How to Survive as a Canary in a Digital Office

I have been playing around with the idea to contribute to Skrift ever since I read Renee M. Haas' article about imposter syndrome. I believe Renee is being very brave not only putting it out there that a lot of us Umbracians suffer from Imposter Syndrome but also admitting that this is part of her world as well. As I'm still struggling on how I can contribute to the Umbraco community, after reading that article, I think it's time for me to put myself out there as well:

Hi, I'm Joke and I'm a canary working at a digital agency.

A canary?

Yes! Remember when miners took those little birds into the mines?

They did so because of the sensitivity of the canaries to the lethal gas that could be released during coal extraction. Even with small concentrations of the gas, the canary dies. This was a sign for the miners that they had to leave the mine as quickly as possible. Without the canaries, many more victims would have fallen in the mines.

It was during my bore out in 2016 that someone noticed my sensitivity to what is happening on the work floor. She diagnosed me as an HSP (A Highly Sensitive Person). Apparently, 1 in 5 people you meet, is HSP even though they’re not always aware of it. When I took the questionnaire Elaine N. Aron developed in 1996 it started to make sense.

HSP or being a Highly Sensitive Person for me means that I'm more aware than others of subtleties: picking up smells sooner than others, being overwhelmed by loud noises and I sometimes even need a 'time-out' for myself to charge my batteries after too many busy days. In a professional context, it makes you more aware of the dynamics in meetings or in a project team. Downside is you can get stressed more easily than your colleague because there are too many things at once on your plate.

There is a big difference between being a Highly Sensitive Person and being too emotional, too sensitive or too shy. It is important to make that distinction and to feel this difference if you want to truly embrace this trait.

For me, having a slightly scientific context to explain what I was going through, was exactly what I needed: I no longer felt like damaged goods because I couldn't keep up with the expected pace and individualism that sometimes plays at offices.

I'm still struggling in embracing the 'HSP' part of myself and seeing it as an advantage. I still pick up emotions from others in the team without realizing it, but I managed to establish some coping mechanism I want to share with you.

Advice on life in an agency, seen from the perspective of someone who is HSP

In an agency things tend to go hard and you are expected to have a thick skin, act and react quickly, but what do you do if you're living without a filter, have the tendency to be observant before acting and know that you're picking up (almost) every single nuance on the floor.

This doesn't mean you don't fit in an agency, it just means you need to know your kryptonite and find ways to work around them and bend them in your advantage where possible.

These following things work for me, so they might as well help you be more at ease or more focused:

1. Search for your place in landscape offices

You can't always choose the way your office is organized. If you can't, try and do yourself a favor and search for the corners in the landscape.

I can't function when I'm sitting in the middle of the landscape: too much vibes, too much that is going on around me. When I'm sitting at the outside and get a chance to overview, this helps me leaving some vibes where they are and not absorbing everything.

From time to time, I need my headphones to be able to focus or I even search for a quieter place to work. Luckily for us, headphones and home office are well accepted ways to limit impulses.

2. Try to say no

You can almost feel the importance of someone asking to take over a task. During that process, you tend to give more attention to the emotions of the other, than to your own.

At the end of last year, I was asked to become Privacy Officer in charge of all GDPR related questions. I refused up until 3 times. I kept the conversation open so that we could negotiate on what was part of that job and what wasn't. It was my chance to get rid of uncertainties about the tasks and setting my terms before accepting it.

In the end I accepted (I knew I would when they first asked me) but at least I had given it some consideration to see if I would be able to take on that responsibility with as much passion and dedication as my job as Project and Operations Manager.

3. Define a meaning in what you do

For me, this was one of the most important changes in the way I look at my day to day job.

I had to take a step back and define what's in it for me. Why do I like doing what I do? What can I do to make a difference for my team, my client, my employer?

Answering these questions clearly defines the meaning of your job. As an HSP, I needed a meaning to see what my added value could be.

For example: the meaning in what I do is being able to make a difference for the team. I want to create a safe place where everyone can take their time to grow and where everyone dares to say that they're uncertain about a topic.

4. Plan some self-care and go offline

Even if the meaning of what you do is crystal clear, there will be days where vibes and emotions of others will be too overwhelming. Nothing's wrong with accepting this and taking some time off for self care.

I learned to recognize that nagging stomachaches or headaches are my body signaling that I'm overdoing it. In those cases I need a break and I need to go back to nature: a walk in a park can do miracles for my mood, and my energy levels.

5. Whatever we do, we do it with passion and perfection

This statement is interlinked with the 2nd one: we don't do things quickly or in a hurry.

We are perfectionists that - especially if we take over for someone else - will only deliver if we're 100% satisfied with the result.

Be aware that this brings on extra stress. An extra reason why you should dare say 'no' to extra tasks and responsibilities that doesn't fit in the meaning of your job.

On the other hand, not everyone shares this same level of passion and perfection. Recognize it for yourself if you're being unrealistic in setting a bar for others. You just have to accept sometimes that the result you get from your team is their best effort. Don't take over just because it doesn't meet your standards but give feedback and discuss why you think there's still room for improvement.

Your perfectionism and your ability to show empathy can lift a team member to a higher level.

6. Use your empathy to connect with your team - stay true

As an HSP you can (most of the time) feel when someone isn't genuine. Same goes when you feel forced into showing a particular emotion that's not yours at that moment.

The trick is to stay true to you own emotions without forcing them on others. You don't want to be the 'emotional wrack' in the team but it doesn't hurt to share emotions.

When I look back to moments where I expressed my sadness (mostly about something personal) or anger, those are some of the best moments: I felt genuinely supported.

I believe that, if you - as an HSP - manage to share your emotions, you're inviting the rest to do the same. During Monday morning team meetings, we ask for energy drainers. I want to learn the team to share what costs them energy. There's no promise that we can solve it, but by sharing it, there might be someone who can help and carry the burden or lower the stress.

What's in it for you?

For the Marvel Agents of Shield fans, discovering you're HSP feels like Skye going through the process of Terrigenesis: you're not different, you just discovered an extra ability, an extra superpower.

Since we, as Umbracians, are all part of this great community where we actually really care about each other and we want to help out on a technical and a non-technical level, I wanted to reach out to you and tell you it's time to embrace our superpower as an HSP.

If I can only convince one of you of your unique position and qualities at the office, then it was worth sharing my story. I want to get rid of that label that when you work in tech, it's all about bits and bytes and others may see you as emotionally awkward. I want everyone working in tech being able to embrace their emotions... especially since for 1 out of 5 of us pick up those emotions even if you try to hide it.

Joke Van Hamme

Joke is Team Lead at AGConsult. She stumbled into IT after a few years of teaching French, mathematics and IT to high school students. When she's not juggling with projects and planning, she likes to (help) organize the Belgian Umbraco User Group meetups. In her spare time, running and long walks help recharge the batteries.

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