Will Remote Work Hinder Careers?

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie June 23, 2020
Will Remote Work Hinder Careers?

​As businesses cautiously reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees continue to do their jobs at home—either because their employers have told them to work remotely or because they've been given the choice to do so. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management shows that 68 percent of companies say they will offer flexible or remote work for all workers for the foreseeable future.

The flexibility has its perks and disadvantages. On the one hand, remote work gives employees more control over juggling professional and family responsibilities. On the other, managers who are new to supervising employees from afar may—whether consciously or not—mentor, groom and promote the employees they see at the workplace and neglect the career progress of those who remain at home, workplace experts say.

"Now that [so many are] working remotely, people are wondering about the implications to them and their careers," said Juan Riboldi, an international business advisor and principal and president of Ascent Advisor, a management consulting firm in Provo, Utah. "When there is no way to see everyone at work, some managers tend to feel less comfortable knowing where everyone is and what they are working on. Some managers even question productivity simply because they can't see it."

Seeking a 'Group' Is Human Nature

Before the pandemic convinced many employers to send workers home in mid-March, only about 8 percent of employees worked from home, according to February research from Brett Wells, director of people analytics at Perceptyx, a Temecula, Calif.-based company that performs employee surveys and people analytics. During the height of states' quarantines, more than 75 percent of U.S. employees were working remotely, Wells found in his survey of more than 500,000 employees across more than 100 global companies.

That percentage has no doubt dropped since some states have relaxed stay-at-home orders, but that doesn't mean everyone is in a hurry to get back to the office. In fact, many professionals dread returning to the workplace and a majority feel they're more productive at home, according to a June survey of U.S. professionals by organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry. Half of the respondents said they were afraid to go back to the office, and 25 percent weren't confident their employer had created a safe and healthy workplace to return to.

Some managers overseeing employees working remotely during the pandemic—especially those managers who are new to the practice—may feel disconnected from their direct reports.

Phyllis Reagin, founder of At the Coach's Table, a leadership coaching company in Los Angeles, noted that it's human nature for people to want to feel like they belong to a group. Good managers create cohesiveness among employees who see and talk with one another every day, but it can be easy for the manager and others to view team members who work remotely as "outside" the group. For instance, she noted, remote workers can't have side conversations before and after meetings or conduct quick updates with others in hallways. They can't just pop into someone's office to ask a question or relay a funny story.

"There is a real strain on developing and maintaining important relationships," Reagin said. "The lower visibility may result in being passed over for prime projects, promotions and a lowered chance of salary growth."

Technology Challenges

While technology advances have made it easier for employees to work remotely, that technology isn't without glitches.

In its 2020 State of the Digital Workplace report released June 9, Igloo Software found that 54 percent of remote workers had at least one meeting interrupted due to technical issues and 51 percent admitted to being overwhelmed by the amount of nonwork-related messages sent in apps like Slack.

"As working remotely has become the new reality, it has exposed the benefits of a work-from-home situation, as well as the challenges," said Mike Hicks, chief managing officer of Igloo Software, which provides digital workplace solutions.

Wells added that managers who hope to create strong bonds with remote workers need to master technology that lets them communicate in many different mediums.

 "We've seen a lot of creative ideas that create opportunities for people to connect—from virtual trivia to introducing pets during team meetings," he said. "Some companies are hosting 'meet me in the kitchen' chats via Zoom. These types of connections may lead to less stigma for remote workers in the long run." 

Avoid Bias and Negative Messages

As a manager, it's important to avoid comments or messages that imply that someone working onsite is somehow more valued than someone offsite, said Denise Broady, COO at WorkForce Software, a Livonia, Mich.-based company that provides cloud-based workforce management solutions. For most of her career, Broady has worked remotely.

"When my kids were young, I had a blended work schedule of being in the office a couple of days, and three days I might work from home," she said. "I noticed when I was working from home, people thought I was hanging out with my kids or doing laundry. They'd say, 'Oh, you're at home again today.' A few times where I didn't turn on my camera [for a videoconference], people were like, 'Why isn't your camera turned on?' "

Even subtle actions such as applauding those who've returned to the worksite after the COVID-19 quarantine can give the impression that these workers are considered more "courageous" or "committed" than those who remain at home.

In other words, workplace experts said, if you've given employees the choice to continue working remotely, don't subtly belittle that choice by celebrating the people who've returned to the worksite.

Such comments may seem innocuous, but they can reveal an unconscious bias that "can play a large influence in … promotion decisions" when it comes to remote workers, said Andrea Lagan, chief customer and people officer at software maker Betterworks, based in Redwood City, Calif.

"Operating without bias should be the goal of every organization, and HR should be leading the way in that effort," Lagan said. "It's especially important to teach managers how to use data to eliminate [bias]—for example, if the data show that those in a corporate office are being promoted and those in remote locations are not."

How to Avoid 'Remote Work' Bias

Lagan suggests that managers ask themselves these questions:

*How am I objectively tracking what my employees are accomplishing?
*Do each of my employees have solid objectives they are responsible for?
*Do those objectives have key results identified to measure their success?
*Am I having regular and consistent conversations with each of my employees?
*How am I providing feedback to my employees and how are they providing feedback to me?
*How is recognition provided across my employee base?

"Over the course of my three-decade career, I have seen numerous people advance their careers despite working remotely from any corporate office or headquarters location," Lagan said. "I have regularly promoted employees who worked remotely from any corporate office or headquarters location. Where an employee works isn't what's important; what they accomplish and how they do it by collaborating with other people is."

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