Do remote workers have the same opportunities for advancement as their full-time colleagues?

In the classic movie Office Space, Mr. Lumbergh comes ambling around the employees’ cubicles, only to find the film’s protagonist, a programmer named Peter, habitually absent from his desk. But upon the advice of consultants, Peter still gets promoted anyway. In real life, of course, such absence may mean missed opportunities. What happens when one is not seen around the office for long periods, because they are working remotely?

The rise of remote work means the rules for corporate advancement must change as well. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of people primarily working from home in the United States alone tripled from 5.7% (roughly 9 million people) to 17.9% (27.6 million people), according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. While there may ultimately be a diminishment in full remote work, hybrid work is here to stay, and companies will be balancing their hybrid work policies through the year, according to Wharton management professor Martine Haas. “A lot of companies have moved toward hybrid in the last year and have found it not perfect, by any means, but [it] seems to be striking a pretty decent balance between what employees want and what employers want. A lot of firms are still thinking through how to make it as good as it can be.”

If hybrid and remote is “as good as it can be,” how good is it for one’s career advancement? Is lack of visibility to executives detrimental to promotion opportunities? Some organizations are already remote-friendly, especially if leading executives themselves are working remotely. But many companies are structured for in-person work, and for them, the Covid situation was more of an aberration than the norm. The question is, will both remote and hybrid workers in such organizations have the same opportunities for advancement as their full-time on-site counterparts?

To a large degree, it may depend upon how deeply a remote-first policy goes. “I would argue that before the pandemic, remote employees were at a disadvantage when it came to promotions because physical proximity allowed in-house employees to know each other better and gain an inside edge,” says Matt McConnell, chairman and CEO of Intradiem. “This remains true, to a degree, for companies using a hybrid model; but I think that when everyone is remote, it levels the playing field.”

Opening opportunities for hybrid or remote employees means re-thinking overcoming traditional, and often extremely informal, career paths. It also means figuring out ways to overcoming the serendipity involved in career advancement. “I think that on-site employees may have some advantages that remote workers don’t,” says Fredrik Nilsson, vice president of the Americas for Axis Communications. “If I was an office-based worker wanting to advance, I would try to get as much visibility as I can with decision-makers. This is much easier done in person. You are also more able to take advantage of ad-hoc conversations with others during lunch or a coffee break. Building your personal brand is much easier and more efficient in person.”

Brian Macias, president of Embrace Pet Insurance, agrees that visibility is an advantage — but only to an extent. “A motivated individual who works hard and performs well, whether in the office or working remotely, is going to get noticed and move up in the organization. That being said, I do think it’s easier for those in the office.”

Hybrid and remote workers “can advance at the same pace as on-site, but it’s important to consider the disparities that can create an unfair advantage,” says Dr. Devan Kronisch, talent development coach at Chili Piper. “A remote employee will not be as socially connected with managers and staff that go into the office, and as a result, these on-site workers can be more privileged to receive a promotion compared to their remote counterparts.”

In an organization “where some workers are all remote and others are all in the office, management needs to take special measures to make sure remote workers are not forgotten,” says Robert C. Pozen, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Remote Inc.: How to Thrive at Work. “I recommend that every manager meet online with their remote team members at least once a week to keep them informed about changes in company policies and promotional opportunities. In addition, I recommend that all remote workers be assigned an ‘office buddy,’ who can keep them in the know and make sure they don’t lose out on informal sources of job information.”

Younger employees just starting up the career ladder may need more in-person time than their more seasoned counterparts, says Macias. “Younger team members especially may be missing the opportunity to develop real relationships with leaders and peers when working remotely. They have to schedule a meeting to get face time with leadership which can be a big hurdle, especially if they don’t feel empowered to take that step. That same person in the office might meet a leader in the lunchroom and get to share their big wins. Fostering the relationships that help you move up the corporate ladder is simply easier when there’s the opportunity for chance meetings and face-to-face interactions.”

At Intradiem, there has been a concerted effort to draw younger or new employees deeper into the organization despite their remote status. “Compared to pre-pandemic work, younger employees do suffer a professional development disadvantage even in a fully remote context,” says McConnell. “They’re not able to overhear conversations and learn indirectly from more senior employees. That’s why we’ve made a very intentional choice to make a significant investment in new employee development and a highly structured onboarding and mentoring program.”

Reward systems need to be adapted as well — tying advancement to objective performance metrics, and not relationships. “We measure impact, and our employees can make an impact from anywhere,” says Abby Payne, chief people officer at SailPoint. “We focus on enabling our organization’s leaders to manage and measure performance so that we’re rewarding and recognizing the right people across the organization.”

Still, even when measured with objective metrics, hybrid and remote workers may feel extra pressure to keep those metrics at high levels. Bantering with a manager in the lunchroom may garner some extra time with a project deadline, but hybrid and remote workers won’t have that kind of forum. “Managers need to keep in mind that remote or hybrid employees might feel more pressure to show they are dedicated team members and that they need to produce more to be seen by management,” says Payne. “Managers with remote teams can ensure remote employees aren’t overburdened and that they receive the same development opportunities as others on the team during regular check ins and meetings.”

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