Attending a 50 person offsite while living with social anxiety - a semi-how to and lessons learnt

I’ve previously opened up about my social anxiety and how I tackle it in my professional life. I’m determined to not let my anxiety have a detrimental impact on my career, which has in the past paved the way for new ways of meeting people in my field of work.

This week I’ve attended my first ever Mapillary offsite. We’re a fully distributed team, with almost 50 people living and working across eight different time zones. Twice a year we meet up somewhere in the world to discuss where we are as a company, and where we’re heading. Since it was my first offsite with Mapillary, it was also the first time I met most of my colleagues (including my boss!). I’d previously met all of them on Slack, but seeing everyone in person is quite different from talking to someone over Hangouts or Slack. Not least because virtual meetings have a crystal clear objective - in each meeting I know exactly what my role is, and I’m in a position to deliver accordingly. The rules of engagement, as it were, are clear. That is not the case with social interactions or when you’re surrounded by people 24/7.

But, offsites are important for every company - and particularly for distributed teams. In my case, it’s also a perfect storm in which anxiety thrives. Here’s what I did to not let it get the best of me. 

Come prepared
Like in any social setting, making sure that I’m prepared for social interactions is imperative. Regardless of whether I’m going to a wedding where I know few people, or attending an offsite where I’ve met few people, I make sure to come prepped with an arsenal of questions. This is my blue blanket, the one thing I can always resort to. Each person works differently, but for me, having questions to fire at the person sitting next to me is a great way of getting a conversation going and thus lowering my anxiety levels. At this offsite, my arsenal included questions like “what are you key takeaways so far”, “what has surprised you from the discussions”, “what’s your key focus for the next quarter”. Once the discussion takes off, a context has been created and defined to a much larger extent. In this case it also allows me to gather important data for my work as the company’s Head of Comms. Two birds, one stone.

Be nice - not least to yourself
We stayed at a great resort in Greece with access to an equally great gym. We all know the importance of exercise for our mental health and it was a bit of a lifesaver to be able to withdraw and spend some time at the gym between workshops and dinner. Likewise, although in an ideal world we’d have somewhat in-depth conversations with most people attending the conference, it’s way more important not to crumble. If you’re more comfortable sitting next to the people you normally interact with in your day-to-day work, do so. It’s fine. No one cares and you’ll build even stronger bonds with your closest colleagues.

  Me, a little less anxious.

Me, a little less anxious.

Know thyself
This one keeps coming back to me. Being aware of my anxiety allows me to manage it in a way that was impossible when I was younger. I know that I thrive in a well-defined context, so I gravitate towards those sort of settings. Evening board game sessions are prominent at Mapillary offsites - that’s a great way for me to get closer to colleagues I otherwise wouldn’t naturally strike up a random conversation with. And, luckily for me, islands of people working on various projects during evening socials are also prominent at Mapillary offsites. I’m rubbish at mingling, but I’m great at working. Whenever I’ve felt a bit overwhelmed, flipping up my laptop and doing a bit of work has been a great way of not leaving the social context but still looking after myself.

I’ll also admit that while offsites can be overwhelming for someone who lives with social anxiety, it’s of course made much easier when your colleagues are a lovely bunch who care about the same stuff as yourself. In our case, it’s about fixing the world’s maps through state-of-the-art and award-winning technology.

  My lovely bunch of award-winning colleagues.

My lovely bunch of award-winning colleagues.

By the way, we’re hiring - so if you’d like to join us on this epic journey and - of course - for our next offsite, check out our jobs page - I promise it’s fun!

Sandy x

pst - if you’re interested in knowing more about how and why Mapillary operates as a distributed team, see here.

Sandy x Lilla Vardag: With love from Malmö

Lilla Vardag is one of my favourite Instagram accounts - the account is a celebration of Malmö and all the great things about this quirky little city of ours. Malmö has a pretty poor rep in Sweden (and internationally) for being ridden with crime. A far as I'm concerned, that's a misguided interpretation of Malmö - the number of reported crime in Malmö has been on the decline since 2009, and there are significantly fewer crimes reported in Malmö per capita than in Stockholm. My analysis is that since Malmö is smaller, people think of the Malmö suburbs as Malmö, whereas the suburbs in Stockholm are thought of as - indeed - the suburbs. Either way, it doesn't really matter whether the crimes occur in the suburbs or not - what does matter is when cities are thought of as unsafe when they're not. Considering the current political climate in Sweden and beyond, narratives play a huge role in contemporary politics.

That's where Lilla Vardag comes in. Although they're a lifestyle account, it becomes political since they're portraying what it's like to live in Malmö as a young professional, showing that it's neither dangerous nor rough. They cover new cafes, restaurants, and fun people in the city (like myself lol, see here for an interview they did with me in December last year). Malmö is the fourth most international city in the world (after NYC, Washington DC and London), so it's little surprise that some of their followers have asked them for an English version.

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As a Minimum Viable Product, I offered to do an Insta takeover of Lilla Vardag, covering all my little Malmö gems, Malmö vs London, and how to tap into Malmö's startup scene. Below are some of the things I talked about:

💕MALMÖ VS LONDON💕
It's been two years since I left London for Malmö, and I have no plans of returning to London. I bought a house in what Malmö residents consider the "outskirts" of Malmö (aka a ten-minute bike ride from the city centre, lololol). It's a glorious 1 bed flat (a Swedish tvåa) and it cost me £80,000(!) - you can see it here. This is, of course, just one aspect of living in Malmö vs living in London, but considering that it takes less time to get to Copenhagen than it did for me to get from Stoke Newington to central London, Malmö has nearly all the metropolitan benefits that London does. Without the extortionate housing prices.

💕TAPPING INTO MALMÖ'S STARTUP SCENE💕
Malmö's startup scene is booming, and has been for the past few years. The city has raised more venture capital than any other non-capital in the Nordics, even surpassing Oslo(!). What's phenomenal about the startup scene in Malmö is that it's perhaps surprisingly friendly and approachable - the city's startup community is hungry for young talent and if you've got skills and/or enthusiasm to offer, you're likely to get snapped up quickly. Malmö's startup community is also buzzing with expats, so if you're en expat yourself, chances are you'll feel right at home. If you want to set up a startup of your own, Minc - the startup house in Malmö, and where I used to work - has an incubator and a Startup Labs where anyone with a scalable business idea can come and work for free.

Here are a few Facebook groups to join - sign up for their newsletters to get the latest on startup related events around the city:
Malmö Startups
The Ground
Minc Malmö

💕MALMÖ'S BEST CAFES💕
I asked Lilla Vardag's followers for their favourite Malme café - and got some 30 responses. Here are some of them.

💕BEST INSTAGRAM ACCOUNTS OF MALMÖ💕
- MeanwhileInNowhere - a Wes Anderson-esque portrayal of Malmö
- MalmoMammor - run by two mums, showing the best parental hacks of and in Malmö
- PeopleofMalmo - a HONY inspired account, dedicated to and featuring the people of Malmö

  Snapshot from  MeanwhileinNowhere

Snapshot from MeanwhileinNowhere

💕FUN THINGS COMING UP IN MALMÖ💕
We're at the end of the summer (though it certainly doesn't feel like it), but we still have the some of the best Malmö summer stuff coming up - here's what:
- Malmö Sommarscen - it's running for another week, make sure you don't miss it!
- Malmöfestivalen - starts next Friday and goes on for a week, with artists like Thåström(!!) and Ozzy playing, and, of course, free yoga in the park (goals).
- The Festival - a spin-off from The Conference, the annual conference on tech, culture, and innovation. The Festival is running for the first time ever and is completely free of charge. They have great things on their lineup, including morning concerts, yoga sessions, talks, and workshops. I might actually be doing a talk myself as part of The Festival programme, so stay tuned!

That's all from this time's takeover. Thanks so much to Clara and Zandra for allowing me to take over Lilla Vardag for a day, I had so much fun - and thanks to everyone who asked questions and made it such a great day!


Sandy x

Shouting from the rooftops and paying it forward - my IWD 2018 pledge

Today’s International Women’s Day. I’ve been lucky to get to work with so many phenomenal women, many of whom have coached and mentored me, and continued to be there for me long after our professional relationships have ended.

Working in communications, and particularly in tech PR, comes with a peculiar gender imbalance. Apart from at the very top, most PRs are women, whereas most of the clients, and - indeed - most of the journos, are men. I’d love to see this change, which is why I’ve decided to give away free consultancy hours to female entrepreneurs who want to make waves in the press, but can’t really afford a PR.

As part of this, I’ll dedicate one afternoon a month for the rest of the year to coach female entrepreneurs in how they can get the story of their business out there. It can be anything from a general brainstorm on PR opportunities to feedback on a specific pitch or press release - or both, or something else entirely. As always, the session will depend on the needs of the client.

So - 10 afternoons left in 2018. Do you know any female entrepreneurs - tech or otherwise - who want help in taking over the world? Have them ping me at sandyerrestad at gmail dot com.

  My first PR boss and I at Web Summit, way back in a different life. She went on to hire me not once but twice (!) more - I’m very lucky to now call her a friend.

My first PR boss and I at Web Summit, way back in a different life. She went on to hire me not once but twice (!) more - I’m very lucky to now call her a friend.

Things to carry me over: lessons learnt from some of the smartest people I know

I’m writing this from Bali. Sounds great, I know. The truth is though that holidaying in paradise isn’t always all that if you’re not at peace with yourself, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve been everything but. I like to believe that I have the tools to deal with adversity. That wasn’t at all the case when I was younger, and it’s one of my favourite things about getting older - having found ways to call on resilience to get back on your feet during shit times. To me it’s all been fairly spiritual stuff - yoga, meditation, Kallis sessions, soul searching and soul mapping. All inward facing stuff, simply because I struggle opening up mid-crisis. I know it’s because of shame - somewhere, somehow I probably think my problems are special little snowflakes that no one else could possibly understand and therefore I feel ashamed. Of course I know that my problems aren’t special little snowflakes, but somehow I can’t see that when I’m in a bad place. As a result I hide, or as Gabby Bernstein aka my household god would’ve put it, I choose fear and isolation and I start to question a lot of fundamentals. It’s harrowing. On a more basic level, it fucking sucks.

I’m still figuring out ways to tackle it head on.

Until that sunny day comes along, I’ve been lucky enough to get to work with some brilliant minds. Somehow they all seem to come out with pretty profound stuff that stay with me, way after they’ve casually said it in passing over a coffee, in a meeting, or even in a DM. I write them down as though they’re little prayers or affirmations, and return to them when I struggle seeing a way forward.

Here are two things I’ve revisited over the last week.

There’s no such thing as cheating
This one is for the women out there who live with the impostor syndrome and credit their surroundings for their success, even if just quietly and to themselves. You are where you are because of you. Acknowledging this isn’t the same thing as turning into Margaret “there’s no such thing as society” Thatcher - quite the opposite. It’s fully possible to be humble and aware of the opportunities one has been given, while at the same time recognising that you’re the one who’s done the actual work. And when you fall over - which you will - don't think that that discredits everything that's been achieved to date. It doesn't. Also, getting a way in through your earned network isn’t nepotism. This is important. Men have gone through history climbing the ladder via cigar rooms, and not necessarily because they’re the best people for the job. Use your network, recognise your worth, remember there’s no such thing as cheating.

Perfection will kill you
I’m not sure the person who said this meant it literally, but I sort of do. In my case, perfection and anxiety go hand in hand in that if you’re obsessed with the former, the latter will ultimately come knock you down. I didn’t grow up in a world where failures or even imperfections were celebrated as an inherent part of learning and improving. Remember that imperfection and failures are only explicitly celebrated in highly privileged environments. Failing to fill out a form properly when you’re signing on, possibly resulting in having to choose between eat or heat, would hardly be celebrated at your local Fuck Up Night. Over the past few years I’ve been going through a process of relearning the meaning of failures and perfection, where failures are to be embraced and perfection is to be avoided, as opposed to the other way around. This constitutes a rewire of some of my fundamentals, so obviously it’s hard.

On a slightly more spiritual level, I think there’s something to be said for eat, pray, love. Not just because I currently happen to be in Bali, but because of what that actually means. A friend and I recently spoke about high vibration foods and how it contributes to your wellbeing. I tend to eat very little when I’m feeling low - or mainly just carbs - and that hardly helps. Eating your greens does. I’ve also recently realised that I turn to prayer a lot more than I’ve previously thought, though I’m not sure what or who I’m praying to. Perhaps myself. Perhaps the universe. Who knows. Because I don’t kneel at an altar I haven’t thought of it as prayer, but prayer it is. I pray for love, gratitude and forgiveness. The strength to be kind, to myself and others. And all of that is really summed up in love. It’s hard to see sometimes, but it’s there. I’m sure of it.

And finally...

Breathe.

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Growing where I am and pissing off my racist relatives - some of my 2018 goals.

New Year's resolutions feel like a thing of the past. Just like people are giving up tobacco and meat at a rapid pace, it seems like people have started to think that New Year's resolutions are a force of evil more than anything else. I'm inclined to agree - I don't believe in resolutions or adding unnecessary stress and pressure. That said, I strongly believe in self-awareness and self-improvement, and most of my 2018 goals relate to this in particular. Here are three of my main goals for 2018.

Grow where you are
I live with a permanent state of wanderlust. I moved often as a child, and as soon as I finished sixth form I went on an eight year craze of moving countries and continents once a year. It was great, and exhausting. I've now lived in the same city and done the same job for 18 months and the itch has rarely been more real. I glance at Berlin, NYC, Copenhagen, even Stockholm. I look at my cat and wonder if I can fly him across the Atlantic. Yet, something's holding me back. The beauty of moving countries often is that you get bursts of intensity that become small chapters of your life. I lived the klub kid life in Berlin, the student life in Wales, the diplomat life in Uganda and the startup life in London. But not moving countries once a year enables you to grow in a different way. It gives you the chance to get to know yourself when you're not caught up in a recent or approaching move. It gives you the wonderful opportunity to grow where you are.

What does growing where you are look like? Exploring your city and its surroundings, joining (or setting up) a book club, developing an events calendar, pursuing side projects, developing D&M relationships, establishing ambitious goals and finding an accountability partner to help you reach them. Finding the quirky and exciting things about wherever you might be, and enjoying them to the fullest. And so on.

  Growing where I am. Here with friend, colleague and collaborator  Emilio .

Growing where I am. Here with friend, colleague and collaborator Emilio.

  Reminder to self.

Reminder to self.

We should all be Mirandas
We have a lot to thank SATC for, but we can probably all agree that Miranda is the only character to pass any form of sanity test, from a feminist perspective or otherwise. Not once did she miss the opportunity to stand up for herself or her mates, nor did she avoid challenging stuff like socio-economic class in contemporary America, or societal norms around women and babies /  men / mortgages. And something I personally admire, she fucked people off by telling them that "he's just not that into you" when he clearly wasn't. For some reason people still don't seem to understand when this is true in their own lives.

We can all be more Miranda-y. In my case it's not keeping my mouth shut when my racist relatives go off on a tirade. It's making the committed effort to encourage women to get out there, particularly those younger than me. It's calling out people who ask me if I'm concerned about my biological clock (yes, apparently people do ask this - I'm just as baffled as you). It's seemingly small things like making sure we have a roughly equal number of men and women in the content we publish at work, whether through earned or owned media. It's calling out BS as and when you see it, and making a concerted effort to not be part of it.

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‘”Why the fuck not me?” should be your motto’
The older I get, the more I realise how far I've come with this. I think it's easy to look back at your achievements and say "ah, that was nothing", which is why I try to remember what my thoughts were prior to said achievement. Graduating from university is one such thing - loads of people do it, but as the first person in my family to finish high school, it was never a given I was even going to enrol. Lacking a sense of entitlement turned out to be a huge source of discipline and dedication at uni - but the flip side is that the same lack of entitlement runs the risk of throwing you into destructive cycles of self doubt. Self doubt isn't a bad thing per se - doubt yourself all you want, as long as it doesn't stop you from doing the stuff you want. Asking yourself "why the fuck not you?" might help you (and me) to avoid not doing stuff just because of self doubt.