What It’s Like to Go Back to Work After a Long Break
A version of this article previously appeared on Skillcrush, an online education program for creatives, thinkers, and makers that gives total tech newbies the tools to make major career changes.
Scott Morris, Skillcrush
About a year ago I started to consider getting back into the workforce. I'd left unskilled retail work and a long, meandering college career 12 years earlier to be an at-home parent to my first daughter. A second daughter followed three years after that—so I'd had my hands full trying to keep up with them while my wife worked full-time—but at the ages of 12 and nine, my kids were getting to a point where they didn't need as much constant parental care. Meanwhile, my wife and I were looking for ways to add some savings for their college funds, and to have extra money set aside for emergencies.
The problem was, my parenting duties were still just enough to make the idea of working outside the home—even part time—fairly daunting. I remember thinking that if only there were a way to make money from home, that would be the perfect scenario—but the idea sounded like something out of a get rich quick scam. Fortunately, I told my woes to a friend of mine and she metaphorically slapped some sense into me about the very real, very achievable world of remote work. The company she worked for happened to be looking for part-time copywriting help, and within a couple of weeks of our first conversation, I found myself working for Skillcrush.
At the age of 40, I thought I'd run my course as far as what I was going to be doing with my life—I've never been a particularly ambitious or career-minded person, and I was perfectly happy with most aspects of being an at-home parent and husband. But, I did still feel like something was missing. It had been so many years since I'd really gone out on a limb and tried something new that there was a part of me that felt stagnant.
Paid work filled this void by adding a new dimension to my life, and—although I'm busier now than I've been in years—my life is fuller and more focused than it was before. I have to think about schedules and parcel out specific time for different activities in a more regimented way than I did before, and it makes me really think about how to spend my time and appreciate the downtime I have in between. It's also refreshing to learn and implement new skills—and actually earn a paycheck for doing so.
I'm Not a Barista Anymore: Fighting Impostor Syndrome
At first, I looked at my new job the same way as the bookstore and barista jobs I'd had decades prior: I figured I was supposed to be available, receive instruction on what to do, do what I was told, and rinse and repeat. I worried that asking for clarification or even requesting more work would be perceived as me not knowing what I was doing and expose the fact that I really didn't belong. But professional work isn't about clocking in and mindlessly following a set of instructions—you need to find or create opportunities to get actively involved in your workplace, particularly if you're freelancing or remote, where nobody actually sees you.
And, I needed to let go of my impostor syndrome. If I didn't belong, they wouldn't have asked me to be there—end of story. But I let that feeling take over, afraid of my own shadow, sitting quietly and not wanting to be noticed as opportunities passed me by.
With that approach, my hours dried up and I was exactly where I was before: stagnant. Luckily, a few other Skillcrushers were kind enough to clue me in on how things work. Asking questions? Not a bad thing. Requesting more hours and seeking out ways to evolve and define your role as a part-time freelancer? Also not a bad thing. Once I followed this advice, I started to hit my stride and establish a solid role in the company.
Here's what I wish I'd known when I started: Don't be afraid to express interest in projects you're not already attached to, or to let your managers or coworkers know about skills or interests you have that aren't typically part of your job title. Try saying something like "I hear that we're developing a podcast. I have some audio editing skills and I'd love to be a part of the project." Or, "I'd love to learn more about how we track our audience. May I sit in on the next numbers meeting and observe?" Nobody will think you're being pushy (my greatest fear). Remember that your colleagues and managers want you to succeed—and if they don't, you're working for the wrong company.
More Work is a Good Thing?
Beyond learning the culture of a workplace, I also had to adjust to an entirely new system of timing. During my first few weeks of working for Skillcrush, the extra hours of paid work didn't have much of an impact on my unpaid work of housework and childcare duties—until one particularly dark, rainy day when the dishes had piled up, a chimney leak was letting water into the living room, my kids had an early release day from school. . .and I had an article due that I hadn't even started yet.
At the time, I'd banged out my first few Skillcrush articles without really knowing what I was doing. I started at Skillcrush in the middle of the holiday season and bounced between different roles before settling into my current place on our editorial team, so I didn't have an official, black and white training period. This—combined with my overall lack of experience—turned each article I wrote into an anxiety-laden experience. Whenever I finished writing I felt like, "Oh thank god! I finished it, it's over! I don't have to do that again!" But—of course—this was a job, and after one article was finished, the next one needed to be done. And this particular rainy day was the first time my mounting anxiety partnered with my backed-up domestic duties to make the whole thing feel impossible.
I remember totally freaking out: "WTF have I gotten myself into? There's no way I can get everything done!" But after a few deep breaths I started the article, took a break to pick up my kids, finished the article, and excavated the dishes. The leak got fixed about 6 months later, but the point is: There was time to do it all—I just had to focus on one task at a time, and everything started to fall into place.
In the months since—whenever my schedule starts to seem overwhelming—I think back to the methodical approach that pulled that day together, and it makes me remember that the focus of having part-time remote work on top of my domestic duties actually makes me more efficient all around. There's a greater feeling of urgency to get everything done, which means there's less time spent procrastinating and avoiding—I literally can't get away with putting things off anymore—and that's been a positive change in my life.
What's the Plan?
That said, I have had to be proactive in my new, efficient life back in the workforce. Paid work is a whole new world—particularly if you've been out of the game for awhile. You have to learn the ins and outs of how your workplace functions, navigate a new set of social interactions, calibrate your ability to meet deadlines, and (if you're working remotely) remember to change out of your pajamas in the morning. It took me a few months to get used to all of this, much less to get to a place where meetings and reporting to managers didn't automatically fill me with dread—not based on anything anyone else was doing, but just due to my own feelings of inexperience and insecurity. The ability to figure all of this out and still get work done doesn't come together accidentally or automatically. It's all on you to establish systems and habits that will help you succeed. I learned this the hard way.
For my first couple of months I had a completely scattershot approach to working—no plan for when I was going to work, no breaks built-into my schedule (because I didn't have a schedule), entire days spent forgetting to drink water or eat anything—and I was starting to feel completely rudderless and out of control.
I'd start my day intending to do paid work, but then I'd notice some things that needed to be done around the house and I'd decide to take care of those first. Of course—en route to doing vacuuming or laundry folding—I'd put off making coffee or eating breakfast, but after a few hours of chores I'd realize the day was slipping away, so I'd absent-mindedly sit down at the computer, "just to get started." Four to six hours later, my paid work was done, but I was totally fried and wrecked going into the next day where I'd begin this haphazard run all over again.
This approach obviously wasn't working, so at a certain point I had to take a time out and reassess—I'd read all the articles and seen the advice about how you need to create structure when working from home (schedules, breaks, an environment conducive to getting work done, etc), but I'd kept telling myself I'd get to it eventually. The truth is it's all stuff you need to address on day one (or if you're past day one, then right now).
In the months since, I've adjusted my approach—the night before a work day I make sure the house (or at least the area I'm going to be working in) is clean enough so that I'm not distracted, I put off all non-essential housework during the day until I'm done with paid work that's due (or that I've scheduled to get done that day), I keep a written log of what I'm working on in Google Docs, I add due dates to my calendar, I mindfully schedule when I'm going to do what, and I try to stick to the same routine every day as best I can. The results of this approach have been night and day—I now feel like I have a handle on what I'm doing, and I'm able to maintain physical and mental health while also working and caring for my house and family.
In my year at Skillcrush, I've had my eyes opened to how many opportunities there are—not just for work in tech—but for quickly gaining the skills needed to start new careers. I always thought that starting a new career would require years of school and certifications, and that's just not the case. In interviews I've done with tech professionals and conversations I've had with Skillcrush alumni, I've been surprised at the number of people who were in similar situations to mine, and how many success stories there are when it comes to remote work, online coding classes, and other non-traditional venues as a path for returning to the workforce.
I worried about the adjustment, too, but that also fell into place (with some proactive but manageable work on my end), so if you're looking to add paid remote work to your domestic work as a parent or an at-home partner, don't let the extra hours and duties intimidate you. You'll likely find that the tension between paid work and other responsibilities will actually make your days more focused and efficient.
And maybe the biggest bonus is one that was totally unexpected: At a time in my life when I was set in my ways and thought I'd met just about everyone I was ever going to know, I've been introduced to a whole new cast of smart, funny, creative, inspiring people, all while learning new things every day and getting paid. I'm not sure how it gets better than that, and now that it's so integrated into my life, it's weird to think that this part of me didn't exist just a year ago.
It's been six years since Sarah Cooper graced us with her 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. But how on earth can we appear smart in our new virtual world, in which for many of us, going to work is just sitting in one long series of probably-not-necessary Zoom meetings?
1. Dial in.<p>Dialing in rather than joining via the link instantly boosts your credibility. Who calls into Zoom meetings? People who are still busy and important enough to be leaving their houses! But you needn't actually be one of those people, or even more than a foot away from your computer to pull off this maneuver. (Remember, this article is called *seeming* smart, not being smart.)</p><p><strong></strong><em>Bonus: </em>If it's a large meeting at which attendance will be taken, the person running the meeting will inevitably ask, "Who's calling in from 443-322-2121?" That's when you raise your metaphorical hand, jump off mute, and say "[Your name] here. Really looking forward to hearing your perspective on [meeting topic]." And voila! You've stolen the meeting spotlight.</p>
2. Don't come on camera—ever.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODU5OS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjMwNjI3OX0.4fLyq2CvkZAJ7n_03esZepY37mOdyGdDdTEUYt5XEU0/img.png?width=980" id="bc7e6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fbbf21cc5d8c863b30654ae6993b04f5" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>Much like the "dial in," this technique works because it makes you appear aloof. If <em>The Crown has </em>taught me anything, it's that the key to maintaining a sense of mystique and prestige is to keep people at arm's length—and if you absolutely <em>must</em> touch them, wear a glove.</p>
3. Only communicate via chat.<p>Once you've mastered the art of staying off camera, you can level up by communicating exclusively via the chat box. Don't come off mute at all, even if the speaker asks your opinion. You are the elusive chatter and you will not be forced into actually participating in said meeting.</p>
4. Ask to share your screen.<p>Being aloof is great, but it's all about balance. Sprinkling in some active participation will really shock and impress your colleagues if you catch them off guard, so save this technique for when you've strategically <em>not </em>participated in a string of meetings.</p><p>Spend a few minutes prior to the meeting prepping a few inspirational slides with words like "synergy," "optimization," and "redefining 'culture'", or spend a few minutes poking around in Google Analytics. </p><p>Then wait for the opportune moment to say, "Can I just share my screen for a moment? I have some really interesting data I'd like to share...." and BAM — brilliance established.</p>
5. Show off your Zoom-saviness.<p>Try saying, "You know you can mute people, right?" to the host when they beg whoever's got the lawn mower and crying baby in the background to put themselves on mute for the nth time.<br></p>
6. Create an alter ego.<p>This tactic requires commitment, but the pay off is certainly worth it. Join the Zoom meeting from your normal account + name, and then join it again on a second device from an alias. Have your alter-ego ask some probing or stat-based questions in the chat and have the answers ready ahead of time. It should work something like this:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Your alter ego Charlene</strong><strong>:</strong> "Does anyone know what percentage conversion rates increased by in Q2?"</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Real you</strong>: *doesn't miss a beat* "It looks like Charlene has a question in the chat. That would be 36%."</p><div>Never mind that no one on your team knows who Charlene is or why she's at this meeting, they'll be too blown away by your brilliance to notice. (Bonus points if you use this strategy in conjunction with techniques 1, 2, 3 or 4!)</div>
7. Place an obscure object in your background that exudes intelligence.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODYxOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzk5Njg2Mn0.V9_-3Ij3v_QndseqlrXRt5Nn39EJ97-itjls5zzYPf8/img.png?width=980" id="a369d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="604a2f04b53c2e3bc801bfa5256f367b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>We're talking a telescope, or perhaps a hardcover copy of <em>War & Peace </em>(no one need know that its only purpose in your life is as a makeshift yoga block).</p><p>If you don't have any suitable props at your disposal, do not despair: download some screenshots of Sheldon's apartment from <em>Big Bang Theory </em>or the chalkboard in <em>Good Will Hunting </em>and use those as a virtual background.</p>
8. Ask "Is this really the best course of action given the current climate?"<p>Economic collapse, COVID, racism… No need to specify whether you're referring to one or all of the above; just sit back and watch your boss squirm amidst the ambiguity.</p><p>This strategy pairs very well with techniques 2 and 3. You can prep additional vague-but-probing questions ahead of time and pepper them into the chat box throughout the meeting:</p><ul><li>How will this scale?</li><li>Do we really have the bandwidth for this right now?</li><li>What's the value-add here?</li></ul>
9. Remind everyone that you have a paid Zoom account.<p>"Oh, it looks like we're getting the 40-minute warning. I have a paid account, do you want to switch to my room?" It's helpful, with just a touch of condescension. Everyone knows condescending people are smart. And everyone knows that people with paid Zoom accounts are super important.</p>
10. Tell everyone you have a hard stop.<p>When pressed for details, share your philosophy on "work-from-home" balance and how committed you are to getting up once an hour to walk to your refrigerator.</p>
11. Ask the screensharer/host to "pull something up" for everyone.<p>Ask the presenter to navigate to a screen that only you know how to navigate well. Laugh maniacally while they suffer from crippling performance anxiety. Let them struggle for as long as is tolerable before saying, "Oh you know what? I can just share my screen if you want. That would probably be easier." BAM you're the hero. Don't worry, no one will even pause to consider that you could have proposed this course of action from the start.</p>
12. Say Zoom fatigue as many times as possible.<p>If you're too tired to employ any of the other strategies, just say "I know everyone is experiencing a lot of Zoom fatigue, so we can keep this meeting short." Then hang up as quickly as possible. Meeting averted! </p><p>After all, there's no better way to demonstrate your intelligence in a virtual meeting than to demonstrate why it wasn't really necessary in the first place. </p>
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