A few short years ago, a widely covered study by the MIT Sloan Management Review journal claimed that workers who telecommuted were less likely to receive promotions, big raises or good performance reviews than those who work in the office. This discrepancy was no reflection on how dedicated a person was to his or her job, the study found: Remote employees simply didn't have the same "passive face time" as their in-office colleagues, and leaders evaluated workers differently based on whether they were seen in the workplace.
While companies are shifting away from the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality, the fact remains that, unlike office workers, telecommuters can't fake productivity by sitting in a cubicle looking busy — and they may need to work a bit harder to make an impression with their bosses.
"The stigma [that remote workers] 'aren't really working' ... is a thing of the past, and more people are working from home," said Dennis Collins, senior marketing director at West Unified Communication Services. "[But] it's up to the employee to make sure they don't become invisible."
The career challenges of telecommuters
While technology has made it easier to run an organization with telecommuting employees, workers who don't report to the office have a very different experience than those who spend most of the week with their colleagues.Tom Schoenfelder, Ph.D. and senior vice president of research and development at Caliper, a provider of hiring assessments and talent-management solutions, said full-time remote employees often encounter the following challenges when managing their everyday work and career development:
Isolation from the company culture. Many telecommuters report a sense of professional isolation, which can often lead to work disengagement, Schoenfelder said. Telecommuters do not share the same social and psychological experience as their colleagues who commute into the office, and therefore are usually not as involved in the company's culture.
Lack of "face time." Employees who don't work in the office aren't able to visit face to face with colleagues, so "real-time" communication often has to happen via chat. If one party is away from his or her desk, it can cause obstacles to important information flow, as well as make it more challenging to establish the strong, trusting work relationships that aid collaboration, said Schoenfelder.
Fewer informal networking opportunities. Schoenfelder also noted that not being in the same physical location may affect a person's ability to engage in informal communication and networking. This everyday "networking" is typically an important aspect of navigating organizational politics, and can influence decisions about which workers are considered for sensitive or strategic projects. Those workers who telecommute may find that they're less likely to be aware of developmental opportunities or be assigned to stretch assignments, he said.
Time management. Despite the growing trend toward remote work, some telecommuters feel obligated to work longer hours simply to prove they're working, Schoenfelder said. This may lead to additional job stress that ultimately counteracts their productivity and effectiveness. On the flip side, he said, if remote workers don't take ownership of scheduling and clearly defining their work activities, it may appear that they're not working as hard as they truly are. [See Related Story: 7 Ways to Improve Work-Life Balance When You Work at Home]
How to advance your career
Like any other employee, remote employees are ultimately responsible for their own career development. However, when it comes time to bring up that raise or promotion to your boss, you may need to approach the conversation a bit differently than your in-office counterparts would. Rather than visiting your boss's desk or office to ask for a quick chat about your career, you'll need to make this initial request digitally.
"You don't just send an email saying, 'I'm ready for a raise,'" Collins said. "Just like in-office [employees], tell your boss you would like to talk about the next stage of your career. It's the same rules, just a different methodology."
Once your boss indicates he or she is ready to have a conversation, prepare a case to demonstrate why you deserve to advance, Collins said. Remind your boss of what you've accomplished since your last raise or promotion, and how you plan to continue working efficiently and effectively. Collins also noted that remote workers should be having this conversation in a way that will be most effective with their bosses. For instance, setting up a video conference could help accommodate for the fact that you're not having the conversation face to face, he said.
Whether you end up with the promotion or not, it's a good idea to continue proving that you're an exemplary communicator. Make sure you regularly update your boss on your progress; you don't want to always wait for him or her to check in on you first.
"Work out your 'rules of engagement' with your boss and team," Collins told Business News Daily. "What's the best way to communicate? Phone calls? Texting? Instant messages? And how frequently?"
Joe Staples, CMO of project management software Workfront, agreed that the right technology and expectations are crucial to successful telecommuting arrangements. He advised workers and their bosses to find solutions that are conducive to remote work: solutions that are mobile and can be updated in real time, so workers can always feel connected and informed.
"I always know exactly where my team stands on deadlines and deliverables, even if they aren't in the office across the hall," Staples said.