How to build relationships while remote

My manager and I had a level-set conversation last week when we talked about how I can build my network more widely. I thought about this and realized how hard that is, not just during a pandemic when everyone is 100 percent remote, but also as a full-time, remote employee even after the pandemic has come to an end. How do you really “network” with people who are outside of the everyday people you work and collaborate with on customer work or internal projects? It’s awkward to just send a calendar invite to someone you have no established relationship with and expect them to show up simply because you asked. It’s also difficult to do this given we’re now at the one-year mark with the pandemic, and so everyone is experiencing massive Zoom / video chat fatigue. I generally don’t even like networking in person, but it’s much easier to meet or run into people in the office kitchen or at the water fountain than forcing a Zoom invite on them.

So that make me curious. My manager said she’s strongly considering me for a promotion come my one year mark, but how does that work if “building my network/my brand” is a part of this?

When work is nonstop

I’m pretty certain that customers just know when you are busy. They know when you have company all-hands or all-day company kickoffs… because that’s when they intuitively know you are overwhelmed and exhausted, and thus they then reach out to you, insisting they need help with x or y task, or that they absolutely MUST get on the phone or a video conference with you because they totally need your help….. even if said customer had totally ignored you or failed to respond to your emails from weeks or even months prior. Last week and this week have been especially exhausting because of our annual company kickoff, and because, well, I had to reschedule customer meetings around these huge time blocks. And then, the ad hoc requests started coming in far more than they normally would!

I just feel exhausted. I’ve even had dreams about work. And then it suddenly dawned on me… I haven’t had a real vacation in over a year, since we were in Australia and Indonesia. I’ve really only taken one day off here or there this whole year, other than the days off I’ve been given for Wellness Days or national holidays. I’ve had no REAL break from work to really unplug and relax. I really need to do something more intentional and take time off…. but we can’t really safely go anywhere. What am I going to do with myself other than sit around my house, exercise, meditate, cook, make videos, read….? I’ve already read four books and we’re not even halfway through February this year!!

The downsides of being customer facing

For most of my career, I’ve been in a customer facing role, meaning that I interact with customers who use my company’s software as my actual day job. There are lots of upsides to being in a customer facing role in a non-pandemic era: you get to travel for work (and hence, can really load up on status via miles and hotel points), your role at work is taken seriously because you are essentially the voice of the customer; if you work on high-profile customers, for the most part, you’re probably in a relatively secure position. But the downsides? Customers sometimes can see you as not being human, meaning that they will not necessarily respect boundaries of off-hours to call you on your cell with something they consider urgent (the last time I checked, we didn’t work in the ER). They may not care that you have other customers and other meetings; they may expect that you respond to every email they send you literally as soon as they send it, and then react angrily when there’s a “delay” in your response (as in, in 4 hours or even, GASP, the next day!). They may not care that you had to take the day off because you got sick or had a family emergency and insist you get them a response anyway. They also may not care that you get a national holiday off since they may not have that day off.

The last example actually happened to me for the first time today, and I was really in shock. A customer asked to reschedule a meeting to a later time, and he asked if I was available on February 15th, which is actually President’s Day, meaning our office would be closed. I told him that our offices would be closed that day, but I’d be available to chat the following Tuesday. He had the balls to respond, asking if I could make an exception and meet with his team on that Monday. Well, that was easy to say no to; NO, I’m NOT making an exception for you or anyone work related on a NATIONAL HOLIDAY.

I told a colleague about this story after it happened, and she responded, “I see customers like that as children who ask if they can have cookies before dinner. They know the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean they won’t ask, anyway, to see if there is some slim chance they may actually get their way.”

When you’re asked to MC your company’s kickoff

Earlier this month, the head of our team threw a random invite on my calendar to sync 1:1. I wasn’t really sure what this was about because she didn’t give much context in her invite, but I figured it couldn’t have been bad news. I mean, I’ve only been working at this company for the last 3.5 months, so I couldn’t have already screwed up that royally yet, right?

When we met, she said she had a proposition for me. At the time, I was engrossed in reading Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, in which Lori invites a guy out to coffee with a proposition to use his sperm for artificial insemination to impregnate her. So this was the first thought that came to mind. I was pretty certain she was not planning to ask for a) my eggs or b) my future first born.

Instead, her request was simple: would I be willing to MC one day of our company’s annual sales and success kickoff the last week of January? I’d have a co-host, and it would be a great way to get my name out there and interact with colleagues from around the world. Leaders across teams had apparently dropped my name as a potential fit because… I guess there’s been talk that over Zoom, I have “great presence”?

When the leader of your team asks if you’d be willing to take on a task this big, you don’t really have an option. Your only option is to say “yes.” And so, I said yes, thinking that this may be a great way to build my internal brand (putting on my sales hat here), and especially since I’m a fully remote employee even after the pandemic, it would also be a way to literally get my face and name out there across our global offices.

We had a few planning sessions. My co-host and I went through a few rounds of drafted scripts. I ad libbed a lot and also added in a few friendly jokes about specific individuals who are easy targets on my team’s leadership. And today was the big day. It was a strange time to be doing it; I was feeling quite low because of this whole fertility journey and not feeling my best. But in reality, the world doesn’t stop for anyone. No matter who lives and dies, no matter what awful experiences you are going through, the rest of the world continues moving forward, and so that pushes you to do the same regardless of whether you want to. So I dialed up my energy and enthusiasm, painted a huge smile on my face, and ran through the half-day session. And it seemed like it was a success, as tons of positive feedback poured in through the application we were using, and my Slack blew up with messages.

“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare once said. Sometimes, you just have to act like you’re happy and excited… even when you actually aren’t, and in reality, are feeling quite the opposite. And if you try hard enough, sometimes, you can actually fool yourself into that feeling.

“Barely speaks English”

I always marvel at how and why Americans and Canadians seem to think they speak proper English, or “English without an accent.” First of all, in case anyone needs a history lesson…. English, surprise surprise, comes from… ENGLAND. And second of all, American accented English still has an accent, as does Canadian accented English (let’s stay away from the regional accents for this conversation). We ALL have accents. It’s just that some may be easier or harder for you to understand given your own accent.

I was sitting on a Zoom 1:1 call with one of my Canadian colleagues, who I’ve gotten along with quite well. He’s a White male and is stereotypically Canadian in his accents (his “abouts” sound just as you’d imagine) and his politeness/friendliness. And out of nowhere, he started venting to me about how a new colleague on my team started, and he cannot believe my boss made the decision to assign her to one of his large accounts. “I mean, she’s new and she barely speaks English!” he complained to me. “Her written English is fine, but it’s so, so difficult to understand what she is saying during calls. Customers barely understand her. You know I’m a nice guy, but this is just ridiculous. You and Sabrina have been great at your jobs; you are so eloquent, you present so well. I need someone like you on this account.”

What he really means when he says “someone like you” is someone who speaks English with a Canadian/British/American accent. What he really means to say is that he doesn’t like the new colleague on my team, who was born and raised in Mexico up until she was 13 and who speaks English with a Mexican accent. What he means is that unless you speak Canadian/British/American accented English, your English is unacceptable and you “barely” even speak the English language. What he means to say is that he’s unaccepting of people who come from non-Western cultures who learn to speak English as a second language with the accent of whatever their first learned language was, and that if you speak with said accent that you no longer sound professional in front of enterprise customers who are spending a large sum of money with our company.

What I would like to know is: if HE were to speak another language, what accent would HE have, and how accepted would HE be by said country’s people? The complete lack of empathy for those who learn English as a second language infuriates me all the time, especially when I know English is the only language I am fully literate and fluent in. I really feel for those who learn English as second language because there is really nothing consistent or constant about it (no four tones like in Mandarin Chinese; not everything rhymes with a/i/u/e/o/n like in Japanese), and there are so many slangs and colloquialisms that even if you have studied English for 20+ years, you still won’t know it all.

Workplace honeymoon is over

This is my sixth week at my new company, and I can honestly say officially that my honeymoon period is over. Not everything is glossy and shiny and beautiful. Not everyone is incredibly friendly, kind, and eager to help anymore. As of last week, I already began doing “real work” with customers, and so the training wheels are pretty much off now. I’m not necessarily complaining, but just speaking of the reality.

While I’m certainly at a company that is a hundred times better than the last one, I’m no longer looking at everything through rose-colored glasses and thinking, “ahhhh, what a good life here.” I’ve already encountered some passive aggression, the usual sales vs. customer success hostility and territorial feelings, plus some issues with management that just seem a bit too pushy and too sales, not necessarily how I would define “customer success” at a SaaS organization.

Working in tech: the myth of “unlimited PTO”

Historically in the United States, the concept of “paid time off” has been a controversial one. The U.S. is the only industrialized Western nation to have zero national policy around paid parental leave in the world; some companies, some of which I have called customers, who are large multi-national companies with thousands of employees, have zero recognition for parental leave at their U.S. locations, and so when employees become new parents, if they choose to take time off, it’s deducted from their paid time off (PTO) allotment. We’re also the only Western country that does not require payment for time not worked, such as vacation leave, sick leave, or federally recognized holidays. These benefits are considered matters of agreement between an employer and an employee.

So it would appear that the U.S. values capitalism, productivity, and work, work, work as its number one priority. And it values human life or human health very little to not at all (we will not discuss healthcare in this post, though, as that is its own disgusting can of worms). It’s a wonder why people want to continue living here sometimes, self included.

But that idea inside, when you are living in a country that has egregious laws, or lack of laws, around paid time off, it would initially seem to be a sort of dream when you are finally employed by a company that actually has what is known as an “unlimited PTO policy.” The average American company across industries only offers around 10 days of PTO per year, so… unlimited? WHAT A DREAM LIFE, right?

Perhaps initially, it may seem that way. That’s why so many tech companies list it as a “benefit” or “perk” when you visit their Careers page or see one of their job listings on sites like LinkedIn. That’s why when recruiters do phone screens with potential candidates, it’s one of the very first perks they note on their calls. But in reality, it’s much more nuanced than this. No, just because you work at a company that has unlimited PTO does not mean you can just take off for half the year, a quarter of the year, or even a full month. Nope. They expect that you will still work as you would normally work as if there were a set number of days you could take off per year.

As an HR professional once told me pointedly, “‘Unlimited PTO’ is not a benefit to the employee; it’s a benefit to the company,” she said. What this means is: the day you decide you want to leave your company (or said company fires/lays you off), the company will be required to pay out zero accrued PTO days because you didn’t accrue anything; there’s an “unlimited” policy, remember? The company wants to “owe” its employees as little as possible, and this is their way of getting there while also at the same time appearing to do something that is beneficial and “perk” like for its employees. Yet, hmmmm. Despite having an “unlimited” policy, pretty much all companies that have this policy in place still require you to “log” PTO so that it’s still be tracked (to potentially be used against you later for baseless reasons). Fun, right?

“So then, how much PTO are you expecting I actually take with this policy?” I responded back to this HR professional.

She smiled. When HR professionals smile, you should really never trust them. Every time they smile, they are just lapping up their perceived power in the conversation. “You should take however many days you would have taken if you were able to accrue PTO at your previous company.”

Here is where I smiled back. “Well, it’s funny you say that because the last time I actually accrued PTO, I had 23 PTO days, 4 summer days, plus the week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day off,” I said to her. “So in other words, here, do you suggest I continue taking 31 days off?”

Her smile faded. She paused, wrinkled her brow, unsure of how to respond. Frankly, I don’t remember what her response was to that in the end because it was so plainly insipid. But I did remember to tell her at some point of this conversation, “If the stance of HR at this organization is that ‘unlimited PTO’ is a benefit to the company and not to its employees, I would suggest that you stop having our recruiters talk so enthusiastically about it during their phone screens with prospective candidates, and also to remove it from our Careers page as a listed perk.”

That was when I made it clear to our HR professional that I wasn’t going to take bullshit explanations. It was also probably when they decided to wage a form of war against me. At the end of the day, stupidity and hypocrisy need to be called out, and I don’t really care if they enjoy it or not.

When the person who is supposed to give you the DL ends up being the unpaid PR person

I had a call scheduled this morning to chat with Chris’s friend who works at a company that I’m interested in. He’s been friends with her for a few years, but I’d never met her before since he likes to keep separate parts of his life separate, and there was really no reason for me to meet this person, so I never really cared to ask. So I called her to get a sense of what the company was like and how she liked it, and it was clear from the beginning of the call that she really loved working there. She talked about the company leadership, the culture, the nature of her work, and she gushed endlessly about how great it was. It got to a point where the entire conversation just seemed like the type of conversation I’d have with the company’s HR or recruiting team; she said glowing, nearly-canned positive things about the company like “great work-life balance,” “everyone is so amazing here,” and “senior leadership is really accessible, their ‘door’ is always open for you; the only blocker to developing a relationship with them is yourself.” I nearly vomited in my mouth a little when she said that last part. How often have I heard that from recruiting teams in the past, or people who truly drink the kool-aid.

While I appreciated the time she spent to chat with me, I didn’t really appreciate the PR-spin on her perspective; it came off as too enthusiastic, a bit disingenuous, and well, not authentic. Luckily for me, I have other contacts I can speak with at the company through personal connections, so I can get a more well rounded perspective, but it just struck me as odd that she was technically supposed to be a personal connection through Chris, but she gave me a not-very-personal perspective of the company.

My mom always says that the older you get, the wiser you get. I actually don’t really agree with this. The older I have gotten, the more confused I have gotten about why and how people are so twisted and weird.

2009 layoff reflection

In 2009, when I got laid off, my dad cutely asked me, “Well, will they rehire you later?” When my dad used to work at a glass company, they would occasionally go through temporary layoffs due to lack of services requested. When the requests for glass installations decreased, team members would get let go, and when the requests increased, they’d get called back. So my dad thought that maybe this would how it would work in the white-collared world. Nope, that’s not how it works. Once you get laid off, you’re laid off. Though I have heard of some snafus where some individuals who were laid off were requested to come back months later, that is pretty rare to non-existent.

My mom tried to be comforting, but she was a total wreck. She thought she was thinking about how I was feeling and being sympathetic. But from what I could see, all she felt was shame for herself to have to say that she had an unemployed daughter. She sent me a hundred bucks to make me feel better. But that’s kind of where the comforting ended. She insisted many times, at varying volumes, that I move home (yeah, I would have rather dropped dead). She insisted that the recession was so bad “because of that Black man in the White House!” that I would not find another job in New York, so I should just give up. She also didn’t want me socializing with anyone, saying that everyone would look down on me for not having a job. She didn’t even want me to go to my cousin’s wedding the next month (I still went). She made me feel lesser than for not having a job. I obviously moved on, but I never forgot how she made me feel worse about myself based on no wrongdoing of my own.

That’s the thing, though. That type of thinking is not necessarily unique to my mom; as Americans, it’s nearly ingrained in us that our jobs define us. That’s why most of us are assholes, and when we in America meet people for the first time, we immediately ask after exchanging names, “What do you do (for a living)?” Why? Because our (paid) work defines us. Because our paid work makes us valuable to society. Our paid work contributes to our national GDP, our sense of self-worth, our sense of being. Our salaries say to us, “this is the dollar amount you are worth as a human being.” But… isn’t that sad… and just… wrong? How can your kindness be measured? How does your generosity factor in? What happens to all the good deeds you’ve done so selflessly? Do they just get completed and then taken for granted and forgotten?

I would love to exist in a society that did not measure people based on their salaries and net worths, to be viewed as a contributor of society based on my passions and strengths as a person. But that is a utopia and so far from what the United States would ever be — a country that devalues so much that is important about human beings.

When you’re in the middle of a recession for the second time

When I first started full time work after graduating from college, I graduated into a recession. Just four months after starting at my new job at a SaaS company, the company had a layoff, which resulted in a number of my colleagues getting let go. Given my connections to the HQ, I knew a second layoff would also happen soon after. All signs pointed to it — employees not getting their bonuses, being forced to take X number of days off before the end of the year. The writing was on the wall. I started applying for new jobs because I knew I’d get laid off — last ones in are usually the first ones out. I even packed up the belongings on my desk a few weeks before the second layoff happened. That made it easier for me to make a quick escape when I finally did get laid off; no need for a big show of packing up my desk. I spent three months being unemployed, which ended in two full-time job offers and one full-time contractor offer. It was not a fun time at all, but in the end, I learned to never be that loyal to any company because at the end of the day, every single one of us would always be discardable. Very little protects you when you get fired or laid off; you’re powerless as an individual.

So when I realized the second recession of my adult life was coming, I imagined getting laid off again. I’m in a very different place in my life now and am way more comfortable then I was in 2009, but you know what? No one wants to involuntarily leave their job. No one ever wakes up in the morning and says, “I’d love to get laid off today!’ It’s demoralizing. It’s a huge ego hit. It is especially hurtful when you know that you’ve been the top performer on your team, but even that does not make you immune from a layoff. But it’s a further reminder that the working world is full of politics, gossip, backstabbing, and the game of favorites. And if you are not a favorite, your employment is always at risk.

People like me don’t fare so well in that schema because I don’t like to suck up, and no one would ever, ever label me a kiss-ass. I just want to be who I am and I will stand for what I believe in, and I won’t kowtow to people because of their positions and their standings as “favorites” among the CXO team.

If you aren’t going to be true to yourself, then who are you going to be true to?