This is adapted from a talk I gave at “Remote AfterWork Volume IV” on September 12, 2019 in HelpScout’s beautiful downtown Boston location. It was Remote AfterWork’s first breakfast edition, and a fantastic venue to connect with other remote workers.

Back-to-school can be a struggle for all involved: students, parents, and teachers. Emotions can be particularly amplified for college students, some of whom may be experiencing their first time living away from home. They’re adjusting to new living situations, cafeterias, and getting access to resources on their own. Oh, and then there’s the academics, too! It can be easy for someone exposed to all that novelty to start to get a negative feedback loop in their head:

I’m all alone. I’m an imposter. I don’t belong here.

The advice I’d give someone in this situation is not dissimilar to what my parents gave me in 1991. I was in college for the first time and experienced similar thoughts. I called my parents every day and begged to come home. They said no. I called my grandmother, then, who took pity on me and called my parents. They still said no.

I watched “Ducktales” every afternoon and stress ate out of a box of Captain Crunch I kept by my bed. I didn’t have a car, so didn’t have a way to “escape”, even to a restaurant or the mall. Cell phones were not a thing, so I couldn’t text my friends. Email was a fledgling technology, and most of us needed to go to a computer lab to use it. The only lifeline was the corded phone in the room, and each of us had to have an account with the campus phone company to use it. Long distance calling was not unlimited. A lot has changed in 28 years!

I had that same inner dialogue in my head:

I’m all alone. I’m an imposter. I don’t belong here.

My parents advised me to get out of my room, to be social, to get involved. “Nah, that won’t help,” I thought. But slowly, it did. I started sitting in the front row of my classes. I started talking more to the other students around me (one of them would turn out to be my wife, by the way). I got involved in campus life, mostly with Activities Commission. The organization was fantastic: we booked the entertainment that came to campus. That first year, Barenaked Ladies came to campus. Not only could I see the show for free, I’d be working security between the crash barrier and the stage. The band’s own security people briefed us on one particular part of the show. During the “million dollar song” there was a line “Of course we’d eat Kraft Dinner, we’d just eat more!” They warned us that we should duck because fans would throw macaroni and cheese at the stage. As that part of the song arrived, I crouched down and stared upward as the air turned a hazy shade of orange. Packets of cheese powder and macaroni were flying everywhere. Yeah, that was pretty cool. “I’m definitely involved,” I thought.

Another piece of advice I’d give is to open up to others, to be vulnerable. This one can be challenging to hear, because it can feel awkward to be vulnerable with people we don’t know. I never heard this advice directly, but as I’ve come to practice it, I know that it’s the fastest way to friendship. We’re all human, and people can help you just as much as you can help them. Talk to them: find out their interests, their hopes and their fears. Find out what they’re doing. You never know how what you’ll learn will help you in the future. Vulnerability, though we think it exhibits a weakness, is the fast track to meaningful, impactful discussions.

Vulnerability and Remote Work

These two themes – openness and being involved – are directly related to what I go through as a remote worker. I’ve had similar feelings lately:

I’m all alone. I’m an imposter. I don’t belong here.

As an adult, I’m able to talk myself off the ledge … most of the time.

Are you alone? Well, technically right now you are, because the house is empty, but you’re not alone. Are you an imposter? Yes! Wait, no. You’re not. You’ve been doing this job, and doing it well. Keep doing it. Do you belong? I guess so.

My wife was around the house during the day until 2 years ago. She began teaching again after taking time off to be home for the kids. During the time she was home, she worked at her home-based bakery and shared the same space. Just a few minutes at lunch time was a wonderful way to fill my social needs. We enjoyed a 20-minute loop walk around the neighborhood during my lunch break.

Now that she was teaching, I said goodbye to her and the kids at 7:30 every morning, then had the house to myself until at least 3:30 or 4. I hadn’t had this much “me time” in 18 years of working remotely.

It was SO QUIET. I was really lonely. Nobody was around! Those fancy noise-canceling headphones were sitting on my desk, unused. After a few weeks, I was desperate for human connection. I put out a query on Facebook to see if anyone wanted to go for a hike. Some of my kids’ friends at school saw my post and had a decent laugh at my expense. My kids asked me, “Dad, that was really embarrassing … what’s going on?” Clearly that was not going to be the way to socialization.

Building a Community

This feeling of isolation was one of the key reasons I started #remotechat. I had signed up for a Twitter account after thinking it’d be a good way to plug into thought leaders in my field. One of the vibrant social corners of twitter is runners, and there’s a recurring #runchat for them. Maybe I could apply this same concept to remote work? Surely I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, and this would be a fantastic way of finding my tribe. There were early struggles (I was literally chatting w/ myself for a few weeks) but #remotechat gradually gained traction. Now, we have participants from all over the world, with many people contributing diverse points of view to the conversation.

In a way, this is like the advice that I received from my parents so long ago: to get involved, to be social, and to be open and vulnerable in doing so.

How can you can be social when you work alone?

  • Talk to coworkers about non-work stuff.
    Mine’s a little tough because my coworkers are onsite, but you can still do it. Talk with your colleagues about topics outside of your daily responsibilities. It’ll help strengthen and enrich those relationships. You’ll be a better person and colleague by knowing who they are. What do they like? What are their fears? You’ll realize that they, like you, are human. Keep your ears open and listen. You’ll learn a lot.
  • Work a few hours at a coffee shop.
    Anytime I’ve done this, all I need is just the 5 or 10 minutes of chatting up a friend who walks in the door, or exchanging some banter with the barista.
  • Plan lunch dates.
    I go to school a few times a week to have lunch with my wife, and sometimes meet up with non-work friends for lunch.
  • Switch up where you’re working.
    Check out your local library for a few hours, or try out a local coworking space. Depending on where you live, there might be plenty of opportunity to work in shared spaces.
  • Join a community activity.
    For me, this is a weekly community chorus, summer musical, athletic events.

How can you get involved as a remote worker?

I think this one is key to the success of remote workers as we go into 2020. There is literally a global conversation going on now about remote work. None of us are taught how to do it, but all of us are, in our own special way.

  • Join the conversation.
  • Share your experiences.
  • Contribute to the community.

There are tons of opportunities to join in. #remotechat is just one of them. I’ve enjoyed participating in Workplaceless events and a virtual book club. There are many remote-focused Slack channels, LinkedIn groups, and Facebook groups. You can attend a remote work conference, like Nomad City! And today, we’re all at a meetup, sharing our experiences with each other.

That’s what it’s all about.

I believe that we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible to bring remote workers together. Collaboration and social platforms can only go so far. Yes, they unify us globally, but at a very superficial level. They’re the low-hanging fruit of social interaction, and as a society of remote workers, we can go further. I believe that real life interactions are where the good stuff is. It’s at a meetup. It’s at a conference for remotes, or for your industry. But the most value, I believe, lies in our local communities where we live and work. Virtual will always complement “real life” nicely, but ask yourself: what opportunities do I have for physical connection? What opportunities could I have for physical connection?

When I first moved to where I now live, I met a fellow remote worker at church. He worked for Microsoft. We shared enough with each other to know that we had a lot in common, and we started getting together Thursday mornings for what we termed a “telecommuters’ breakfast.” We were usually a group of 5-6 and met for an hour. We talked about work, sure, but we also talked about life. It was an oasis of social interaction before we went back to our respective home offices and got to work.

I believe this is what’s behind the rise in coworking and prevalence of shared office spaces for smaller companies. As humans, we crave connection with others. We crave community. I was saddened in my local community when a fledgling coworking space decided to shut its doors and reopen as an Airbnb instead. I live in a really small town, and there never was enough critical mass to make it worth the owner’s effort. In small communities like mine, I wonder what can work, and it’s a question I ask myself often.

You’ve all heard of the concept of a restaurant or bar opening its doors to welcome workers during the day, when they aren’t open for business. All it takes is some ground rules, a good coffee machine, and some decent wifi, and you have an instant coworking space. I keep thinking about how I could get something like that going in my community.

Nobody has all the answers, though. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice that anyone can dispense. That’s the key. We are all working in our unique geography on our unique projects in our own unique way. We can all share our successes and trials, though, and learn from each other’s experiences.

I’m all alone. I’m an imposter. I don’t belong here.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve learned that getting involved, being social, and being open and vulnerable in doing so have helped change my inner dialogue and help me thrive as a remote worker.

I think it’ll be key for remote workers in the future.

I’m not alone. I have something to contribute. I belong.

Cover Photo Credit: Joshua Ness on Unsplash