Remember that hilarious viral video from 2017 when a political science professor’s children video-bombed him in his home office during a live segment on BBC? “BBC Dad” put forth a valiant effort to keep his composure while he awkwardly stuck out a hand to keep his boisterous kids away from the camera.

Post-pandemic, many now dial into a video conference from home. Bee Kheng Tay, president of Cisco Systems and the company’s Asean business leader, observed while barely stifling a laugh: “Parents used to shush their kids and keep them and the furkids away from their WFH stations during a virtual meeting. Now, we have our kids say hello to everyone. Sometimes, colleagues sit with their babies while we talk. We have become more understanding and more empathetic when integrating work and personal lives.”

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THE FUTURE OF WORK

Having been appointed president of the multinational technology giant last November, Tay is a vocal proponent of this flexible, inclusive approach to the workplace. Cisco, which topped the Singapore Best Workplaces in Technology list for 2021, even announced a “no return to the office” policy.

“In the future, every Cisco employee will be a hybrid employee, and it will be entirely up to them whether they work from home, at a cafe, or in the office,” Tay tells The Peak via a Cisco Webex video conference from her home.

According to this policy, employees are not required to come into the office regularly and may work from home or elsewhere. “Remote working has been in our DNA for many years. It is built on the trust that people will do their best, regardless of where they work from. I cannot look over their shoulders or breathe down their necks all the time,” says Tay.

Although she admits to sometimes missing the camaraderie of interacting with colleagues in the office, she has also discovered that, while working from home during the pandemic, her productivity is “very high”.

According to the tech veteran, who has more than two decades of experience across the Asia-Pacific and in Japan with multinational firms such as HP and IBM before joining Cisco in 2016, the key to implementing this is ensuring that technology supports this mode of work.

“When you have a hybrid work environment, you have to lay the foundation for connectivity and communication well, and our technology fits perfectly into that. We have collaboration tools that can be better than face-to-face interactions, as well as security suites that allow employees to connect securely to systems and applications they need to access,” she adds.

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TECH FOR GOOD

In a broader sense, the company recognises the need to close the digital divide. “We understand that not everyone is technologically savvy. Employees who work in different geographic locations, with different linguistic preferences, and in different work environments may have difficulties collaborating with others virtually,” she explains.

Cisco’s technologies aim to level the playing field for all participants so potential obstacles such as language differences become less of a challenge. The Webex meeting platform, for example, offers noise cancellation and voice enhancement technology, as well as real-time transcriptions and translations to facilitate communication.

A number of other services, such as DNA Spaces, a cloud-based location services platform already in use in Cisco’s Singapore office, are designed to make workplaces safer by monitoring occupancy and ensuring that social distancing and safety guidelines are being observed.

Innovations and services like these can help companies accelerate their digital transformation, which is crucial now that the world is moving towards the post-pandemic era.

“A lot of companies in Asean are now at an inflection point as to how they can go into a digital transformation much faster than they planned for. Timelines have compressed and if you do not act quickly, the survival of your business might be in jeopardy. Our goal is to help customers adopt technology faster and better,” she says.

Tay points to artificial intelligence as a growth area in its suite of platforms, including networking, security, collaboration and data tools. By harnessing big data and analytics, productivity can be increased. “Enabling people to connect, communicate and collaborate is what we do. We want to be the bridge between hope and possibility through technology.”

WOMEN IN STEM

A self-professed dynamo who moves at a figurative speed of 100km/h, Tay is passionate about encouraging and empowering more women to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“Women represent 50 per cent of the population. Women are very capable and can multitask. But we are under-represented. We should be better represented in this world,” she says.

“Cisco values this diversity and people with a diverse set of world views. How can we be a company of the world without this?”

Throughout her career, Tay has embraced the challenges of carving out a solid career in the tech sector. An accountant by training, she made the switch to the technology sector because she was “bored”. And this is where she found her intellectual match. “There is no such thing as a five-year plan. This is a dynamic industry that changes rapidly so you have to continually learn and improve.”

At the same time, she does not shy away from describing the unique challenges faced by women in tech. “Working in this environment means long hours. As women, we have many roles to play as employees, employers, mothers, wives, and daughters, and we tend to want to be the best at everything we do. Having a demanding job and many responsibilities can be challenging. When you have young children, it becomes overwhelming,” she says.

Tay discloses that at an early stage of her career, when her children, now aged 19 and 21, were toddlers, she considered quitting to spend more time with them. But her husband advised her against it. “I was quite angry with him then,” she says candidly. When he passed away 10 years ago, she realised that the years of hustle as a working mother were worth it.

“I don’t know how I would have returned to my career if I had quit back then. But you will be amazed at how well you can manage things when you have no choice. As I advanced in my career, I had to be a mother and a father.”

Tay’s approach has been to place lesser expectations on herself by focussing on one role at a time. “Perfection is impossible to achieve. When I am mothering, I try to be the best mother I can be without worrying about work,” she elaborates.

If you are a woman today struggling with this choice, her advice is: “Believe in yourself and your support system. Know that whatever difficult challenges you are going through will pass.”

STRETCHING HER MIND

Tay’s other great passion is reading when she is not working. Her interest in particle physics, psychology and philosophy has led her to pick up non-fiction books during free time. As a counterbalance, she is also trying to read the top 100 books of all time, according to TheGreatestBooks.org. She has already completed about 30 books and is currently reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

The one that has had the greatest impact on her thus far has been Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, about social issues affecting African Americans in the early 20th century.

A fitting choice for this powerhouse whose role involves making the world a more equal place for everybody.

She says, “It allowed me to better understand how people who are being discriminated against feel. Empathy is just one part. As a reader, I felt as if I had taken the character’s place.”

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