Can workers climb the corporate career ladder from outside the office?

During his internship at a major bank last summer, Costa Kosmidis spent most of his time working remotely. The bank did its best to help interns bridge the distance, he said, including by putting into practice “an open ‘virtual door’ policy” that made senior staff readily available by phone or email for job-related queries and career advice.

Nevertheless, when Kosmidis, 22, starts a job at the same bank after graduating from Fordham University this year, he hopes to spend more time in the office.

“You can feel people’s energy better when you’re around them,” Kosmidis said. Assessing someone’s availability, for example, is trickier from afar: “It’s a quick glance when you’re in the office, but when you’re online, you’re not sure how much they have on their plate.”

Remote work is often favoured by established employees who know their manager, are comfortable in their role and want to balance work with family responsibilities or other personal obligations. For those just starting their careers, working in isolation can make fitting into an organisation – and eventually progressing up its ranks – more difficult.

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Companies have become more open to remote work during the pandemic. Now, as they plan for what work will look like going forward, they are paying more attention to what it means to build a career without the traditional opportunities for networking, mentorship and visibility that come with a full-time physical office. Some of their employees are also giving more thought to what long-term remote or hybrid work might mean for their futures.

“We’re beginning to hear from employees, in particular young employees who are – believe it or not – concerned,” said Johnny C Taylor Jr, CEO at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who focuses on the changing geography of work, said he had seen three common practices at companies that managed remote work successfully. These companies took the time to compile information and practices in handbooks or guides that employees can consult from anywhere; paired remote workers with mentors outside their department so that they could speak frankly without endangering team relationships; and created what he called the “virtual water cooler.”

In one study, Choudhury and his colleagues randomly assigned some interns at a global bank to take part in one-on-one video meetings with senior executives. Others met virtually with fellow interns, and some were assigned no extra meetings at all. Those assigned to meet with the senior employees had better performance reviews at the end of the summer and were more likely to receive job offers.

Managed effectively, remote work can lead to more in-depth conversations, Choudhury said.

“When people talk about office hallway conversations and office water cooler conversations, the reality is that those are really limited,” he said. Being remote forces people to make an effort to make those meetings happen and puts everyone on a level playing field. On video, “you see the senior manager’s dog walk by,” he said. “You would not see that in the real office.”

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Some companies have also started training managers to help remote workers forge their career paths. Nationwide Insurance, which early in the pandemic moved a majority of its 25,000 workers permanently to hybrid or full-time work-from-home arrangements, trained managers to facilitate career development for associate workers, creating templates for conversations about workers’ skills and interests and pairing them with mentors or company resources to help them reach their goals. Nationwide also created a fully virtual four-week leadership course available to workers at all levels of the organisation.

“We’ve been intentional to create experiences so that out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind, which was a big concern for some,” said Erin Pheister, Nationwide’s senior vice president of talent and organisation effectiveness.

Software developer HubSpot, based in Massachusetts, trains managers to work with distributed teams, with an emphasis on conversations that establish team cohesion and build personal relationships, said Katie Burke, the company’s chief people officer. That means being very clear upfront about how the team should work together and encouraging people to chat about their out-of-office interests and pastimes.

HubSpot also encourages managers to embrace what Burke calls “intentionality” in their approach to team events. Bonding opportunities like virtual happy hours are great, for example, but if they are announced last minute, people in different time zones or those with caregiving responsibilities often can’t join.

The hope is that intentional efforts to include remote workers can help battle managers’ tendency to favour in-person employees. When the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed managers about remote work last year, 42 per cent reported that they often overlooked remote workers when handing out assignments – not for punitive or intentional reasons, Taylor said, but because they simply forgot about them.

Among the employees most likely to prefer remote work are women and people of colour, who even before the pandemic often reported feeling underrepresented and isolated in the workplace. Going remote without proper support can create a vicious cycle that exacerbates that sense of alienation while also decreasing the chance that those workers will be pulled in for career- and morale-boosting projects.

Sensitive to this unconscious tendency, which organisational psychologists have labelled “proximity bias,” HubSpot evaluated all of its roles and designated which positions have to be done in the office for legitimate business reasons.

“‘I just prefer when I can see people on my team’ – that is not a good business reason,” Burke said.

Fewer than 5 per cent of the company’s total jobs ultimately met that requirement, including front-desk receptionists and security personnel. A vast majority of the company’s roles are now officially designated as “work anywhere” positions. Working out of the office isn’t framed as an exception or special privilege but a part of the job, and managers are trained to think of their teams as a unit irrespective of location.

Soon, HubSpot will start tracking work location along with other diversity data to ensure that work location preference isn’t interfering with promotion chances.

While companies are taking steps to create opportunities for remote employees to climb career ladders, it may also be helpful for employees to consider whether they are a good fit for remote work before opting out of the office, said Kyle Elliott, a career and executive coach in California.

Remote workers, Elliott said, “really have to put in effort and be strategic and intentional to get face time” with managers and colleagues. But he also acknowledges that even speaking up and proactively seeking opportunities can go only so far if the company’s culture isn’t compatible with remote work.

“If a lot of decisions are made through side conversations, through walking up to someone’s office, through hallway conversations, recognise that despite how good you may be at emailing or Slack communications, you will be left out of conversations that happen organically in-office,” Elliott said. “Zoom simply cannot replace all those side conversations.”

By Corinne Purtill © 2022 The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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