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Is Remote Work Suited for Early Career Professionals?

Despite the many benefits remote work brings, there is still some argument whether it’s a good idea for everyone. 

“Working remotely pretty much destroyed my career,” laments a commenter on a Hacker News thread. They go on to add, “My advice to you is that unless you are at the end of your career, or value working from home over your career prospects for family or health reasons, avoid working 100% remotely, even in fully distributed companies.” 

This outburst echoes one of the more prevalent arguments against taking up remote work early on in your career – it will limit your progression. 

“I worked remote when I was a junior developer. I think this hindered my growth in a number of ways and I would strongly recommend against it,” another commenter says via a Dev.to thread. “I consider some of those years lost and think I could have advanced much faster in an on-site role.”

Without the physical access to managers and peers that co-location provides, other commenters agree that working remotely can be more difficult early on. They cite a lack in mentorship, more barriers to asking questions and reduced opportunity for connection as reasons against starting your career remotely. 

They’re not alone in their thinking either. The widely-sourced Stanford University work from home experiment run by Nicholas Bloom found that remote workers were about 50 percent less likely to get a performance-based promotion than their office-bound counterparts.

While the study didn’t look into the causes in any in-depth manner, Nicholas did offer up speculations. 

“It could be they are ignored [because they’re] at home. It could be you actually need to be in the office to make a good manager. Or it could be people who have the option to work from home refuse promotions,” Nicholas says.

This isn’t just theoretical. Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting a management consulting firm helping companies to integrate proper remote work policies and strategies, often sees remote workers overlooked for promotions.  

“This is actually one of the main reasons that remote work can become discriminatory,” she says. “So many promotions are based on top of mind experiences and on visibility.”

Laurel knows that without changing management styles or general mindsets of what work should look like, this experience will continue for remote workers regardless of their career level. 

study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review has similar findings. It stated that both managers and colleagues are influenced by “passive face time,” or in other words seeing someone regularly. 

“We were literally taught that in college. Be the first one to go to work and be the last one to leave, and that’s what gets you a promotion,” Laurel says. 

But this traditional value signalling doesn’t work in a remote setting. No one can see if you work late or start early. There are also fewer opportunities to ‘run into’ your management team during the week or at after-work social events. 

Yet despite a changing workforce, these traditional value systems and strategies seem hard to leave behind. 

“That obviously has a lot of problems,” Laurel says. “It’s out of sight out of mind, and [remote workers are] being passed up for promotional opportunities.”

But, as a staunch supporter for the remote work model, and someone who has created a career around helping people integrate proper policy and strategies for remote work, Laurel also believes this can be changed. 

“A crucial service that we provide as consultants is to evaluate how productivity is being tracked and measured, how assignments are being distributed and what the communication channels are,” she says. 

“So that everybody, regardless of location, whether they’re onsite or offsite, whether they’re a temporary freelancer or an executive — everybody has equal access to information and opportunity.”

Valuing remote workers on results rather than hours spent at their desk 

Outcome-based performance evaluation shifts any value for showing up to the office to the results of the worker. It tackles internalized bias that favors people we can see and interact with and instead intentionally focusses on the standard and outcomes of each person’s work. This management strategy actually makes sense for all teams, not just remote ones. Still, it does take some effort to implement. 

In a survey conducted by ultimate software of 1,000 full-time workers in the US, remote workers were 40% more likely to have been promoted in the past year and 27% more likely to feel there is the opportunity for growth in their current job compared with in-office workers. 

Of the respondents who worked remotely (approx. 500), 74% said they believe their company is invested in their career growth. In contrast, 65% of in-office staff reported the same. 

While the study has a small sample, it’s still evidence of what can happen when companies are intentionally supportive of their staff, regardless of where their desk is set up. 

“It is not the same experience for everyone,” says another commenter on the Dev.to thread. “I can say that [working remotely] works for junior’s, but it depends entirely on the company and its culture.” 

Successful remote culture depends on multiple factors

Rowena Hennigan, the co-author of a newly developed module entitled Future of Work (Remote Working Skills) at The Technological University of Dublin, thinks it’s more likely a combination of this supportive culture and the individual’s skillset. 

“I think for this to work, people need to be self-aware and mature enough to know what they need, and maybe you can be 21 coming out of uni having that – you could be! Maybe you need a bit longer. It’s case by case.”

However, she’s still a firm believer in companies and managers providing support, encouragement and regular check-ins. 

“For sustainability, you should care about your workers to the point where you say, ‘how can I keep an eye on them?’” she says. “That means anything — how are they doing mentally, emotionally, physically? Can we help with anything? Can we support with anything?”

But as an academic, and remote worker herself, Rowena is passionate about actually equipping the new generation with the skills they’ll need to succeed in their future workplace – wherever that may be. 

The module, which was co-authored with Maébh Coleman and Marian Jennings, is a part of a BSc Human Resource Management. It, therefore, aims to equip students with the skills to work remotely if they choose, but also to support others who may work remotely through their future HR roles. 

“It’s grounded academically, but it’s also very very practical,” she says.  

While they named the module the ‘Future of Work,’ it’s clear that these skills are necessary now. As graduates are entering into a changed and changing workforce, they must be equipped with the proficiencies they’ll need to thrive. This means being prepared for work models that are no longer traditional. 

As Rowena is a remote lecturer, living in Spain, her sessions were all taught virtually, giving a practical application of the content. 

“I said [to the students], ‘don’t just pay attention to the content, pay attention to how I’m going to run the webinar. How I’ll stop every minute or two, how I’ll check if you can hear me, how I’ll interact on chat.” 

With practical learning, graduates will be more aware of the unique challenges associated with remote roles, and better equipped to make a choice on graduate positions. 

“They’re not going in blind,” Rowena says. 

Preparing graduates for remote work 

Rowena says courses like this are essential for building softer skills like communication and self-reflection. 

“I asked whether they would be interested in being remote workers and a third responded that they didn’t think so,” she says.

“They said for their graduate job they didn’t think it would suit them straight away that they would prefer flexible work. One said that it wouldn’t suit their personality, they want to be more social. Another two said they always pictured themselves for the first two years of their career in an office meeting people and interacting.”

What struck Rowena most about these responses was the self-awareness. 

“That they knew what they wanted,” she says.

According to Rowena, this practice of self-reflection plays a huge part in the success of anyone’s career, but particularly in remote roles. 

“The reflection helps you understand the benefits, the reason. It helps you understand why you chose it, but it might also help you notice the triggers for the negatives. Yesterday I didn’t get outside to walk in the park, and by the afternoon I was feeling isolated,” she says.

For an early-career folk to already have these skills in place by the time they enter the workforce is a game-changer, whether they are remote or not. Which is why modules like Future of Work (Remote Working Skills) are so important. 

In fact, Rowena argues that some of these skills should be incorporated far earlier than college. She doesn’t mean bringing in ‘remote days’ to primary schools either. It’s more about the skills that are transferrable and necessary in a more virtual future

“I don’t believe that you can teach everything completely online — and I do online teaching, so I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job!” she says. 

“For certain developments, you need to go into a physical place, a college, a school, a university and have proper social interaction and practice those interpersonal skills.”

Programs like drama and debating and public speaking all help.

“You have to have [some skills, like communication] inter-personally before you can have them online,” Rowena says.

“I used to challenge some of my students that always wanted to default to a text or an email. I’d ask if they stopped to consider if that was the right way to handle this communication exchange.”

This isn’t merely a tension of the old way vs the new but instead learning to assess each situation critically. This is something that education, particularly tertiary education, teaches really well. 

Online courses for remote skills are the future

Virtual or online courses have been steadily growing over the past decade, and with the addition of Future of Work (Remote Working Skills) module at The Technological University of Dublin, it’s clear that similar subjects will begin to pop up at universities around the world. At the very least, remote skills are likely to be integrated into current and future modules as our world grows increasingly more technologically savvy. 

We’re no longer working with a generation of people who are unfamiliar with what it takes to go remote. While obviously time and experience help with this, it doesn’t necessarily have to all come from the workplace.

Remote work has its learning curve

Remote work doesn’t always work for everyone. Often, it can take some trial and error to set up a module that balances the flexibility of working remotely with the productivity and virtual connection required. Sometimes what works in one season of life doesn’t work in another and requires a new set of tweaks. 

This will be true whether you’re just starting out or have been working remotely for your entire career.  

Setting yourself up by learning practical skills that will be helpful in a remote position as well as practicing softer skills like self-reflection, communication and self-management will be a huge help. As will choosing a role with a company that has supportive and active culture.  

But you can’t know if you’ll succeed in a remote role unless you try. No choice is completely without risk. Graduate positions are always huge learning curves and even if the biggest lesson that comes from your time working remote is that you never want to do it again, that’s still helpful information to know. 

– Bree Caggiati, February 2020

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