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Anner Chong - I Have a Passion!

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13 August 2016

I have a passion!  by Anner Chong   2 August 2016

I was asked these questions recently: Why do you do what you do, and how do you do it?

These are great questions to ponder.

I posted this on Facebook last month after I was asked the question of WHY:

“Just went to a Women in Construction event today. I was asked when and why I chose to become an architect?

I wanted to be an architect since perhaps 13 ... the reason is the people. No, don't think I could be an architect with the 'A'....

When I was still at University, I wanted to investigate housing for developing countries, and hence my study in the UK and subsequent field research in a black township in South Africa. Settling back in NZ, my passion seemed to quite naturally transfer to healthcare design. And yes! I am still passionate about it.

It is good to be asked these questions every now and then and be reminded of why I do what I do.”

 

My Background

I was born in Hong Kong and came to New Zealand in 1988. I studied Architecture at the University of Auckland. After working for 18 months post graduation, I went to the UK to further my studies (like many New Zealanders did). I then returned to Hong Kong to work for 3 years, but finally came back in 1999 to settle in NZ. I am proud to say that NZ is home to me.

I am a mother of two - an 11-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl – as well as a wife to an architect. I work full time as a principal at Chow:Hill Architects, specialising and leading ever demanding health design projects. Yes, you could say my life is constantly busy.

I am passionate about health design as an architect, and as a person I am also passionate to see others succeed. Much as I have been blessed with the opportunities in life and have worked hard to achieve, I also genuinely wish to help others onto the same path.

People do ask, how do you do it?! And to answer that, I guess, you just DO.

It is all about P-P-P.

 

Partnerships

I have to acknowledge my husband, Rico, who has been very supportive of me (I don’t want to use the word career here, because it is much more than this). He is a hands-on husband and father, whom I admit does most of the household chores at home. We had made a decision together after our first child was born that he would work from home. His projects - mainly residential and retail - allowed him to do that; as a healthcare designer it would be a lot harder for me not to work in a team environment.

A decade has since passed and it is because of this that he is able to do what I couldn’t: from picking up the kids to looking after them when they were hit by more than the seasonal cold.

My heavy involvement on the Christchurch Hospital Acute Services Building project, meant lots of traveling and days away from home. This was hard on everyone – especially the family – but we survived. I still remember the first time I’d returned home from a trip. My daughter, who had just turned two at that time, had seen my suitcase by the front door and with pointed fingers excitedly jumped up and down speechless that her mum was home. Before I knew it, she got used to my weekly disappearances, and just as quickly the ‘welcome ceremony’ had disappeared as well.

 

Chow:Hill is another major partner that has enabled me to succeed. I enjoy flexible work hours and immeasurable support from management, helping me balance my needs as a working parent. The studio’s colleagial approach towards our projects also gives me greater confidence to take on more and  expand my role as an architect. There is a clear culture of collabration and enabling, and this encourages women and working mothers to advance. Women often come back from maternity leave in various arrangements: part or full-time (with flexible working hours), on contract or project basis etc. One colleague is back at work for the third time after having had her third son. We recently had a new female colleague join the studio as team leader. She had sent an office-wide email stating her work hours that were truly in one word, atypical.

We also sometimes have children in the studio during school holidays when their juggling parents aren’t able to arrange care. Both dads and mums introduce their kids to the rest of the office, showing off their workplace to their kids. Kids love our rolls of oversized paper and of course, Friday lollies! My daughter was disappointed to learn on a Thursday she came to visit, that lollies are restricted to the end of the week.  Perhaps the culture stems from an understanding by most, if not all, of our male directors who also have working wives.

The other aspect showing our company’s commitment to the staff welfare, or making it work for our staff, was the lcoation of our Auckland Studio.

Before we moved to our new office last year, the management set out a list of criteria for the new office location in Auckland. One of the criteria was public transportation for the staff. The decision to stay in Newmarket was deliberate as it is handy to the train station and quite a number of our staff use the train.  Interestingly, we have quite a few female staff who commute by public transportation.

 

Planning

Ladies, we need to plan our lives! It always works both ways if you want to achieve or accomplish something; we need to set ourselves up to work optimally with the best resources available to us.

One of the biggest milestones for an architect is to get registered. I may be shooting myself in the foot here, but my personal opinion is that if it is possible, do get registered before having children. It’s not an easy feat planning and working towards registration, whilst also working (and still learning!) full time. All of this on top of trying to gain the right experiences across the core competencies. It truly is an ambitious attempt multitasking raising a family, as well as achieving registration meaningfully. It is also my observation that registration makes for an easier return from maternity leave. Let’s face it, if registration is a recognition of your qualification, ability or skill, people have to acknowledge it.

I had my children relatively late – my first when I was 34, and second when I was turning 39. After my OE and work experiences overseas, I had acquired my RIBA. Unfortunately, as we had made the decision to come back to NZ, I had to go through the registration process again. It is certainly very encouraging to know that the NZRAB is now making the registration process easier for those who worked overseas. However during my time, the old process had set me back further for when I was to practically have children. We also didn’t have extended family here and because we couldn’t afford to have two kids in daycare at the same time, we waited to have our second child later. The pregnancy with my second was far from comfortable, this potentially could have been avoided had I had her younger. However, this path – riddled as it may be with hurdles –  is all about choice and compromise.

Another great thing that women can do is stay in touch.

While at Chow:Hill the first time round, I was shoulder tapped to join another company. I saw this as an opportunity as I was seeking a break from healthcare. Unfortunately, after more than 3 years of working there, they had shut down the Architecture department while I was away on maternity leave. My company was keen to transfer me to our sister company in Singapore that did large scale hospital projects. I went for an interveiw there, walked around their office and visited some built projects – they were very impressive.  I was about to move my family over but as I had continued to keep in touch with the people at Chow:Hill over the years, they were quick to offer me a job back at the studio!

In hindsight, I’m glad I continued to nurture the relationship I had with Chow:Hill, as I wouldn’t have had the same options when re-joining the workforce.

Certainly I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like had we moved to Singapore. How exciting it would have been to be involved in such large-scale hospital projects all across Asia! I would surely have gained more overseas experience before I came back to NZ. Yet, we’d arrived at a fork in the road once more, and decided that raising our children in NZ was a priority over any career opportunity.

Down to the daily nitty gritty, we have to plan!

As parents, we plan our routine (or what I call daily logistics) together – who sends or picks up the kids? When, and where? What activities can the kids do over the weekends or after school that work well with our schedule? What do we compromise? What do we have to let go of?

It sounds a bit over the top, but we did move to the sunny North Shore to make things work. It may seem counter intuitive as I work in the city side.

However, when we were planning to have our second child, we re-evaluated / re-assessed our situations, and felt that having a support network was one of the most important factors that could help us ‘survive’. Since we didn’t have extended families in NZ then, we thought moving to the Shore, where our church was, would help. Indeed, it was a right choice for us as a few of our friends had done the emergency pickups or babysitting for us throughout the years.

We also enrolled our daughter into a daycare right next to the primary school where our son was to make it easier for drop off and pick up.

Planning days become essential when you’re juggling several different worlds. I recently drafted up a timetable for the new school term, using colour codes so that Rico and I can better manage the schedule and accommodate changes of activities and circumstances for the term.

At work, I’ve pro-actively changed the monthly studio forum time to suit the needs of both myself and another working mum. And where I’m unable to attend morning events, I would find another colleague to go on my behalf.

It is reassuring to know that I am not the only one feeling this way. As I write this, even my male colleague got asked over the phone by his wife if he could leave early to pick up the kids.

 

Passion

The last but most important factor is passion. I am passionate about what I do, and I always feel that there is a higher goal than just the finished projects – the people.  I feel that I am contributing to the wider community in what I do.  This sense of contribution keeps me going.

We also need to stay postive in order to keep going. So be involved in like- minded positive peer groups or support groups. I run a mums@work life group at church where the aim is to encourage and support working mothers. 

A few of my members hold senior positions in their fields of work, and are passionate about what they do.

As an architect, I had never understood why people chose to be in banking or finance as to me it appeared to be all about money. One woman in my group who is in a senior role in banking / finance told me that she was passionate about it as she saw her job was to help others to realise their dreams!

Passion is contagious!

I’ve witnessed first-hand the benefits of connection, and so I make the effort to connect with other working women through groups like A+W and NAWIC. At a recent national event, NAWIC put together a panel of speakers who discussed the financial influence of gender in the workplace. It was inspiring to hear from great women like Dame Susan Devoy and Christine Fletcher about their struggles between work and families.

No, as a working mother architect in a senior position, it is not easy, but if you want it bad enough, you can do it.