Once upon a time, I was a new grad working at an advertising agency. I was green and excited and eager to please. A few months in, a position on the content team opened up, and I was ushered in to help keep the projects above water.
It was sink or swim. Maybe you’ve been there before—little experience, limited resources, and a mountain of work waiting for you. So I did what I had to. Each week, I mapped out all the work that needed to be done. Then, I put my head down and got it done. Oftentimes, this meant working from the lobby. My coworkers talked and played music at our desks; the lobby was a quiet escape.
In spite of the workload, I was proud. I had taken on this floundering account even as the new kid. And get this—I was keeping it alive! Every article was delivered on time. Each day had a full roster of social media posts ready to publish. Things were going better than expected.
So you can imagine my surprise when my team lead sat me down and told me that there were some bad feelings about my work habits. There was a sense around the office that I, the newbie who was put on a massive account, was lost and not working as much as needed to keep things afloat. Apparently even our CEO had said something.
It wasn’t about how much work I was doing. It was how much they thought I was doing.
I was stunned. And then I was pissed. On top of my work, I was expected to manage the way people saw me? We still had the account didn’t we? And the due dates were still being met, right?
I didn’t know then that she was teaching me an important lesson
As a student, you’re judged purely on your work. This is what I knew. I was optimistic enough to think that my workplace worked the same way.
But unfortunately, the professional world hasn’t caught up with this results-based method of accountability. Even with companies experimenting with 4-day workweeks, remote employees, and longer breaks, the reality is that most workplaces still judge productivity by Time In Chair instead of Work Done.
And let’s be real—even in organizations WITH more progressive work standards, you’re still dealing with humans. And humans are notoriously subjective.
The bottom line is this:
No matter how hard you work, if others can’t see your progress, you might as well not be doing it at all in their eyes.
This is a generalization, sure. But it’s a pretty accurate one, and it’ll affect you whether you’re an employee or a freelancer. If your success is subject to another person recognizing your contributions, you must pay attention to the way they perceive you.
I hated to learn that lesson. Frankly, I still find it a tough pill to swallow. But until we’re all robots, we’ll be subject to one another’s subjective scrutiny.
Managing your image is just as important as managing your project
If you’re a hard worker but not great at tooting your own horn, how do you manage how others perceive you?
You don’t need to talk about how much you’re getting done all the time. Instead, try these ideas:
Give face time
In an office, this means spend enough time at your desk—even if public workspaces are available. Some offices may be more lenient than others, but the sad fact is sitting at a desk is still widely considered more productive than sitting anywhere else.
If you’re a remote employee, hop on on video calls once in a while with both coworkers and superiors.
If you’re a freelancer, always include an in-depth discovery process with the client via video call. In order to learn enough about them to deliver a good product, you’ll probably need to do this anyway. It’s also a good idea to deliver the final product via video call as well, rather than just emailing it. You’ll find clients are much less likely to send revision requests when you have a chance to proactively explain your decisions.
If someone is overseeing your work, don’t wait for them to ask about the status—send them an update. This is a balance that greatly depends on your manager’s preferences, but in general, communicate a bit more than you might normally. They’ll tell you if you need to tone it down. But it’s far better to look like you’re staying on top of things than to let them start doubting your progress.
Look the part
Managing your image is sometimes about managing your literal image. Obviously if you’re walking into an office every day you should dress appropriately. If you’re working from home or freelancing, though, your image matters just as much—if not more.
Pay attention to what you’re wearing during video calls, and what’s in your background. If your room looks strange (Is there a bed in the background? Maybe kids toys lying around?), try moving the desk away from the wall and sitting behind it so your only background is a wall. And hey, if you have a degree or some nice office-y decor, it doesn’t hurt to hang it up behind you.
Perception is a tricky thing
You can’t decide how others will perceive you. You can only influence it. So as much as I push the importance of this topic, it’s equally important to avoid letting others’ opinions rule your life.
Take heart, though—things are changing, slowly. I look forward to the day when more workplaces focus on the results rather than the time spent, and on individual strengths instead of how well employees meet arbitrary standards.
But until then, a bit of extra attention can go a long way toward maintaining your credibility as a professional.