The potential advantages are obvious: financial savings from reduced office space, reduced commuting time for employees, the ability to hire from outside the region.
For many organizations, the experiment with virtual work has been enlightening and instructive. It turns out people can work effectively and efficiently from home.
Many organizations I know are asking ‘Why didn’t we do this sooner?’ and ‘How can we keep this going?’
If you work for one of these organizations, there’s every possibility you may be confronted with the choice, or the suggestion, that you move permanently to working from home.
Before you agree, you might want to give some thought to what you might be giving up. There’s a risk that working from home could enhance your work-life balance, but negatively impact your development and career trajectory.
One study looking at the impact of remote work was led by Stanford University’s Nicholas Bloom (Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2015). It found remote workers were both more productive and more likely to stay with the company than office peers. But they were also much less likely to be promoted.
While not everyone is looking for a promotion, most of us want to participate in work that gives us the opportunity to learn, grow and develop. And we want to work for organizations that provide these opportunities equitably.
Being a remote worker presents a couple of challenges to keep in mind, particularly if you work for an organization with little experience managing a virtual workforce, or one that wants a blend of office-based and virtual workers.
Out of sight, out of mind
When we’re not part of the day-to-day office environment, our exposure to different people and opportunities is diminished. Those impromptu brainstorming sessions, the corridor chats, the unscheduled walk-arounds by the executive.
The possibility we will be ‘dialed-up’ or scheduled-in to participate in these types of spontaneous activities is, well, remote.
When we don’t have the opportunity to be seen and heard, we run the risk of being overlooked for new projects or roles. The fewer opportunities we have, the further we can fall behind in terms of developing our knowledge and skills.
Operating on the fringes
So much of our learning at work is acquired through interactions with others. Observing others, exchanging ideas, seeking out advice and support.
In an office environment, it’s easy to pop next door or bump into someone in the cafeteria. Tracking people down when you’re working remotely is much more difficult.
While you’re seeking help on a chat line, your colleagues are gathered around the boss’s desk. The potential for becoming isolated and out of the loop increases over time.
Eliminating the network effect
We all know the importance of a network. Most of us have found at least one of our jobs by tapping into our networks. Who you know continues to be an important avenue for getting connected to new people and opportunities.
Building a web of relationships, completely remotely, is challenging. It may be relatively straightforward to stay in touch with those within your formal reporting circle. But it’s near-impossible to establish and foster relationships remotely with people you have no immediate need to connect with.
It’s that all-important web of both formal and informal relationships you build over time that will help you navigate and advance your career.
Developing the ‘wrong’ reputation
To get identified for future opportunities, you need to be able to demonstrate potential. The kinds of qualities that make people shine as remote workers – independent, efficient, productive, reliable – may be different from those that might make people stand out in the office – engaged, collaborative, good at building relationships.
Being able to demonstrate the kinds of ‘soft skills’ that get people noticed when you work remotely can be more difficult.
We’re all trying to figure out how to thrive in a virtual work world. Working remotely may be the perfect alternative for you.
Just be aware of what you may be giving up. And ask your organization what they will be doing to ensure no one, including you, gets left behind.
Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.