Twice in the last week I’ve been asked the same question: “Can I work remotely and still have a career path with my employer?” That’s kind of a trick question, because it largely depends on the employer, but in general the answer should be yes—if you’re willing to put in the work.
There is a difference between a job (employment and a paycheck) and a career (a continuing arc of incremental change to the duties and probably the pay that goes with it). Many companies have made peace with—even encouraged—the former. At some point, though, career choices become limited. Many people are told that if they want to reach upper management, they have to be willing to come into the office and even relocate.
The usual reason given by companies is that when you reach a certain level of the organization, your work becomes less task-oriented and more strategic. This requires brainstorming, collaboration, information sharing and quick access to others at similar levels. In other words, you need to be in the office at least a majority of the time.
Sometimes this is a fact and sometimes it’s an opinion. Knowing which is which is critical to determining if you have a long-term career path. Here are some questions you need to address if you’re going to know for sure:
Is the need to be co-located a fact or an assumption?
One of the reasons so many senior leaders are resistant to remote teams is that they’ve never worked that way before. Their success came from being co-located, and there’s an assumption that’s simply “how it’s done.” This isn’t to say that some company cultures depend on high degrees of socialization and access to each other (in which case remote working probably isn’t the right answer). The trick is to determine if they are thoughtfully making this determination, or just going on what’s worked in the past.
Has the policy on working remotely been tested?
I can’t tell you how many companies have maintained this idea until one of the very senior leaders decides to relocate, and then suddenly it becomes achievable. If you are the first person to attempt this, rather than saying “let’s burn down the policy,” position it as an experiment. “Proof of concept,” works for people-processes as well as products. The decision to allow remote work doesn’t have to be irrevocable.
Have you asked about opportunities to work remotely?
Working from home has become a perk for some companies, an expectation for others, and a necessary evil for a few more. Many companies assume that if you’re choosing to work from home, you’re doing so for work-life balance reasons and that being part of the day to day operation isn’t a priority. That may or may not be true, but unless you have honest discussions with your manager and those who do recruiting and career planning in your company, you won’t know. Many people have gladly taken themselves out of the rat race by choosing to work elsewhere. Others have found themselves stuck without meaning to.
You still need to understand the dynamics of your organization (which is a polite way of saying politics)
Many people say that one of the advantages of working from home is avoiding “all the politics.” What they mean, of course, is the gossip, personal drama, and turf wars that happen any time human beings gather and share power. Those dynamics also include opportunities to build strong networks, understand how to get things done, and showcase your talents to those who can promote you. If you work away from those making hiring decisions, you’ll have to find some way, beyond merely being under their nose, to prove your value to the company. You will have to work hard to maintain and build relationships, keep up on company news, and maintain the big picture so that you’ll spot and be able to take advantage of growth opportunities. This doesn’t mean you sit back and play Game of Thrones. As we say in The Long-Distance Leader, you can understand politics without playing politics.
Yes, companies can (and probably should) do a lot to make these discussions easier and career paths available. They need to re-examine policies that may be outdated or based on poor assumptions. At the end of the day, though, nobody is responsible for the growth of your career but you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.