over the years, we have experimented with different work arrangements in order to create an eco-system to support job flexibility. Our traditional model was working from home but I can envisage our associates working in teams and shifts in a co-working space.
Under the co-working space model, how do the children get taken care of?
I remember in the past having to look after the babies of my freelance writers and graphic artists as they rushed to make amendments for my projects. That’s obviously not a scalable model. Since then, I’ve been looking for a better approach. I think “The School by Jaya One”, a kind of education mall, could be the ideal solution. It can be a place for parents to take courses — and later, do their work there — while their children take enrichment classes. An education mall is an excellent place for parents and grandparents to hang out with their wards. It’s a playground of knowledge where children are enriched by topics and skills that might not be taught in schools.
How is that idea coming along?
We’re currently in negotiations with The School by Jaya One to do a few different initiatives relating to our training workshops and also to have a co-working space there for our associates. If this concept works, this business model could be duplicated in any other malls.
Do your associates know each other?
Yes, we have organised networking and knowledge-sharing lunches where home entrepreneurs can mingle and help each other promote their respective businesses. We also have guest speakers who talk on topics such as technology updates, entrepreneurship, work-life balance,
public speaking, time management, parenting and social media. Our guest speakers do this on a voluntary basis and there’s no fee charged for the talk. Participants just pay the café for the cost of their lunch.
How important is IT to your business?
Super important! The Internet — which didn’t exist when I started freelancing in the ‘70s — has made job flexibility much more practical and achievable than ever before. Now, I can collaborate with my associates and e-mail the PDF of an entire magazine to a client through the Internet. And social media has changed marketing as we know it. It’s important to embrace disruptive technology so that we don’t get disrupted by it.