This is the second and final installment in my series on managing impostor syndrome in a remote world. The first post can be viewed here.
“So, if you ever feel like you can’t handle something, maybe just think about what you’ve already done.” – Rebecca Pearson, This Is Us
I didn’t intend to start this blog with an open admission that I have been sucked into a prime-time drama, but there it is. One line from this week’s episode summed up everything I wanted to say. Almost everyone I know has felt overwhelmed at some point over the last year. That can manifest in any number of ways, and for impostors in a remote world that often means we feel like we haven’t accomplished much.
In my last post, I discussed what we have lost by going remote. We lost several things – but two of them really stood out to me. We lost both a physical presence and a separation of time and space that helped to separate work from our private lives. Those have led to many of us losing focus on the things that matter, and often can lead to a dangerous feedback loop where we constantly question everything.
So what can we do about it?
Focusing on what we have lost won’t help us accomplish anything. In Les Miserables, as the first day of the battle wanes, we hear from the defenders at the barricades. They break into the song, “Drink with Me,” and they reminisce of days gone by. Thinking of what was lost could not change the outcome. French soldiers would return the next day and the battle would ultimately be lost. Similarly, we cannot sit back and look at a past that we can never get back. I would encourage anyone who is living with impostor syndrome to consider a handful of actions to overcome the challenges posed by remote work.
Be there: make meetings count
Most of us have had no shortage of meetings over the last year. As our teams try to strike a delicate balance, many of us have found ourselves in an excessive number of meetings. Remote work means it is a lot harder to read the physical cues we get from our team members when they are actively listening to us. We can’t judge their engagement by their body language. To counter that, many teams have scheduled more meetings. This creates a cyclical issue – we get less value from an individual meeting, so we try to supplement with more meetings. While we sit in more meetings that could have been handled in an email, we end up working on other tasks and paying less attention.
Instead of wasting time in meetings that have little value, make meetings count. Schedule fewer meetings and more focus time. Make sure you set aside time to handle important tasks and project work. During the meetings you do have, turn on your camera and encourage others to do the same. No one should feel like they must be on camera, but by being an active listener and engaging with your audience you will encourage others to do the same. When you are speaking, look at the camera and address your audience directly. If other people are talking, make it a point to watch and engage with them. Show other people you value what they have to say, and they will reciprocate.
It’s nearly impossible to replicate the organic conversations we had while working in the office, but it’s not impossible. Look for opportunities to have casual conversations with your team members. You could schedule a weekly “coffee conversation” with a team or a couple of coworkers whose feedback you value. Don’t talk about work – unless you’re looking for casual “off the record” advice. Reach out to new team members to make them feel welcome and learn about them, their families, and their hobbies. Find a buddy and check in periodically. Normalize asking for help and offering help when needed.
Actively seek feedback
Those organic touch points were a great opportunity to seek informal feedback while we were in the office. I would actively seek out people to solicit feedback while I was in the office. Whether I was asking a leader for an informal status report or seeking out an internal client to see if the solution I am building meets their needs, I looked for opportunities for feedback. I found that if I wasn’t receiving a lot of feedback from my manager, it wasn’t because my work didn’t meet expectations, rather it was because they knew I was doing the work that was assigned and that they were confident it would be completed. Remember that remote work is new to many of our leaders as well. They are also busy, and they may not realize that they have not given you feedback.
When I am working on a project that will be used across the organization, I like to reach out to people across the business to make sure it meets their needs. One does not need to look far to see stories about technology teams that did not listen and provided tools that had little value for their audience. While in the office I had confidants around the company that I could actively engage for their feedback on a solution prior to rolling it out to everyone. Usually there are sanctioned meetings with product owners, but rarely with people who will be using a tool for their daily duties. Find ways to engage your peers across different areas of your company. If you want to consistently deliver value and know that your work is valuable, make sure you get feedback from the people who will benefit from your work.
In most small to medium companies, many of us do not have peers in our specific disciplines. In my last two companies I was the only person responsible for endpoint management, and I wore several hats on top of that. There was no one I could go to for direct feedback on my work, but I quickly discovered that the greater endpoint management community could provide feedback, add value, and helped me grow my skills. Engage with others, whether it be through a blog, Twitter, Reddit, or other online communities. There is no better way to move beyond feeling like an impostor than by looking for opportunities to grow and be engaged with the technologies that you work with. Community members are there to help you work through technical challenges, point you towards growth opportunities, and to provide a sense of camaraderie.
This next suggestion may come across as controversial, but I think it is worth saying. Feedback comes in a lot of forms, and sometimes it can come from the market. Our value is not, and should not, be driven by our paychecks, but knowing how our skills and experience stack up against the market helps us gauge our actual value. For that reason, I actively encourage people to periodically talk to recruiters. Even if you are not looking to change jobs, it will provide a real-world, market-based valuation of your skills. It’s one safeguard against being devalued or undervalued by your employer, and it’s an objective piece of data that can be used when you are questioning your own value.
Find your separation
Having a shared space for work and your personal life can be a challenge. It becomes harder to transition from work to home. Switching off your work brain isn’t as easy when you don’t have a commute to help shift your mindset. One of the most important things we can all do is find a way to create separation. That can come in the form of a new hobby, a different physical space for work, or even just a simple ritual.
Finishing my basement office space, or as I like to call it, the Endpoint Enclave, gave me all the above. It was easy to find the time to work on my basement when I didn’t really have any other options. Not everyone has the space to build a new office, and hopefully we won’t be as limited in our options for our free time this year. With that being said, there are still ways to create that separation. If you don’t have a separate workspace, create a daily routine where you pack up your laptop. Go for a walk around the neighborhood. Make a physical end to your day. Read a book at 5 p.m. every day – do anything that allows you to break away from work, both physically and mentally.
Live your life
Above all else, remember to live your life. Too often we become consumed with how we are viewed by others, how our work is perceived, and whether we are providing value to others. You don’t owe your employer anything outside of your agreed upon duties, and they don’t deserve to live rent free inside of your head. If you can’t break away sometimes, you will only reinforce the bad habits that feed into impostor syndrome in the first place.
When you are working remote, your workday may not always start at 9 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. Life happens, and sometimes our attention is drawn away. Step away if you need to. Run an errand. Walk the dog. Be present in the rest of your life, and do not let your job define you. We all have bad days at work, and when work and home happen in the same place, the mental toll can be so much higher.
Most importantly, don’t work extra hours because you think it will make up for the way you feel. It sets a bad precedent and breaks down an important barrier in your work-life balance. The project you are working on can wait until tomorrow. The email you send tonight probably won’t be read until everyone comes in in the morning. Step away and address things with a clear mind tomorrow morning. When you do that, you are assigning value to yourself and to your time. No one else’s opinion matters if you are continually devaluing yourself.
Look back to look forward
Over the course of the last year there were days where I questioned my own value. There were goals that I knew I would miss. Projects had been put on hold, and even if they were not mine, they often had downstream effects on my work. When I looked at my goals for the year and had to evaluate my progress on those goals, I found myself questioning if I was living up to my own expectations.
Then I took a step back. I started taking a mental inventory of all the things I had accomplished in the last year. The list kept growing and I started writing it down. As the list grew, I realized that even though I missed some goals I planned to hit, I had done far more work across a wider set of technology than I expected. I delivered important tools that kept the business running and empowered our end users when their lives were suddenly disrupted. I also realized that when I provided a solution, more people would come to me looking for help and advice.
Even though I had set a narrow list of goals and missed a few of them, I accomplished so much more. I added value and empowered other people. Through the pandemic I was able to deliver technologies that enabled and secured our remote workforce. Even though I was looking down on the work that I had done, other people came to rely on it. By looking back, I was able to realize that I am not the impostor I sometimes felt like.
So, my friends, I encourage you to step back and take stock of what you have accomplished. We are stronger than we often realize, we just need to look back and appreciate it.
My name is Sean Bulger. I am an IT Pro that has worked in the Modern Endpoint Management work space since 2015. I have worked in various environment, ranging from mature enterprise all the way down to a fledgling IT organization looking to find their way in a cloud first world. Before rejoining the technology field in 2014 I had a wide range of careers - from plumber to paramedic - that have helped to shape my perspective on the world.