I can remember the question I was always asked as a child: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answer changed from year-to-year — a vet, a doctor, a lawyer. Whatever the answer was, it never captured the complexity of what I ended up doing as an adult: I sold insurance in a call centre, entered data, was a shop-fitter, did some admin, stamped building plans, worked in Tesco, sold clothes, worked as a book-keeper, as a receptionist, built websites, wrote documentation and web content, was a teacher, a bartender, a barista, a (terrible) waitress, and organised events. I feel like I’m in a constant process of becoming what I’ll be when I grow up. But I realise that the answer to that question never mattered. What matters is the question itself: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” It creates a correlation between what we do and who we are. From our childhoods, work is part of our identity.
As we grow into adulthood, this correlation grows stronger and the work that we do plays an important role in constructing our identities. The companies and institutions we work for give us the tools to help us to do just that. A uniform, whether it’s worn by a policewoman, a footballer, or a park ranger, confers an identity between that person and their role, and between the people wearing that uniform. But there are other tools that a company can use to help its employees form an identity: the choice of office layout, whether it’s open plan, cubicles, or individual offices; an office’s decor could be sober, minimalist, or playful; even the time of day someone starts and finishes work, and whether they do shift work can play a role in identity formation. Beyond these markers, there are the social outings, the Friday-afternoon drinks, the hallway chats and water-cooler conversations that provide the social recognition that help us be confident in who we are.
For the remote worker things are a little different. We joke that our uniform is our pyjamas, but the joke riffs on a more serious point. We have no uniform, but we also have none of the workplace and social markers that help people in traditional jobs form their workplace identities. Because we are removed from the office we, and the companies we work for, need to take a more active role in the process of defining who we are. We can’t just put on a uniform to create a sense of identity, we need to create who we are through an ongoing process, a process that is mediated through the internet. A study of managers transitioning to working part of their time at home, found that remote work success is only possible if people are able to maintain and establish their identity within the remote environment. One manager who rejected remote work did so because his identity as a manager depended on his being “immediate and direct” which he found impossible to recreate remotely. Creating a stable work identity should not just be an afterthought; it’s a crucial part of being a successful remote worker.
As a remote worker myself, I have gone through periods during which I’ve found it hard to grasp hold of my identity, when it’s been hard to define who I am. The nature of working on the internet means that it can be hard to construct an identity. This is particularly the case for freelancers or individuals who don’t have a company structure to get behind or regular communications to fall back on, but it’s not limited to solo workers. The internet is a medium on which we perform, selecting the best of ourselves, creating a persona that we use to interact with others. It’s true that we do this in-person too, but it’s easier to dissemble and create a persona on the internet, and it’s natural for all of us to hold back those things we think others might find distasteful. There is a gap between who you are online and who you are in person; within this gap is a tension that can disrupt a stable identity. When you work online, it’s very easy to feel like a fraud.
This doesn’t mean that remote workers can’t form a stable identity. I’ve worked online for seven years and over that time I’ve become more secure in who I am and in putting myself in the right situations and environments that have enabled me to be who I want to be. But as both individuals and companies we need to find methods that help reinforce our identities when we work online.
What you can do
Our identities are formed through the interaction between all of the things that we do and the relationships that we have. When you work from home it’s easy to let work take over all of your life so it’s important to maintain boundaries and develop an awareness of your working practices. These are some of the things I’ve found help:
- Create a clear boundary between your work and the rest of your life. This could be a spatial division (having an office or co-working space), a temporal division (starting and finishing at specific times), or a cognitive division (creating habits and practices that allow you to switch from one zone to another).
- Ensure that you involve other people in your working processes, asking for help, feedback, and collaboration. These will help to ground you in a group of peers, and develop and create a more stable sense of self. Share your projects and your work, own your mistakes, and take credit for the things that you produce.
- Both work and non-work environments are important for constituting who we are. Embrace non-work identities like your role as a parent, a partner, a musician, an artist, a chef, or a dog-owner. Whatever it is, these non-work roles will provide you with the in-person feedback loop that you aren’t getting in your working life.
- Find people online who you can really be yourself with. We all need to be recognised for the person we feel we really are, and it can be hard to do that online. Seek out and find allies who you can open up to, rant with, bitch with, and confide in. In a company setting you should be able to find these people in your peers; as a freelancer it’s worth getting involved in online communities related to your work and having regular chats or calls with people who have a similar or complementary sensibility to your own.
What companies can do
Just like a traditional co-located company, there’s lots that can be done to help employees form workplace identities. Here are some things that you can try:
- Have an ethos and mission that represents the values of your company and that your employees want to be part of. This can be communicated through your website and your company blog. It is strengthened every time you hire someone who is enthusiastic about that ethos.
- Create opportunities for employees to get together. This could be at team meetups, company meetups, or at conferences and other events. An all-company meetup is an important way to build relationships and help people to feel more like they are part of a team.
- Make heavy use of chat clients to re-create watercooler conversations. At Human Made, we don’t use Slack just for doing business. We have chat rooms for talking about food, kids, health, movies, books, tattoos, public speaking, and even for specific tv series that we’re watching.
- Encourage the use of company infrastructure for setting up special interest groups. These help people to connect on levels beyond day-to-day work. Examples are health initiatives that use tools like fitbits or runkeeper, virtual book clubs, discussion groups, or coding clubs.
- Send employees branded swag that people will actually use. Every remote worker likes a comfortable hoodie, a battery pack, and a mug. These provide markers of who you work for, whether you’re in a co-working space or at home by yourself.
Identity creation is a complex and ongoing process; sometimes I think I’ve found myself, then all of a sudden things change and I’m different. Work is an important part of that identity creation and the remote worker has perils and pitfalls beyond those of a person who works in a traditional office. The remote work community can do a lot to help us all recreate some of the things we lose when we take such an important part of our lives online.