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How to Thrive as a Professional Woman in the Virtual Age

J. Schatzel works in healthcare administration in rural upstate New York and has a master's degree in history.

Whether you are working remotely from home while your children are remote-learning, or you work in an office setting full time, we have officially entered the virtual age! The ability to engage with your team remotely is crucial, and as a woman, there are ways you can harness your professional and interpersonal skills to ensure you are not only succeed, but thrive in the digital age. From harnessing your emotional intelligence and fostering collective wisdom, to building your professional network and diving into professional development opportunities; the possibilities for your successful route to professional success are as dynamic as you are. The following is not a step-by-step guide for how to thrive as a woman in the virtual age, as the skillset, industry, company culture, office structure, and general circumstances are unique for each of us. I provide the following as a framework, customizable to your situation, which I have found to be tremendously valuable in my own professional life.

  • Harness Your Emotional Intelligence
  • Have the Heart of a Teacher
  • Invest in Your Networking Relationships
  • Develop your Professional Brand
  • Embrace Leadership, Regardless of Title
  • Establish a Work-Life Balance
  • Know your Worth

Harness your Emotional Intelligence

  1. Self Awareness is key to all relationships, both personal and professional. Professionally, it is crucial to identify your emotions, to better manage and use your emotions constructively. Once you can better build your emotional vocabulary and identify your emotional state, the more efficiently you can identify barriers to performance. Are you angry with the current status-quo, or frustrated with the lack of perceived cooperation and open communication in improving the situation? Do you have anxiety with an upcoming project or change, or do you fear you are not effectively communicating your ideas for how to proceed smoothly through the process?
  2. Respond thoughtfully, rather than reacting impulsively. Avoid “you…” statements, and use “I…” statements. “I have emailed a draft of our proposal for your review, I really value your input on this matter before I move forward” will take you much further, than “You haven’t responded to my email with the proposal draft, you need to respond so I can proceed.”
  3. Be aware of your emotional state, before entering a meeting/gathering. If you are feeling anxious, a quick review of the data or a trip to the restroom may help. If you are feeling tired, a quick walk or a few sips of cold water may help you energize and reset. Whether your meeting is in person, via phone conference, or web conference, your attitude will be reflected in your tone. In a virtual meeting, your body language and expressions are more difficult to see, and the importance of your tone and words are heightened. My personal mantra for an emotional reset in stressful situations, is “Don’t let one person’s negativity, prevent you from greeting the next person with a smile.” During college I worked in a call center, in which the protocol was to answer every call with a smile to radiate excellent customer service in every interaction; it was one of the best professional tips I have picked up along the way!
  4. Be aware of other people’s emotional states. Don’t be triggered by other people’s emotionally driven behaviors. Especially in meetings at which the stakes are high and parties are particularly invested in a given side of an issue, it may be necessary to take a brief pause to deescalate and reset. I have found that taking a few seconds to do a math problem in my head is hugely beneficial. “14x17 is…. 238.” Engage the rational part of your brain, and disengage the fight-or-flight response, to continue your conversation in the most thoughtful way. Steering the conversation toward a respectful and constructive outcome is priority, do not “take the bait” and engage someone who is distracting from the meeting’s purpose and your team’s intended mission. If someone is distracting from the meeting’s purpose by discussing another project or process that detracts from the meeting’s productivity, recommend a separate meeting to discuss the other item, at a time other relevant participant/data is available.
  5. Be aware that your time is as valuable as anyone else’s. Be efficient in your use of your time, to allow for needed breaks between meetings and projects, to foster creativity and efficiency in your actions throughout your day. If you are always operating in crisis mode, you will quickly reach a point of burn-out. If you schedule your time more efficiently to allow for project reviews, brainstorming sessions (either alone or with a relevant group), budget analysis, etc., you will be more productive in your role. Recognize the value of being a marathoner, and working with consistently/productively; rather than being a sprinter, and working constantly but not effectively/dependably.
  6. In the current virtual climate, apps like Tiger Text and Zoom make brainstorming sessions more accessible than ever. Whereas a daily huddle with your executive team might be best facilitated in person or via web conference, something like an administrative team 15-minute brainstorming session about upcoming budget variances might be easily handled via Tiger Text, Jabber, etc.

Have the Heart of a Teacher

  1. It is important to embrace the heart of a teacher in our professional relationships, regardless of our roles. Understand that others do not share the exact same knowledge or skill sets as you, and develop your presentation of information accordingly. Your value as a member of the team is based largely on your ability to communicate your work concisely and effectively to your team. For example, as a project manager with a large set of data to review with an executive team, rather than presenting large tables of data with a lengthy spoken or written explanation of the data, it is more effective to put that data into a few graphs or charts in summary form, with concise descriptions of the data, and ability to pull up the larger data bank for reference as needed. Rather than providing a wealth of data in an information-overload session to impress your team, it is better to strategically provide meaningful data for the purpose of the team’s mission, in a format the team can quickly grasp, with anticipation of where to find additional data or answers pertaining to possible questions that might be raised. Your ability to provide accurate and meaningful information, is more impressive than tables of indecipherable data.
  2. In a largely digital age in which screen-sharing and email can facilitate the quick sharing of data, the ability to convey the importance of the data, and ability to share your knowledge concisely, are invaluable.
  3. Embrace mentorship opportunities. One of the best ways to improve any process, is to teach someone else how to do it. I have found in almost any position I have held, that in teaching someone to do a job whether it is when handing off a task you have now delegated to someone else, training new staff, or a temporary hand-off in anticipation of a maternity leave etc., you find inefficiencies in the process. While it is important to reevaluate your responsibilities regularly, you may not realize the breadth of items that could be altered or eliminated entirely, to better serve your team, until you try to teach that job to someone else. If you have ever had experience with a toddler asking “why?” over and over, you have had the mental exercise (or existential crisis) of getting to the bottom of their topic of interest.
  4. Be open to learning, always! Those you are teaching, have just as much to teach you, in the process. In training someone for a given role, you will learn so much more than their communication style and learning style. Take advantage of mentorship opportunities within your organization, or you may find such opportunities within professional networking or industry organizations. Building relationships with others in your industry while sharing your skills is an excellent way to learn new industry insights and best practices, and trial new technologies.
  5. Understand that feedback is constructive criticism, even when delivered in a less-than-constructive way. Feedback is feedback, and it is important to understand the circumstances surrounding the feedback, the reason behind the feedback, how that feedback can empower you to develop professionally, and how your response to such feedback should be carefully and strategically crafted. Understand how your actions and behaviors may have influenced the delivery of the feedback; are you open to feedback, or does your executive feel they need to tiptoe around you? Are you an open communicator who continually improves based on regular feedback, or do you avoid feedback and your executive feels they need an occasional sit-down to discuss improvements they’d like to see? Understand how your perceptions are influencing your reactions to feedback; are you pushing back because you are offended by their input? Are you defensive because of your fear of having to address negative feedback? Are you turning a potential opportunity for growth and improvement, into a “difficult conversation” unnecessarily?

Invest in Your Networking Relationships

  1. Engage meaningfully with your networking connections. Be sure that all of your posts, published articles, and comments on networking social media platforms, reinforce your personal brand, the value-add you bring to the table, and portray the values/mission/vision you share with your connections.
  2. Approach LinkedIn as a living Resume. While you may not be actively searching for a job, it is helpful to maintain an updated profile, for accurate reference by your colleagues, networking connections, and potential future employers. It is also a great place to find professional development resources/opportunities. LinkedIn is an excellent place to market your skills (and availability if job-hunting). It is also an easy platform for establishing and maintaining long-term professional connections. Rather than sitting beside someone once in a board meeting and not chance-encountering one another again, you could connect on LinkedIn, continue the conversation in a professional way, share resources and other connections, and share possible opportunities with each other. I use this example because it is a situation that occurred personally for me, in which I sat beside a guest speaker at a quarterly board meeting, and while she was not a regular attendee of our meetings and did not have any further upcoming events/outreach with our specific organization at that time, I knew that the expertise and connections she had would be invaluable to myself and my team, and wanted to foster a professional relationship to maintain connection with her after that board meeting. We have since exchanged ideas/resources, met other networking connections through each other, and we have both now been a source of additional speaking engagements for one another through the years.
  3. Giving is as important as taking. Gratitude is the starting point to asking for anything, whether in personal or professional life. You need to understand what you have, to experience gratitude for the resources at your disposal, to influence/change any situation. Rather than seeking infinite recommendations and accolades, you need to be just as proactive in your recommendations of others. I personally make it a point to recommend one of my connections weekly. I take the time to reflect on the value they bring to the table, their unique characteristics harnessed for achieving their success, and which of their skills I admire most. I reflect on their accomplishments, their steps toward professional development, and their skills as a leader, mentor, or teacher. For me, I find it personally fulfilling to lift up my team in this way, and expand the potential horizons of my colleagues. Leverage your intellectual capital, emotional capital, and social capital, with the potential opportunities that await you if you openly accept feedback, respond with gratitude and grace, reach out with opportunities, recommend/refer others, and take steps to continuously improve your game. Never underestimate the power and potential of reciprocity!
  4. It is important to seek recommendations in some instances as well, such as when asking for someone to serve as a reference on job applications, or in maintaining an updated LinkedIn profile. In doing so, I ask for two things, both a professional reference in the desired format, as well as personal feedback, on something I could change. I express gratitude for the time and energy involved in this process, and express the value I place on their feedback, and my desire to develop professionally based on their professional opinion. In seeking LinkedIn recommendations, NEVER do so for the sake of doing so, and building your page. It is essential to not only seek positive feedback publically, but also to seek constructive feedback privately as well, and to reciprocate the positive feedback when possible.
  5. Optimize your social media profiles for searches, which can be done in different ways for different platforms. A simple google search can help you identify the best ways to optimize your profile search for the platform you use. This may mean changing your security settings for what public viewers can access, updating the titles of your uploaded files/photos to make your page more searchable, etc.
  6. Stop apologizing/minimizing! In all aspects of professional life, and I find especially common in networking events, people (especially women) are constantly apologizing. “Sorry I’m late…” falls on deaf ears, but “Thanks for your patience…” goes a long way to express the same sentiment, while focusing on your valuing of others’ time. “I don’t mean to complain, but…” sets a negative problem-focused tone, whereas “I have a possible solution to …” sets a solution-focused, assertive, confident tone. Stop using “just” and “but” in your vocabulary. You are never “just” anything, unless you limit yourself to that box. You are not “just an executive assistant,” you are a project manager, a director of groups of people, a facilitator of teams and meetings, an integrator of networks, and a center of influence for your executive team. You are never “just an administrative assistant,” you are a solution-driven problem solver, a budget analyst, a data coordinator, and a process improvement specialist. “But” limits your willingness to confront potential barriers, rather than channeling creative solutions to overcome them, or reevaluation of your mission/values to determine whether such barriers are worth challenging at a given time.

Develop your Professional Brand

  1. Be self-aware, and open to feedback. It is important to set a precedent of integrity, accountability, and reliability. This comes from both accepting feedback graciously, and making necessary improvements/adjustments accordingly.
  2. Regularly ask yourself how you have demonstrated your company’s mission, what crisis did you prevent, what process you improved, and how you have developed professionally. If you can’t think of anything, you have reached a point of career stagnation and need a recharge/reset! Recognize and celebrate when you are doing well, and realize where you need help so you can make it a priority to improve. Recognize weakness are a catalyst for personal growth; rather than avoiding an area in which you do not excel, seek out opportunities to improve.
  3. Embrace the power of social media! In using platforms like LinkedIn, it is crucial to be consistent in your authenticity/identity, without being lost in the content-hustling environment of today’s online world. While you may feel pressured to post/publish in such applications as frequent as possible to build networking visibility, be vigilant of the value you are adding to the online networking experience of your connections or potential future employers. Do not dilute your profile with posts/shares/likes that don’t reflect the personal brand you have developed. When posting, use discretion and ensure that your posts/articles have substance reflective of the professional brand you are building, and connect with your intended audience in a calculated way.
  4. Take advantage of every opportunity to connect with your team, and your clientele. For example, when setting an out of office email reply or voicemail message, it is important to reflect your professionalism in even those seemingly mundane forms of communication. Rather than noting “I am out of the office from June 8th to June 12th, and will respond to all messages at that time,” I prefer to state “I will be out of the office at this time, to attend <insert conference or networking event here> and brush up on my <insert skillset here>. I look forward to following up with you upon my return on June 13th. Thanks for your patience!” I find that often, those who had sent an initial email, also later follow-up to ask about the event I attended, new resources I have found, new connections I have made, etc.
  5. Using a professional headshot is crucial, in any social media platform your professional connections or clients may have access to. Whether it is a LinkedIn profile, Facebook, Instagram, etc., you do not want to lose trust or lower expectations in your abilities and potential value to a team/organization, by using a professional photo for that first impression. I am not sating your photo can't reflect your personality, however it should be a modest photo you would be comfortable with potential future employers viewing.
  6. I prefer to keep a small Facebook page for family and close friends which is closed from public viewing, and keep my LinkedIn as a social networking platform for colleagues and networking connections. I do keep a professional photo for both, as no matter how “private” you set your profile, someone you don’t intend to connect with on that platform, is bound to discover it. When receiving a request to connect via Facebook with someone I would prefer be kept within my professional sphere, I send a message (rather than declining the invite outright, never throw away a possible networking opportunity!) stating that while I keep my Facebook limited to a small family audience, I would prefer to connect on LinkedIn <inserting my profile link> and look forward to connecting with you!

Embrace Leadership, Regardless of Title

  1. You may have heard of the term “leading up” or “managing up,” referring to embracing leadership qualities regardless of your actual job title. If you do not want to remain entry-level and within your comfort zone forever, you need to continuously and consistently challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone, develop new skills, and hone your interpersonal relationships.
  2. A true leader is someone who inspires others to challenge their way of thinking, regardless of their title. It is important to recognize your perception of yourself, so you can adjust and move forward. Are you setting an example, and executing the behaviors you wish to inspire in others? When you offer support, are you proactively anticipating the needs of your team, or do you reactively offering assistance after a situation has begun to spiral out of control? Are you actively listening to the needs of your team, so you can accurately determine the next steps forward? Do you look for ways to improve the status quo, or do you continue performing “busy work” without thinking about the value (or diminished value) that activity adds to your team/organization? Do you find solutions, and convey your ideas to your team in an assertive way, without being aggressive? Do you seek out volunteer opportunities in both your professional and personal life, to let your talents shine, build your professional network, and foster your own personal sense of fulfillment?
  3. Think of those you consider a great leader. What leadership skills do you consider first, when making this list… did their title enter your mind first, or their behaviors? Although someone may be considered a leader due to the position they hold, great leaders have leadership influence because of the character they possess in inspiring others.
  4. Set an example: show your team/organization that you add value to the group. Engage with colleagues in virtual meetings, rather than just attending.
  5. Offer support: go above and beyond to integrate and support your team. Regularly reach out to determine how you can best support your team, which is especially important for groups trying to connect remotely.
  6. Actively Listen: genuinely support your team, recognize peers when recognition is due. Foster an environment of respect.
  7. Use emotional intelligence and executive presence, to sell your solutions while remaining professional

Establish a Work-Life Balance

  1. Prioritize your home life, and work life, to find time-wasting and unfulfilling activities (and relationships) you would be happier without. Personally, I made a list of the responsibilities I had at home, and the responsibilities I had at work. At home, I was able to delegate some items to my husband, to make both of our lives easier. I would have less stress trying to handle the groceries/housework/meal-prep/childcare & school arrangements/etc singlehandedly, after a long day at work. By sending my husband the weekly grocery list, and asking him to prepare occasional meals within his limited culinary skills, the constant feeling of “HURRY UP!” faded away. At work, I was able to delegate some items as appropriate, to allow me to be more productive with my time. For example, our business analytics team was able to develop some automated reports to pull data I need, rather than my having to manually run these on a daily/weekly basis. This significantly reduced the time that budget and payroll processes take me now, I am glad I spent that initial additional time to setup those changes!
  2. I removed apps on my phone that upon deeper reflection, I deemed to be unnecessary and unproductive. Similarly, I examined the professional relationships I had fostered over the years. At that time, I had a standing monthly lunch date with a former coworker, ever since they had changed departments a couple of years earlier. We no longer worked on the same team, but collaborate on shared projects from time to time in our new roles. I found myself drained after these lunch dates, and realized I was treating them more like a necessary appointment than lunch with a colleague. While I am happy to write them a glowing recommendation on LinkedIn based on our professional relationship and my experience with their professional skills/talents, I will not continue to subject myself to their monthly use of our shared lunch time, as a free therapy session to vent and complain for an uninterrupted 45 minutes. My time and energy is also valuable, and I refuse to let someone else’s negativity drain my own energy. I appreciate their trust in my confidentiality for the subject matter discussed, and their appreciation of my willingness to listen for those years of monthly lunches. I also respect my right to remove myself from the monthly meet-ups, and replace them with occasional professional networking opportunities. Now when I run into them in a meeting or around the building, the knot-in-my-stomach feeling and anxiety about their asking to setup another lunch date has dissipated, and instead I am interested in asking about the conference they attended, or the project they are managing.
  3. Energize yourself! Evaluate the activities in your life that give you motivation, and prioritize those factors in your life. I don’t mean you have to give up your coffee/tea, or sleep for additional hours at night than you already barely get (especially if you have young children!). By determining what activities give you energy to harness throughout your day, you can have a more positive experience in both your home and work life. For me, this is walking, and volunteering. I love taking my kids for walks after work/school, and the anticipation of getting to walk after work drives me all day as a reward awaiting me at home. I am passionate about volunteering for a particular cause, which I am heavily involved in on the weekends at certain times of the year when fundraising events and public awareness campaigns are held. Knowing that I have an upcoming event with the organization for which I volunteer, truly feeds my soul and empowers me to keep moving through my day when I otherwise might feel like I’m on the perpetual hamster-wheel (such as during budget planning season or biannual reappointment processes at work). I also do other little things throughout the day, to energize. I have for a few months been working partly from home, and partly in the office due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while my children’s school is closed. When I am working in the office, I take a break between meetings or between blocks of working on different projects, to take a short walk. I work in a 5-story building, so often this means I will take the stairs to the 5th floor rather than using the restroom closest to my office, or I will take a walk outside around the building on a sunny day. Having physically removed myself from my office, is a great help for me when I need to re-charge. When working from home, I similarly make sure I get up from the computer at given intervals. Whether it is to venture outside with toddlers to check the mailbox, or to walk a couple of laps around the yard with the kids, we all feel better after. I am better able to focus when back at my desk, without feeling drained.
I love taking my kids for walks after work/school, and the anticipation of getting to walk after work drives me all day as a reward awaiting me at home.

I love taking my kids for walks after work/school, and the anticipation of getting to walk after work drives me all day as a reward awaiting me at home.

Know your Worth

  1. Understand the value you add to your organization. Once you understand the value you bring to the table, you can be more confident in your right to a seat at that table. Do your research, and understand the value-add you provide to your team, department, and organization. Communicate with confidence in your value, and others will respect you for it.
  2. Do not confuse deservingness, with entitlement. As women in the professional office setting, we are often fed the messaging through body language, subtle hints, or not-so-subtle statements, that we are acting entitled for seeking professional growth. Know your worth, and have confidence in your value, so that you can harness and communicate your deservingness with poise. Do not live in shame/fear of the entitlement stereotype, or you will only enable your own self-perpetuating career stagnation.
  3. Once you understand your professional worth, you can take steps to grow and develop in your career through educational/training/certification opportunities, mentorship relationships, networking possibilities, and optimization of your personal brand. This will allow you to seek a raise in your current role, find an advanced role, or otherwise redirect your career as you intend.
  4. In the virtual age, there are infinite online resources to develop professionally, whether it is through webinars, online courses, virtual seminars, or advanced networking tools. Many industry-specific professional organizations have free memberships, or free educational resources available. Also, check with your organization about professional development opportunities they may offer, or potential tuition assistance for advanced degrees. The answer is always NO, if you never ask!

Professional Development Poll

© 2020 Jess Schatzel

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