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Remote work promotion gap: How to overcome barriers to advancement

As companies continue experimenting with in-office, hybrid, and remote arrangements, remote workers face a new challenge: the remote work promotion gap. On top of stiff return to office (RTO) mandates, remote workers now have to overcome barriers to advancement and recognition. 

Recent data from a survey by the American Staffing Association reveals that almost 56% of surveyed adults believe that employees who work exclusively in-office have a competitive advantage over their fully remote counterparts when it comes to getting raises, bonuses, and promotions. 

Proximity and face-to-face interactions brought by RTO mandates and hybrid arrangements expose new challenges for remote employees. This only adds to the ongoing remote work debate by CEOs and remote workers who wish to preserve flexibility.

We spoke to Ali Greene, co-author of Remote Works book, to get her insights on these issues and how to overcome them. We covered remote employees' common challenges, company actions to ensure equal opportunities, and steps employees can take for recognition and acknowledgment.

With over ten years of startup experience and four years leading teams who work remotely, Ali Greene is a remote work expert, full-time digital nomad, and consultant. Ali was previously Director of People Operations at DuckDuckGo, which operates with a fully distributed team in more than 16 countries.

Challenges in career growth and promotions for remote workers

One of the main reasons why promotions and career growth are affected by remote work is that natural and implicit biases exist in the corporate world. Managers are more likely to promote those they spend more time with or see face-to-face more often. 

These biases affect an employee’s chance at a promotion and permeate other aspects of work, like access to necessary information. Plus, differences in cultural norms can also present hurdles for employees who continue working from home.

Some challenges Ali sees for remote workers regarding career growth are dealing with bias, not having the right tools or information for their work and cultural differences.

The mere exposure effect and proximity bias

The mere exposure effect is the tendency to like something or somebody just because you're more familiar with them. Office workers experience fewer challenges in this aspect because of traditional ideas of how work is more effective when people get more face time.

“How that relates to the idea of remote work or hybrid work and in-office employees is that if you see them more regularly in the office, you start to create a halo implicit bias of great qualities about them such as that they're a hard worker or they're very motivated and dedicated to getting their job done,” Ali explains.

“Proximity bias is very similar, especially in a hybrid model where you perceive the success and the ability to be productive or generate a higher quality outcome to the people showing up in the office because they have close proximity to you. This is the literal definition of out of sight, out of mind.” 

Having the necessary tools for work

When companies have on-site and remote employees, it’s easy for them to forget about those who are working from home. Although remote workers may have the equipment and access to software, they can be excluded from important meetings and conversations.

For Ali, the problem is more than being perceived in a certain light. Still, it also involves employees accessing the necessary data and knowledge to do their job.

“If you're out of sight, out of mind as a remote worker, is there a central knowledge base or a digital house where you can see the data necessary to do your job in order for you to be promoted in the future? Or is knowledge sharing happening through informal communication channels such as people chatting by a cubicle or going out for coffee and sharing information they've overheard around the office?”

If this lack of communication exists and a company doesn't have a decision-making framework, implicit biases will arise. Remote employees are left out when decisions are made through those informal communication channels. Ali says This creates an in-group and out-group between remote workers and their in-office counterparts. 

“Not only is information being shared over coffee, chats at lunch, and at the water cooler but decisions as well. This leaves remote employees in the dark when it comes to offering innovative solutions, being able to weigh in with their own questions and challenges about how this decision could impact them or the projects they're responsible for, and frankly, just leaving them out as an important stakeholder.”

“So remote and hybrid workers are being excluded, not just from social conversations but also conversations that impact their ability to get their jobs done effectively, which limits their ability to grow professionally in their career through learning new skills, working on more challenging projects, and ultimately getting those promotions that they're seeking.”

Differences in cultural norms

Another challenge for remote workers can be the difference in cultural norms that come with managing multicultural teams, especially when it comes to having clear expectations regarding timelines, deadlines, and even what it means to take paid time off.

Ali paints the picture with a funny example: “There’s a meme that started last summer discussing the difference between European and American summers. Europeans said in July: ‘We're off on holiday. We'll see you in eight weeks. This project will be done in September.’ As the meme goes, American workers said: ‘I'm taking the day off. If you need me, send me an email. If I don't respond to the email, you can call me, you can text me, send a carrier pigeon.’”

“All of this is to say that there is a cultural value in lots of European communities to set clear boundaries when it comes to work-life balance, to have leisure time and spend time with your family. While in America, there's a stereotype of people being highly overworked and dedicated to their job past the point of knowing when to take a break,” Ali points out.

“While this is meant to be a little funny jab at two different viewpoints about what it means to take paid time off, this can have a huge impact on how people are perceived in your company in terms of how dedicated they are, how hard working they are, and ultimately who gets promoted and not.”

“As a company, if you're not setting explicit expectations around things like timelines, deadlines, what it means to take paid time off, and how to protect your own personal boundaries and having that time to recover from the times of intense work, then you're leaving a lot of things up to interpretation, and that will impact some people more than others in a negative way.”

Remote work promotion gap: How to ensure equal opportunities

Identifying the challenges is the first step. The next one is to ensure that companies can offer solutions that will provide equal opportunities for both in-office and remote workers. Organizations can start by having a clear remote company culture with clear and transparent expectations for every role and level within the organization.

Implement standard operating behaviours

The first thing that Ali recommends is having standard operating behaviors. “There needs to be explicit, clear expectations for every role and every level at your organization and a very easy way to start doing this is to look at your performance review cadence.” 

“For instance, in an annual performance review, it’s important to detail what it takes for someone over that person to be considered a senior employee compared to their junior counterpart. These factors should not be based on how much a manager likes someone. It should be an objective, measurable outcome tied to standard operating behavior and a clear expectation.”

Detail expectations in work results

In terms of work results, Ali breaks down what it means to be a high-quality project: “Are there certain deliverables that need to be in place? What do those deliverables need to include? Is your employee including that 100% of the time? 75% of the time? Never? Those are ways that you're starting to build an objective rubric for what good performance looks like in your organization.”

“I expect you to fill out this documentation before and after each project happens, for example, and the quality, the timeliness, the involvement of stakeholders, the ability to go through rounds of feedback are all points in which you can describe what the behavioral norm is, what the expectation is, what great looks like, what good looks like, etc.”

“This doesn't only have to be about things related to work results. It can also be about people management, cultural alignment. You can evaluate promotions based on the employee's willingness to give feedback from a mentor/coaching perspective. There are ways to measure this without really allowing, though it's natural and you have to be aware of it, the implicit bias to take over.”

Keep track of employee performance 

While clear expectations and guidelines are crucial to ensure equal opportunities for employees, keeping track of results is even more important to determine performance. Often, managers will base reviews on memory and intuition, but that way of evaluating is also subject to recency bias, according to Ali.

“When tracking all of this in a knowledge management system, you can say, ‘Well, actually, employee A has given feedback on at least one project a month that's been on their team because the comments are here, and we can see them.’ If it's just in person, you're going off bad memory and intuition of, ‘Oh yeah, that person helps everybody out. That's a great person.’”

Set processes for task delegation

Companies can ensure that remote workers and in-office workers have equal opportunities for advancement by also thinking about how they delegate tasks. Ali suggests there should also be a formal and set process for assigning work.

“Instead of just turning to the neighbor in your cubicle and say, ‘Hey, there's a new project, you want to work on it?’, have a way for people to volunteer interest in a project and for them to be selected based on their strengths, their bandwidth, or their professional goals, as long as the qualifications are clear, transparent and easy to understand.” 

Steps for remote workers to be recognized and acknowledged

Whether companies can provide the structure to value and recognize each employee’s input, remote workers can also find ways to showcase their efforts. An organization's support and commitment to level the playing field is essential. Still, employees can also do things at an individual level to ensure they get credit for their work.

One way to start, according to Ali, is for remote workers to change their definition of what it means to be seen. When everyone had to go into the office, input metrics like attendance or staying late were the baseline for getting a successful project outcome. However, these all require employees to be seen by management. 

Leverage your experience to be innovative

For Ali, remote workers have a unique vantage point because no one else in their team is living the same life. Working remotely in different time zones or working from home in different locations allows them to see the world from a unique perspective.

“One tip that I like to give remote workers in order to be seen in the organization is to use this vantage point to make connections about how to be more innovative at work, how to problem solve on complicated projects, and to share interesting tidbits or resources that get throughout the day that might help other people.”

Get Really Good at Documentation

The one skill remote workers will need in the future is getting good at documentation, Ali shares, because that’s one way of making your presence noticeable to your manager and colleagues. 

“You need to learn how to document your wins, to be able to clearly communicate through written forms of communication, to showcase that you're reaching your milestones and following certain deadlines and deliverables. Work in public so that people can see your progress.”

How remote work affects traditional promotion and recognition systems

Employees working remotely should not be subject to traditional promotion and recognition systems. Productivity and efficiency can look different for a remote worker who has a flexible schedule compared to their in person colleagues who have to come into the office every day.

Not only are routines and workflows different, but evaluation methods should adapt to the newer more flexible options available for workers. Although partially remote arrangements are gaining popularity, they need to be accompanied by policies to be effective.

Ali shares that a recent study from Scoop found that out of 4000 companies surveyed with over 100 million employees in total, 51% of businesses are offering a component of remote work. While it's great to see that flexible options are increasingly available, they lack structure.

Only 20% of companies currently have a structured hybrid arrangement in place, leaving a lot of discrepancy for hybrid workers.

“While that's amazing for employee choice for flexibility, it also enhances the problems of an in-group out-group mentality, the proximity bias, mere exposure effect, and that out of sight, out of mind, way of evaluating performance,” Ali insists.

“If it's up to each individual to choose how often and when they're coming into an organization, and companies are not changing the traditional model of evaluating employees, then it's very likely they can fall into the trap of valuing employees who are coming into the office more than their remote counterparts for reasons totally unrelated to the quality and the success of their work.”

Why traditional HR processes need to change

Remote work has completely changed the notion of the workplace and flexibility that was upheld until a few years ago. It has also challenged the notions which have existed in the workforce for decades regarding employee productivity and the need to be in a physical space to get work done.

In the wake of these changes, it’s only natural that internal HR processes change and adapt to a diverse workforce. Adapting to new working methods and workflows can ensure that those working remotely can also receive bonuses without having to be five days a week in an office building.

Ali predicts that employee recognition will continue to get more personalized and will be done regardless of the employee’s schedule, whether asynchronous, virtual, or in-person. Having that variety removes the idea that recognition is tied to performance.

“Instead of relying on traditional performance reviews where a manager fills out a form that is a guess on if the employee is doing a good job, the reporting mechanisms can change where there's an explicit set of expectations focused on outcomes or output and are being driven by remote work best practices.”

“The more that companies can clearly identify what success is, what done looks like, what the KPIs are, the person, the employee, the manager, or the project itself can provide data to how successful that employee is in reaching those goals.”

“It will no longer be about your best guess on if someone is a hard worker, if someone is getting their work done based off of their presence in an office, it'll instead be a clear objective evaluation on the quality of work itself, set up by goals and metrics for each project, for each role, for each level of the organization.”

Wrapping up

​​The rise of remote work has created countless opportunities for individuals to work anywhere. However, in recent months, new challenges have emerged that hinder remote workers’ ability to choose a flexible lifestyle and advance in their careers, making them less likely to access promotions.

Fortunately, not everything is lost, and companies can provide structure to level the playing field so both on-site and remote employees can benefit from equal opportunities. Things like setting explicit expectations and standard operating behaviors are a good place to start.

Traditional HR processes and policies must adapt to accommodate employees working remotely regarding promotions and recognition, moving towards a more objective, fair, and equitable process for all employees.

Remote workers should not be excluded from career growth and promotion opportunities. With the proper structure and systems, they can overcome challenges and be recognized for their hard work and accomplishments.

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