Are Promotions Within Reach for Telecommuters?

Being out of sight doesn’t have to mean out of mind when it comes to advancing your career

By Elaina Loveland May 15, 2017
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​Remote work is more popular than ever—43 percent of American workers now telecommute at least part of the time—but when it comes to career advancement like promotions, are remote employees penalized for not having a physical presence in the workplace?

In 2014, Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom and his team conducted a work from home experiment in China with Ctrip, a 16,000-employee, NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel agency. The study found that remote workers had a 13 percent performance increase over onsite employees but that they were still about 50 percent less likely to get a performance-based promotion than their at-the-workplace counterparts.

This could be for many reasons, according to Bloom.

"It could be they are ignored [because they're] at home. It could be you actually need to be in the office to make a good manager. Or it could be people who have the option to work from home refuse promotions," said Bloom.

Claire Bissot is managing director of HR services for CBIZ, a management consulting firm headquartered in Cleveland that has more than 100 offices and 4,000 associates nationwide. She says her company is evidence that remote worker status does not necessarily impede career advancement.

Bissot was working for CBIZ remotely in Roanoke, Va., when she was promoted two years ago from an HR business development manager position to her current managing director role. Bissot has since built a team in Roanoke, but the majority of her staff is based in a St. Louis office.

"My being remote has really challenged us to ensure we have good communication as a team," she said. She travels to St. Louis once a month for a four-day period to visit her team members.

Bissot said it's up to remote employees to make sure that management notices them.

"I don't think you have to be physically present for people to understand the impact you're making in a business," Bissot said. "[High] performance will rule out any negative thoughts about telecommuting. [But] if they can't see your progress or you're not taking the opportunity to communicate it, then people may assume that lack of presence equals lack of skill or performance."

Past the Tipping Point?

From 2012 to 2016, the number of employees working remotely increased from 39 percent to 43 percent, according to Gallup's State of the American Workplace report released in February. Among nonself-employed Americans, the number who regularly work from home has grown by 103 percent since 2005, according to San Diego-based Global Workplace Analytics.

The remote work trend "is expected to continue as today's workers expect flexibility," the Gallup report authors wrote. "To attract and retain the best talent, organizations will need to offer those [teleworking] options."

"It does seem like we have passed the tipping point where telecommuting is no longer thought of as something that might hold people back in their careers," said Carol Cochran, director of people and culture at FlexJobs, a fully remote company that specializes in part-time and telecommuting job listings.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

FlexJobs has worked with many large companies over the last several years that have adopted telecommuting programs for employees.

"From what we can tell, the remote employees and in-office employees are treated equally in terms of promotions and career advancement opportunities," said Cochran.

Whether remote workers are considered for career advancement can depend on the type of company they work at and on the workplace culture, said Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, based in New York City.

For example, she said remote work is often effective at a global chain. If remote workers are located in different countries and "all of them are comparable to … each other, they don't physically sit in the same room, yet nobody questions whether that's productive," she noted.

At the same time, she said, it's a good idea for remote teams to meet face to face periodically.

"If you are managing a team, it's probably good to be with that team from time to time," she said. "Teleworking doesn't have to preclude that."

Bissot said that companies should think creatively about career advancement.

"Advancement doesn't always mean management in an office," Bissot said. "And it doesn't always mean management."

There was a time when Elizabeth Gibson felt there was a bias against promoting telecommuters at one company where she worked. She, like other part-time telecommuters, felt compelled to work more hours "to get noticed," she said.

"I witnessed more advancement among the office-based staff," said Gibson, who now telecommutes full time as chief content officer for leasing company ezLandlordForms in Mullica Hill, N.J. "The company's growth potential was negatively impacted because talented telecommuters were more often overlooked at promotion time."

Full-time telecommuting, however, has not prevented her from advancing in her current job.

"I've had improved recognition, more offers to advance and even the highest-ever salary in my career as a full-time telecommuter," she said.

Given that younger employees in particular are demanding flexible work schedules that include telecommuting options, remote work may become the norm in the coming years, Cochran said. And that means companies can't afford to overlook talented telecommuters who wish to advance at the organization.

"There really seems to be a realization among business leaders and HR professionals that remote work and telecommuting are here to stay, and building strong telecommuting programs that are rooted in the company's overarching business strategies and the employees' needs is what needs to happen," Cochran said.

Elaina Loveland is a freelance writer based in Natick, Mass.

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