Melanie Briens MITI reflects on what she learnt about the industry and herself at the ITI Conference 2021 – the first ever to be held online. 

It’s official. I’m giving myself the sack.

Part of the appeal of being a freelancer is the ability to choose what type of work you do and when, but it’s so easy to get into the habit of accepting every project that hits your inbox just in case next month – or even next week – is a quiet one.

But what happens if the quiet one never arrives and you find yourself working all hours trying to keep everyone happy? If you’re so busy working on project after project that you miss out on valuable networking events and CPD opportunities? You burn out – and it can be a lonely situation to be in. This is just what was starting to happen to me until I took three days ‘off’ to take part in this year’s virtual ITI Conference.

Sitting behind the screen at home with only the dog for real-life company, I suddenly remembered I was actually part of a tight-knit community of colleagues, many of whom were going through the exact same thing. The fact that the conference programme included a number of sessions relating to health, well-being and community helped me realise that 1) I’m absolutely not alone and 2) I need to become a much better ‘boss’.

I loved that the interactive format of the event provided scope for people to comment on the presentations in real time – much like whispering your thoughts to the person sitting next to you but on a much larger scale. So when Rebecca Seal pointed out that we demand far more from ourselves than a CEO would expect of their employees, and when Emma Paulay reminded us that we should focus on working smarter, not harder, it was so reassuring to see the comments section come alive with colleagues agreeing and sharing their own anecdotes.

As an introvert with a lot to say, I was a huge fan of the Wonder networking platform. It almost felt like a video game as I created my avatar before literally wandering around the virtual room looking for a table that suited me. Whoever thought of adding a ‘Pets Corner’ is my absolute hero, because it provided an obvious conversation starter for people like me who rely on some kind of prop or crutch to break the ice. In the interest of full disclosure, I was actually planning on avoiding the networking sessions altogether until I saw this group, as I think the past year of missing out on so much social interaction has made me shy away from it more rather than crave it like some. But while the event was incredibly professionally run from start to finish, I found that knowing everyone on the chat was sitting at home like me made it feel much more personal – almost as if people were more at ease without that formal persona we often feel we have to create for professional events.

Speaking of the personal side of our profession, I very much enjoyed Fiona Gray’s session on social (media) distancing and the support from the #ITICommunity over the past year. I share so much on social networks during conferences that it might be hard to believe I’m nervous to post most of the time for fear of saying the wrong thing or – perish the thought – making a typo, so this reminder that our colleagues are actually an encouraging and forgiving bunch was very welcome indeed. This seemed to be a common thread that ran throughout the event, with Sarah Townsend advising us to view our colleagues as our community rather than our competition, and Carmen Swanwick-Roa pointing out that becoming more confident in our own work and specialisation is key to this collegial mindset.

I couldn’t possibly comment on every single session I attended over the three-day event, not least because I’m still in the process of going back and tuning into the ones I missed (and even those I just want to see again!), but I am so impressed with how well it was organised from start to finish.

From the fantastic keynote speakers to the awards ceremony and even the closing party with the hilarious Henning Wehn, every last aspect was a pleasure to be a part of. I might have had to take three days out of (paid) work to get involved, but – as always – I feel all the richer for the experience. So maybe I’ll just sack the old me. The new me is already far more productive and doing more of what I care about so that part of my brain can finally relax (thanks, Ed Lamont!).

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