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Global mobility at Julius Baer: From Zurich to Singapore and back

Working for an international company like Julius Baer definitely has its perks: Franziska Fink and Aki Valmores from the Risk department, who had the opportunity to go on a three-month assignment during which they swapped locations and functions, share their personal and professional insights.

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As Julius Baer grows and becomes ever more international, a rising number of employees are becoming globally mobile. The so-called short-term assignees work in a foreign location for two to 12 months, and happen to represent a substantial group among the mobile workforce. Working abroad not only helps to broaden your professional skills, though – it is also about immersing yourself in a new culture and being open to new experiences.

Information Security Officer Aki Valmores, who is based in Singapore, was given the chance to go on a three-month assignment, swapping location and function with Franziska Fink from Julius Baer’s Head Office in Zurich. “The exchange has helped me to finally put names to faces of colleagues in Zurich whom I’d been working with for a while out of Singapore,” says Aki. Especially in a field like information security, it is indispensable to trust your colleagues and to know the regulatory requirements in different jurisdictions. “Having face-to-face contact with your colleagues is critical in our risk-driven field, and I’m very glad to have gained my colleagues’ support to carry out our daily responsibilities,” he adds.

“Preparation is absolutely key”

Before going on an international assignment, though, proper preparation is key. As Aki puts it: “It is vital to identify the skills you want to pick up during your assignment. Thanks to my line managers’ support in both locations, I was able to run a small project, which helped me gain experience in my field of expertise. In addition, I did a profound knowledge transfer with my exchange partner Franziska, who was given the opportunity to work on topics that were new to her when she first came to Asia.”

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On a more personal note: Franziska and Aki on their experiences abroad

Aki, did you pick up some German or Swiss German while in Switzerland?
“It’s always a good idea to get used to basic words when you’re new to a country. Apart from ‘Ja’ (‘Yes’) and ‘Nein’ (‘No’), you’ll find ‘Danke’ (‘Thank you’), Grüezi (‘Hello’) and ‘Alles klar?’ (‘Everything all right?’) very useful to show common courtesy. I have a hard time learning languages and unfortunately didn’t really pick up much. But I know my colleagues had a good laugh when I pronounced words but didn’t remember them at all despite being corrected several times.”

What did you miss most while away from home?
Franziska: “If you miss certain foods from home, you should take a small supply with you, even though in Singapore you can buy almost everything.”

Aki: “In the beginning, it’s absolutely natural to feel homesick. You’ll also find yourself craving your home country’s food. The next thing you know, you’ll get over these cravings because one way or another you’ll find some corners that serve Asian food to help you get by.”

What is your most memorable experience?
Franziska: “As Hong Kong is only a four-hour flight from Singapore, I thought it would be a good idea to visit my Hong Kong colleagues while I was in Asia. Before setting off, a colleague mentioned it’d be wise to postpone my return flight as the super typhoon Mangkhut was to hit Hong Kong the very day I was supposed to fly back to Singapore. So I stayed in Hong Kong that day, witnessing the scene from my hotel room, as huge, dangerous objects were flying around. Suddenly I realised that the wind at 146 km/h was so strong that the buildings were wobbling. The experience was very impressive and frightening at the same time!”

Aki: “Where should I start – I did so many exciting things when I was in Switzerland! All my memorable experiences are linked to the people I experienced them with: from sailing on an inflatable boat down the river, to hiking and cycling the Swiss mountains. Equally unforgettable was the total lunar eclipse by Lake Zurich – it was impressive to see the blood-red moon.”

Franziska, what are your Singapore must-sees and must-dos?
“In my view, you should definitely visit Jurong Bird Park. The colourful lories are just amazing! In terms of food, finding something to ‘makan’ (‘to eat’) will never be an issue in Singapore. You should try the whole kaleidoscope of local cuisine: Mee Siam, Chee Cheong Fun, and Prata, to name but a few.”

Aki, do you have any tips for living in Switzerland?
“Don’t be too thrifty – Switzerland is expensive but it’s draining to feel anxious all the time thinking about how to spend your money. Enjoy your time, try the local food, and use your weekends to explore other cantons or the mountains. You only live once, right?”

Where do you see the biggest differences between Singapore and Zurich?
Franziska: “I’ve always thought that Singapore and Zurich have a lot in common, except that in Singapore it’s (much) hotter outside and (much) cooler inside. But just as in Switzerland, Singapore has an excellent infrastructure and public transport system – you can get anywhere by taxi at an affordable price in no time.”

Aki: “I think it’s the working style. I do feel that both locations aspire to be efficient but different cultures have different ways of doing things. The exchange helped me to better understand the ‘what, why, and how’ in Zurich. On a general note, both places have their charms – Singapore has amazing food and Switzerland has spectacular views and nature. A common factor is the efficiency of their public transport systems and infrastructure. Actually, being in Zurich felt as if I was at home because it’s clean, safe, and convenient.”

What do you miss most now that you’re back home?
Franziska: “I miss getting some ‘The C Siew Siew Dai’ (‘milk tea with a little, little bit of sugar’) and bread with the team for breakfast, lah!” (‘lah’ = very common Singapore particle used for emphasis).

Aki: I miss the places that I walked by from home to work and back. I miss the scenic views and the mountains, which comforted me when I was away. I miss the clear waters by the lake and the river. I miss spending time with my friends ... You see, I really do miss Zurich a lot!”

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Franziska equally emphasises the importance of planning: “Preparation is absolutely key when you do an exchange. Once I arrived in Singapore, it was still a plunge into the deep end as I needed to learn many things from scratch very quickly, but I was also very well supported by my exchange partner Aki.”

Homesick or happy?

While knowledge transfer, skill building, and process improvements are very important from the Bank’s point of view, there’s more to an international assignment than just the professional side. Both Franziska and Aki also emphasise the personal relevance of their exchange. Franziska says, “I had the opportunity to join the Singapore team for an offsite in Vietnam. Apart from discussing work-related topics, we also did some charity work, helping to pack food for families in need. Thanks to the team offsite, I got to know my colleagues outside of the office, which meant a lot to me and made adapting even easier.”

Aki also enjoyed his time in Switzerland: “From hiking and cycling to learning to fly in a simulator and enjoying local food with my colleagues, I used my spare time and weekends to explore Zurich and the whole country.” What to do when you feel homesick? “Keep yourself busy, and before you know it, the exchange is over and your initial homesickness turns into the Zurich-departure blues,” says Aki with a smile.