Working remotely can have a significant negative impact on your career. It starts with onboarding and building trust. It then continues with professional development and career opportunities. And it ends with a possible negative impact on your well-being due to always-on culture.
1. Onboarding and integrating into the team
During the Covid-19 pandemic, most employees and teams were able to keep working to a high degree of productivity, even remotely, because of the already existing relationships. Research shows that rapport helps overcome interpersonal friction and find cooperative agreements. But rapport is difficult to build virtually. Researchers explored how communication over e-mail helps or inhibits negotiations. E-mail hindered the process of exchanging personal information through which negotiators establish rapport. This effect can be minimized by a pre-negotiation intervention of social lubrication or schmoozing. Those who were able to build rapport, even if only over the phone, before the e-mail communication saw better economic and social outcomes of the negotiations.
There were more than 25,000 employees who joined Microsoft during the pandemic and remote work. Data clearly show that these new hires rely on their managers 20% more during onboarding than they would historically. At the same time, the reliance on co-workers dropped by 15%. It is not a choice of the new employees but rather a natural dynamic coming with remote work. While co-workers who don’t have any relationship with the new employee yet are less incentivized to help, managers see it is their job to step up and help. As they should. Unfortunately, the drop in peer help also means that new remote employees have harder time building relationships with their co-workers.
Researchers Daniel M. Cable, Francesca Gino, and Bradley R. Staats found that good onboarding of new employees consists of two sets of activities. First, exposing employees to the company’s culture, vision, history, rituals, and processes, the typical corporate indoctrination. Second, allowing them to apply their strengths, bring their whole self to work, and contribute their own way to the best of their abilities. Cable and team suggest that the first type of activity is relatively easy to do, even remotely. However, the second set of activities is much more challenging as it requires more in-depth interactions, the type of interactions we are all used to having in person.
The work still gets done, but fewer strong relationships get created, which has negative implications for the long-term health of the individuals, the team, and the business in general.
2. Building trust
Trust gets created by repeated interactions when you can see your colleague be capable and act for the good of the team. It is about competence and integrity, and you need to see these exhibited in a repeating pattern. Then you trust the person. Unfortunately, this is not easy with a remote team as you can’t rely on social cues and micro-interactions. You can’t see their body language that much to discern how they react to something you do or say. It is much more challenging to build trust, yet it is easier to break it. Trust is broken when you don’t live up to your commitments, break a promise, withhold information, or exclude someone from the conversation. And especially the last two, excluding people and withholding information can happen unintentionally and, therefore, more frequently.
In Remote Work Revolution, Tsedal Neeley talks about so-called passable trust. It is the minimum threshold of trust to give someone to be able to work with them, and it is given based on their observable behavior. Then there is a so-called swift trust instantly built when you decide to trust someone by default until they prove they are untrustworthy. This is the type of trust you need to develop when you are asked to work with someone to get a particular project done starting now. You essentially have to trust in their capability and integrity. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get things done.
The passable trust is based on logic and therefore doesn’t help with long-term emotional bonding. The swift trust helps a bit as you approach it with an open mind, but you still need to work hard to turn it into a strong long-term relationship. To be able to do that, you need to get emotions in play. You need to spend energy on getting to know the other person as a human being. That would be the type of conversations you would have during chance encounters in the office, chats around the water cooler, or in-person lunches. You don’t talk only about work. You talk about life. You need to get this type of conversation also going when working virtually with remote people.
The best way to get started and build true emotional trust is by being open. When you share information about yourself, when you are not afraid to share some of your weaknesses, it builds trust and increases likability. Of course, it needs to be voluntary, and it needs to be thoughtful. You probably don’t want to share access information to your bank account to show trust. There is a difference between being trusting and stupid. These glimpses into who you are don’t need to be a long story. Even small comments like “Can we move the meeting by half an hour so I can drive my kids to school,” or “You live in Austin? That’s where I went to school,” are nice moments to share a bit about you and bond.
Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner suggest that predictability is the foundation of trust. And predictability requires access to enough information. Being remote in a hybrid environment can quickly isolate you from the rest of the team who is in the office. You don’t get the same information. Events are coming at you unexpectedly and at the last minute when someone figures they forgot to tell you. Trust evaporates very fast.
As Heidi K. Gardner found out after researching more than 3,000 senior knowledge workers, there are two aspects of trust in the workplace. Competence trust is when you believe that others have the skills to deliver the work you need them to deliver effectively. Interpersonal trust is when you believe others have good intentions towards you and have high integrity and character. You need to see signals that both components are there. However, it isn’t easy to see these signals if you don’t sit with the person in the same room. Research has also shown that nonverbal clues are a vital component of building trust. Without physical contact, you are losing this portion of trust-building.
More conflict is the natural consequence of low trust. Eric M. Stark and Paul E. Bierly III analyzed predictors of team satisfaction in virtual environments. They found that in virtual teams, relationship conflict is more damaging because it is more difficult to resolve any interpersonal issues.
3. Personal and professional development
The issues that weren’t talked about enough during the pandemic are personal and professional development. While 76% of professionals indicated that their skills didn’t suffer, 19% felt they were impacted, and 5% weren’t sure. Similarly, 70% of remote workers felt that not being in the office didn’t impact their chances for promotions, while the rest was split in half. 15% percent thought it helped their chances of getting a promotion and 15% felt it hurt them.
Most of the knowledge shared in the organization can be done through various document management and learning systems. This works just fine also for remote workers. However, the most critical knowledge is difficult to make explicit. People learn on the job by observing others, listening to their colleagues, and interacting with various stakeholders. Coaching and mentoring are just much easier done face-to-face. The senior person can observe the work of the apprentice and can provide immediate corrective feedback and suggestions. It can be done remotely too, but with significantly more effort from all involved. So naturally, it doesn’t happen to the same extent. Those who work remotely are often at a disadvantage from those in the office.
4. Career advancement
Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, argues that giving employees complete freedom to choose where they can work may lead to serious negative consequences for some of them. Mostly those who remain working from home full-time. It goes back to the challenge of managing a distributed team. Unless you do it exceptionally well, there is a decent chance it will create an in-group of those who come physically to the office and an out-group of those who work fully from home and are overlooked and forgotten.
This may also have unintended consequences on diversity and equality as those who remain at home would often be those who need to care for children. Out of sight, out of mind can become a real issue. They may then lose career opportunities, thus increasing the already existing pay gap and career success. As Bloom suggests, when analyzing the results of a study he and his colleagues ran in China in 2014, those who worked from home had a 50% lower rate of promotions.
5. Well-being and always-on culture
An experiment at a Chinese travel agency Ctrip in 2015 showed that work from home could work if done correctly. The call center employees were assigned to work either from home or from the office for nine months. The work from home led to a 13% performance increase, out of which 9% was due to long hours worked and 4% due to more phone calls per minute. Homeworkers reported higher satisfaction with work and had a lower attrition rate.
Dawn Klinghoffer, the head of people analytics at Microsoft, notes that according to their study from 2020, employees who collaborate more while being remote (write e-mails, use chats, attend meetings) are less satisfied with their work-life balance than those who spend less time collaborating. Those who spend 6 hours a week less collaborating, attend 25% fewer meetings, and send 29% fewer e-mails are more satisfied with their work-life balance.
Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago analyzed data from 10,384 R&D employees at a large Asian IT services company of more than 150,000 and compared the data from the Covid-19 pandemic when everyone worked at home with the pre-pandemic data when employees showed up in the office. The results are rather bleak. The number of hours worked increased by 30%, including an 18% increase in working after business hours. However, the individual input didn’t change, so in effect, productivity per hour declined by 20%. Curiously enough, employees found less uninterrupted time than when being in the office. They spend less time networking and receiving coaching from supervisors. They spend more time trying to coordinate activities and stay in the loop. Those with children at home saw an even bigger increase in worked hours and a bigger decline in productivity. This is likely because those with children get interrupted more often and therefore compensate by working longer. The forced work from home led to the same amount of work done, which is good for the companies. But it also led to longer working hours, which is bad for the employees.
A global study by World Health Organization (WHO) showed that 745,000 people died in 2016 from stroke and heart disease due to excessively long working hours. According to the research, 55 hours or more a week is associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and 17% higher risk of heart disease as compared to a standard 35 to 40 hours workweek. These deaths didn’t occur on the job but often years after the extra-long hours worked.
It doesn’t matter whether you are in the office or at home. It is the long hours of stress that count. Unfortunately, as the examples above illustrate, working from home means you are more likely to work longer hours than if your work was constrained by being in the office. According to WHO, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the nations went on lockdown and forced people to work from home, the number of worked hours increased by 10%. Consistent with our first example.
The Office for National Statistics in the UK looked at working habits during the Covid-19 pandemic and found that those who worked from home had, on average, 6 hours of unpaid overtime a week, while those working in the office only 3.6 hours. Again, about 10% more hours worked for those at home versus those in the office when considering 40 hours workweek.
What to do about it?
Onboarding remotely is a challenge. Step up and take ownership of the process. Take it seriously, and don’t limit your onboarding and integration into the company just to listening to training videos or reading documents. Reach out to people and keep asking questions the same way you would if you sat next to a colleague in the office.
When being remote, regular one-on-ones with your manager are even more important than ever. They also need to have more holistic content. When you talk with your manager, don’t focus only on work, but make sure you get to talk about how you are doing in general. The conversation should leave you feeling that your boss cares about your well-being. You need to feel that you belong, are integrated well with the rest of the team, and that there is trust. Bring up regularly your personal and professional development and your career ambitions and prospects. Working from home in a hybrid environment can be satisfactory, but it needs to be done the right way without negatively impacting your career and your well-being.
What is your take on the topic? Did the Covid-19 pandemic impact your career? What are you doing for your personal and professional growth when working from home? Did you change a job during the pandemic and start in a fully remote mode? What was your onboarding like? Do you feel well integrated into the team, and do you feel you belong?
Photo: joshuamiranda / Pixabay.com
If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to get notified whenever I publish new stories or check out my book Quiet Success: The Introvert’s Guide To A Successful Career