Remote Working: Why Your Career may not Zoom Ahead as Much as You’d Like

work boundary

By Rocio Bonet and Peter Cappelli

Much is being said these days about what the future of work will look like. The most important of the possibilities is the work-from-home model propelled by the pandemic. Tech companies announced that they are not going back to the face-to-face model, investment banks said they were, and the reality is that many employers have not decided. Google location tracking data indicates that more employees in Europe are back in their offices than in the US and UK.

Within the remote notion, some organisations are allowing workers to be always remote – never come in – while most others have “hybrid” models where workers are in the office only part of the time. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt speculated that employers will offer hybrid models to get workers back into their offices and then take them away later.

Real estate costs are less if we get rid of offices but, beyond that, is the performance of office jobs better when employees are working remotely or not?

What employers will do in the long run, though, is not so clear. Real estate costs are less if we get rid of offices but, beyond that, is the performance of office jobs better when employees are working remotely or not? Most employers just don’t know, in part because there are many different dimensions of performance but mostly because they haven’t tried very hard to figure it out.

We can imagine that the lack of interruptions from other workers and from the manager could be a benefit, but other evidence suggests that the time spent in remote meetings is actually greater than in the office.

But how about for the employees? There is no doubt that most workers want some type of work from home. It gives them the flexibility to accommodate their private life, it can save on commuting costs, they can work in comfortable clothes, and, with permanent remote, move to their dream location. So, what is not to like?

A closer examination of the consequences of remote work suggests that perhaps the picture is not so rosy, especially concerning workers’ career development and advancement. The term zoom ceiling has been recently coined to express the potential for lagging behind in one’s career and the difficulty in advancing to higher levels in the organisation in the remote work environment. This is not a surprise to academics doing research in this topic. What we have come to learn from the empirical studies that investigated the consequences of working remotely before the pandemic – when remote workers had colleagues back in the office – is that physical distance is an important barrier to getting ahead.

working remotely

What Tends to Go Wrong?

The virtual environment necessarily entails poorer communication between workers and their managers. Neuroscientists have documented not only the many non-verbal cues that we use to communicate, such as facial gestures and body language, but even the importance of eye contact in building relationships. Virtual systems simply do not compensate.

Distance also impedes spontaneous communication, the exchanges of information that happen when a worker crosses paths with a manager in the corridor or at the water cooler. These encounters are great chances for managers to gather feedback regarding a task in which the worker is involved and for workers to make their managers aware of a potential problem they may be encountering (be it personal or with their team members) and that may be the reason for a delay in the execution of a task. The transmission of this information is harder to do remotely. It may also be harder for managers to learn about workers’ skills, abilities, preferences, working style, and behaviours.

Impaired communication and limited information challenge the traditional model of career development in organisations, as the processes of job assignment, performance evaluation, providing developmental feedback and mentoring, and training for missing skills are harder to do and require a new approach at a distance.

Some observers have referred to all these challenges as “proximity bias”, as if it is something that managers intentionally do to remote workers. Trying to treat people who are physically remote from us in the same way as those with whom we work side by side would be an incredible challenge, and it is not clear that it would work, even if employers were willing spend the time and resources to give it a try. It is easy to say that we should just specify what outcomes we want from employees and then let them do it from home, but that only works for individual contributor roles.

In the presence of impaired communication and limited information, workers need to be aware of the main pitfalls they should avoid when working remotely if they do not want to see their careers truncated. The leaders of these workers also need to adjust the way they go about managing talent if they do not want to see leaks in the talent pool.

So, if you could be, or already are, among those counted as teleworkers, here is a list of things to cross-check and ensure you don’t do while working remotely.

Remote Workplace

The “Not to Do” List in the Remote Workplace

1. Do not telework if you are new to the job.

This is true not only if you are new to the workplace, but if you are an outside hire or even a transfer from another department. Research has shown that external hires’ previous performance does not transfer immediately to the new organisation and that it may take a while until they catch up with people who have been longer in the company. Individuals who are new to the job need to learn about the culture of the company (“How are things done in here?”), as well as get to know the key players in their positions (manager, peers, internal clients). Because communication richness tends to suffer with distance, all these things are easier done when face to face. Thus, if given an option, workers who are new to their jobs may be better off choosing to work face to face, at least until they have learned the ropes of the organisation.

And if the office is not an option? Then be sure you ask a lot of questions about expectations and look for massive feedback about how you are doing.

2. Do not assume that no news means good news.

Most organisations are not good at providing timely feedback. Workers in the office can get a sense of how they are doing by observing, something that remote workers cannot. Nor should we assume that no news means no room for improvement. Distance makes it impossible for managers to check on your progress when some issue pops up – without having to schedule a Zoom call to do it. Remote work may also prevent the hated micromanagement, where nervous supervisors spend so much time checking and providing guidance that employees have no control, but it may also mean that learning is going to happen at a slower pace and that mistakes may not get corrected on time. All this contributes to poorer perceptions of performance. Distance also makes it hard for the manager and peers to give you a real-time pat on the back to praise your work. Not knowing that their work is being recognised, workers may feel that it is not important or impactful, which may ultimately undermine their motivation.

3. Do not wait to be chosen. The saying “Out of sight, out of mind” is very likely to apply to remote workers.

Research has shown that external hires’ previous performance does not transfer immediately to the new organisation and that it may take a while until they catch up with people who have been longer in the company.

Past research has found that those at a distance tend to be offered less creative work and less developmental projects. One reason is that it is much harder to develop trust in the virtual environment, in part because we lack information about how employees work and how they perform on different tasks. Add to this the fact that it is hard for workers to engage in “impression management activities”, those that are often so important in paving the way ahead. Previous research has found that, even with the same performance ratings, those working from home tend to get slower promotions than those working from the office. Remote workers need to take the initiative to ensure that their commitment and ambitions are well known to their supervisors. The managers of these workers may benefit from having an inventory of the skills and preferences of their workers and from frequently revising the achievements of everyone, in-office and remote, to ensure they have a broad picture of all the talent in the company.

4. Ask for clarification regarding expectations.

When in the office, communication regarding how things should be done often happens spontaneously. If a deadline is not clear, a quick conversation may help to clarify it. With remote work, there is no such thing as an immediate conversation, especially with superiors who often have gate keepers who want to fit those requests on the boss’s calendar.

As noted earlier, supervisors need to manage remote workers quite differently, but the caveat is to resist efforts to substitute monitoring for supervision. “Tattleware” – software that monitors remote workers – is flourishing, with the goal of tracking remote employees’ behaviours and providing almost instant data to the manager about what the worker is doing at each moment. Invading the space of the telework employee may have potential legal implications. It signals a clear mistrust of the worker and limits their autonomy; they must be at their desk 9-to-5, killing the flexibility that prompted their interest in remote work in the first place.

5. Breaking the boundaries between work and life is not always a plus.

If there is anything that remote workers learned the hard way during the pandemic, it is that on average the work day became longer. Work and family life share the same space, so it is hard to do work without having interruptions from your youngest kid, your barking dog, a neighbour who happens not to be working at that moment, or even a delivery person. As the number of Zoom meetings piles up during the day to accommodate remote workers, we have to extend our work day to find time to finish our work. Paradoxically, not being able to separate life and work may defeat one of the main purposes of engaging in remote work: to better accommodate life and work needs. Workers should be aware of the need to at least try to create boundaries between the two and respect their time for rest.

Not knowing that their work is being recognised, workers may feel that it is not important or impactful, which may ultimately undermine their motivation.

There is a learning curve in everything we do in life. It is possible that adapting to the new virtual environment may just require practice and a lot of adjustments along the way. Whether employers will feel the need to make those adjustments for workers who are making the choice to be remote is far from obvious. In the meantime, being aware of what goes wrong in the virtual environment can help workers make the right choices for their life outside of work and for their career.

About the Authors

Rocio BonetRocio Bonet is an associate professor of human resource management at IE Business School and the director of the DBA programme at IE University. Her areas of expertise cover executive careers, incentives and flexible work practices in organisations, with a special emphasis on how innovations in the way work is done in the current labour market impact employee behaviours and outcomes. Rocio received a PhD in management from the Wharton School, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Peter CappellPeter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School and Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. He is also a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA, served as Senior Advisor to the Kingdom of Bahrain for Employment Policy from 2003-5, was a Distinguished Scholar of the Ministry of Manpower for Singapore, and was Co-Director of the US Department of Education’s National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce from 1990-8. He was recently named by HR Magazine as one of the top five most influential management thinkers, by NPR as one of the 50 influencers in the field of ageing, and was elected a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He received the 2009 PRO award from the International Association of Corporate and Professional Recruiters for contributions to human resources and an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Liège, in Belgium. He is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and writes a monthly column for HR Executive magazine. His work on performance management, agile systems, and hiring practices, and other workplace topics appears in the Harvard Business Review. His latest book is The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We Face.

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