Until the pandemic, remote work was principally the domain of established employees who already had a comfortable niche within their company and had earned the respect of their colleagues and superiors.
They could afford to cut their face time to achieve a better work-life balance as they were already in a position of power, or the company’s “go-to” person for certain tasks and skills.
But the pandemic has seen junior staff and new employees just starting with a company working remotely as well. While most enjoy the flexibility that this offers, junior staff are also very concerned with how the isolation of remote working will impact their career progression.
According to a survey conducted by Hays Research, 39% of all tech company employees think that remote working limits career progression. And this opinion is more prevalent among junior staff than senior managers, rising to almost 70%.
But is this concern warranted?
How Companies Can Support the Career Progression of Remote Workers?
The evidence suggests that the “out of sight, out of mind” rule holds and that remote workers in an “office first” work environment are disadvantaged when it comes to career progression.
When managers on site have an opportunity to hand out and they are deciding who to give it to, their minds often stray to the people that they see on a regular basis, usually in the office. There is also no denying that some important decisions are still made around the “water cooler”. Of course, we don’t mean the physical water cooler, but those unplanned side discussions that happen when people are in the office.
But the pandemic has moved things forward and companies are now actively thinking about how they can level the playing field and improve work conditions and opportunities for career progression for remote employees.
According to Prithwiraj Choudhury, an Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, there are a few relatively simple things that companies can do to make a big difference.
Take a Remote First Approach
Many will remember in pre-pandemic days when a team leader decided to set a team meeting, and you sat there with your fingers crossed hoping that it would fall on one of the days that you were in the office. When it didn’t, and you raised the point, you were immediately asked if you could come in or change your working pattern.
But with an increasing number of staff working remotely, this should be a thing of the past as companies take a “remote first” approach to work. This means that all meetings, communications, collaborations, and everything else should be planned on a remote-first basis, ensuring that all staff have an equal possibility to participate.
This is a major mindset shift for some companies, but one that should be easier in the post-pandemic world.
Make Essential Information Available Anywhere
Choudhury notes in his research that companies that make guides and handbooks available to staff anywhere had a greater success integrating remote teams. This is particularly important for new staff. Gone are the days when they can quickly ask a more established colleague a quick question.
Remote working and variation in time zones and contact hours make it more difficult to gauge a colleague’s availability, and therefore make junior staff more reluctant to ask. Ensuring that there is a repository where they can get the information that they need can give junior employees confidence to take the initiative. They will also be more likely to contact senior colleagues with more complex questions, as they do not feel like they have used up their goodwill on trivial asks.
Establish Out-of-Team Mentors
According to a recent study, only 18% of managers organized one-on-one meetings with their remote workers during the pandemic. This can leave newer employees, working in isolation, in the wind. Since employees are no longer “seeing your face” in the office, managers need to be more proactive about scheduling regular meetings (without micromanaging).
The most successful remote companies not only encourage regular face time with line managers but match remote staff with mentors from outside their department. This allows staff to have more frank conversations about problems and their aspirations, and conversation will not endanger team relationships.
Create a Virtual Watercooler
One of the biggest challenges facing companies that go remote is replicating the conditions for “serendipity” that happen when staff are in one place and things just “come up”. While this is incredibly difficult to replicate artificially, it is something that companies are trying.
Scheduling regular meetings that bring in disparate people from across the company with a loose agenda that allows for personal connections, creativity, and serendipity, can work well.
Moreover, Choudhury found that junior staff that got regular face time with senior staff through these meetings were more optimistic about potential career progression.
Doing it Right
While most businesses are still grappling with how they can get to a remote-first approach, some are doing it right. GitHub recently did an assessment of all of their roles to determine which ones actually need to be onsite. Including front reception and security staff, this was only 5% of the workforce.
All other teams have been mandated to take a remote-first policy, and GitHub is starting to monitor data on promotions and opportunities to ensure that employees are not being discriminated against based on their location preference.
How can Remote Workers Ensure their Career Progression?
While there is a lot that companies can and should be doing to ensure the career progression of remote workers, this is also something that the workers themselves need to be proactive about.
Remote working gives us more autonomy and freedom within our working practices, and while that is great, it also means that we need to take on more responsibility for our progression.
Based on the experience of remote workers who have successfully managed to build their careers and achieve promotion while working remotely, we have the following suggestions.
Choose to work for a Remote-First Company
In a perfect world, remote workers would have equal opportunities in all employment settings, but we simply aren’t there. So, for the time being, when choosing your employer, prioritize companies that take a remote-first policy.
This is not that different from considering the overall company culture before accepting a role. You wouldn’t want to work in a company that did not reflect your values and would require you to do things that you were uncomfortable with to get ahead. Remote-first is another element of company culture to consider when deciding if a position is a right fit for you.
Optimize Your Work Schedule
One of the major benefits of remote working is that you can be flexible with your time so that you can do your most creative work when you are most energized. Or at least that is how it should work in theory. Too many people end up replicating in-office habits while sitting at home.
Instead, monitor yourself and when and how your work best and optimize your work week to take advantage of that. This will mean that you are able to produce better work in less time. Consequently, you should have more capacity to go above and beyond and accept new challenges, which is what you need to do if you want to be promoted.
Invest Extra Time in Development
Invest the extra time that you should have as a remote worker in development. While good companies should offer you access to training and professional development resources, it is up to you to take these on with gusto.
Complete relevant training courses that fill gaps in your skills. Attend conferences to keep up to date and network. Engage in side projects that have the potential to develop into something more. Cultivate a high-quality RSS field to keep on top of what is happening in your industry.
Document your Wins
When you are in the office, often when you produce good work or solve a significant problem, this becomes obvious and word spreads. This is significantly less likely to happen if you are working remotely.
Consequently, it is up to you to document every win, so that you have the information on hand when you need it. This could be in meetings with your line manager, when applying for other jobs, or when justifying a suggested way forward in a team meeting.
Master Asynchronous Communication
If you are in a remote-first workplace, much of your communication will happen via email or messenger. It is important that you know how to express yourself via these platforms. Invest in becoming a good writer with the right tone and concise text that gets to the point and cannot be misinterpreted.
Knowing how to Zoom or otherwise engage in video conferencing is also very important. No one has patience for that person who always forgets to turn on or off their mic, or who always needs about five minutes to figure out how to share their screen.
Networking is fundamental to career progression no matter how much you work. It is often not enough to be there, you need to make an impression, get remembered, and build genuine connections with the right people.
Schedule virtual lunch dates with colleagues and others in your organization. Be willing to do small favors that help colleagues see you as a positive influence. Join relevant online communities and participate actively. Make Twitter your virtual watercooler for industry-related banter.
When you are working remotely you may feel like you don’t want to overdo it with communications, but you should, in fact, be communicating more than you would if you were physically present with the rest of your time.
When you are out of sight, you are out of mind. Regular communication helps keep you at the front of people’s minds. But make sure your communications are relevant, positive, and carefully constructed to leave the right impression.
Ask for what you want
If you are looking for upskilling and opportunities to grow in your role, and eventually promotion, this is something that you should discuss openly with your manager. This helps them keep you in mind for opportunities and allows them to steer you in the right direction.
Career Progression for Remote Workers
One of the great things about remote working is that it provides autonomy in where, when, and how we work. But we cannot demand this autonomy and still expect to be spoon-fed career progression in the way our grandparents experienced when they worked for the same company for life and worked their way up by virtue of time rather than performance.
Those seeking autonomy in how they work also need to take responsibility for their own professional development and career progression. While good companies can play an important role in this and offer significant support, ultimately, the buck stops with you.