Four months into Covid-19 and it’s becoming startlingly clear that the novel virus will not be going away anytime soon. As countries rush to adapt to this new reality, businesses and individuals alike are quickly realising the benefits working remotely brings - reduced real estate costs, increased autonomy and better work/life balance to name a few. Conversations centred on the tactical and logistical aspects of shifting businesses online are no longer as pressing and so it feels appropriate to turn our attention now to other aspects of working life.
For the numerous graduates worldwide who have just started their career - the current environment presents unique challenges. Specifically, how to navigate one’s career in a remote workplace. A small group of us from the Delocate Remote Founders community chose to tackle this challenge in conversation a couple of weeks back.
Presented below are the key takeaways from that conversation.
[4 minute read]
“The knowledge is diffuse, so how do you gather it to yourself to be the next best thing?” Tyler Sellhorn, Director of Customer Experience at Hubstaff
Before Tyler joined Hubstaff, he made a point of acting like he was already a remote worker. He studied Gitlab’s handbook, listened to podcasts, gathered information and learned about what it took to work remotely. Tyler also managed a career switch at the same time by reinventing his work identity and completing various online courses and certifications. “I was a technology-oriented educator and made myself into an education-oriented technologist.” He is of the firm view that even if companies provide all the course training, it still comes down to you leaning in and really engaging with that content.
Likewise, the co-founder of a remote software company we spoke to wants their people to “own it like an entrepreneur” and “create those opportunities for themselves - not just be made aware of opportunities we create.” So 10% of revenue is earmarked for future development. This is currently split into two parts - R&D and L&D. R&D is where staff get to engage in self-directed learning; L&D is where they can seek expert advice and enrol in more structured learning. Discussions are underway with staff to transfer ownership of this budget to each employee, giving them more autonomy and control over how they develop themselves as well as their business areas.
Taking charge of your own career is clearly paramount - but we don’t think it’s that simple. Read on to see the main considerations we think companies need to take into account.
“This is about visibility for the junior employees around the significance of their work in the wider context of the business. In remote companies - it’s easy to lose sight of that. This can have an impact on morale and on how broad that person’s horizon is for them to see the whole spectrum of opportunity that they could be weaving towards in terms of their careers.” Rhys Black, founder of Delocate.
When we think about visibility in the workplace, we often relate this to being visible and being heard. Standing up and being recognised is vital in any organisation, but in a remote environment, there are other important facets to what is ‘visible’ that we need to address.
For example, visibility at work relates to opportunities that may otherwise be missed if no one tells you about them. Demonstrating your readiness for leadership is another.
Experienced professionals will tend to know what to do to stand out and are more likely to put their hand up and propose a new project. But for those who are new - either to the company or the world of work, it’s that much harder and they need a helping hand. The best thing companies can do in this case is to make it easier for cross-functional relationships to happen organically and to actively promote development opportunities.
“For more junior staff .. the biggest challenge is simply life experience. All of us in this room have made some big mistakes - but just being afraid to make those mistakes can be a real blocker to early-career employees.” Lance Robbins, founder of RemotelyConnected.
So where can a new grad get this much-needed life experience? In many respects, tech companies and startups are already leading the way and appear to be more willing to invest in hiring more junior staff giving them much-needed experience to develop their career. Equally, however, the risk here is a ‘sink or swim’ environment can be present with some companies expecting people to hit the ground running because they don’t have the capacity to mentor them into their roles.
At this juncture, it’s important to highlight our conversation switches from ‘career development' to ‘career progression’ where being visible takes on a different tone. When we think of career progression we often equate it to being ready for a more senior or more complex role. To be able to demonstrate ‘readiness’ requires a person to be more overt with their outputs and more visible in a public forum.
We all agreed that showing you’re ready for the next rung on the ladder is probably easier in an all-remote company versus a hybrid where people who are physically co-located are seen to be favoured over their ‘absent’ colleagues. One upside of the pandemic is now more people are working from home this evens out the playing field somewhat. The challenge remains however in knowing how to stand out and be noticed - which brings up this next interesting point on the power of personality.
“One variable we cannot change is personality - this needs to be taken into account when we talk about career progression.” Gabriel Kesseler, Community Manager for Delocate
Confidence and assertiveness are often associated as pivotal traits for those looking to make their presence known in the company in hopes of furthering their careers, however, for many, they do not come easily, particularly when working outside the confines of a traditional office.
In an office, it’s easy to spot the confident, outgoing, or keen communicators, just as it is easy to spot the quieter and more introverted members of staff. It’s often understood that under a remote work environment, this dynamic is somewhat amplified, whereby the confident group appears to get louder to compensate for the lack of physical interaction, thus unconsciously monopolising available communication spaces, while the more introverted group becomes more recluse and often left out.
However as Tyler from Hubstaff rightly points out, this view can be rather outdated. The case for roles that attract certain personality types such as developers to be quiet or introverted is not applicable anymore. This is because, while some may naturally be shy, it does not hinder their prospects of career progression - a remote work environment allows “developers to work out-loud” through code review. Meaning that all of their work is visible and in the public domain, making it clear for everyone who is adding value.
Lance, founder of RemotelyConnected agrees with Tyler, but also urges leaders and managers to spend more time learning about their employees. As he describes it, “finding out what is going on with the roles that are traditionally quieter is important”.
For this and other reasons, an emphasis must be placed on understanding remote employees on a more personal level – it is important to appreciate the fluctuant nature of personalities. Failing to do so, may result in a flurry of unwanted outcomes, such as disproportionate focus on one group over the other, growing dissatisfaction from employees whose achievements are not acknowledged and a weakening of the company’s culture.
“A big part of career progression is knowing how to navigate a company’s politics … and finding people who are willing to be an advocate for you.” May Ireland, founder of VirtualPeer.co
Anecdotally we know people are more comfortable talking about their work, what they’re doing and delivering at an operational level rather than their career aspirations, and often this is squeezed into the last 10 minutes of the meeting with their manager. If this is an experience you can relate to, imagine how important it is then for managers in remote first or hybrid companies to have the right playbook in place if they are to proactively initiate these conversations. From our experience of having worked with and coached many managers, we know many find having career conversations with their staff awkward, yet they are so pivotal to how successful an employee’s career is advanced in house.
“Career progression is a threat for a lot of managers. Leadership pays and it’s rewarding and the more managers can maintain the status quo - the more myopic they become.” Lance Robbins, founder of RemotelyConnected.
Another factor to consider is how do you make people feel they are making progress in their career if there’s potentially nowhere for them to go? In a large corporate there is often latitude to move up, but in the age of flattening org structures and especially in smaller companies the pickings can be slim. If the potential to move into more senior or complex roles isn’t there, people start leaving and the challenge with retaining talent is only going to get that much tougher.
So why don’t we capitalise on this and flip it? said May. Whaaat? Wait - hear us out.
If you’re a smaller company that does not have the breadth of roles to accommodate someone’s career progression, why not encourage your talent to look outside your company for special projects that provide both a step up and expands their knowledge and expertise? Similar to student exchange programmes, temporary cross-industry collaboration could be supported. Lance pointed out sports teams do this all the time and companies would be able to choose who they ‘outsource’ their staff to.
Proactively supporting talent in this way will require companies to be vulnerable because of the risk a high potential goes ‘native'. But the benefits of building stronger networks across industry can’t be underestimated for even if they do end up leaving, feelings of loyalty and the resulting strengthened commercial relationship has huge upsides.
In 2015 Google identified psychological safety as being a key enabler in helping people bring their best selves into the workplace and a core ingredient of high performance teams. For people wanting to realise their career aspirations, feeling safe creates a climate of trust in which they can be ‘vulnerable’ and ask for feedback, help and advice without fear of being penalized.
People at work generally have a problem with vulnerability “This is hard to do if you’ve been burned by being vulnerable. It’s a hard ask for a lot of people” says Lance. The danger of companies transitioning into remote working now is they are mostly reactive - not responsive. They don’t stop to consider how important being intentional with how they communicate with each other across the board is. An email is sent on the fly, real-time collaboration is replaced with more asynchronous communications which can begin to feel overwhelming and whilst it’s fun when you’re on that team video call - it’s hard to stay focused, productive and motivated when you dial off - but who is there to notice things like that?
In a remote environment everything we do has to be much more intentional. To ensure employee wellbeing and a great company culture is cultivated even our social interactions and moments of serendipity have to be manufactured! This may sound inauthentic and tedious, but in being intentional with how we choose to engage with each other we put in place the first building block to establishing trust across an organisation.
“Remote working forces people to be vulnerable. People need to have frank discussions … to minimise isolation, to build social relationships and increase visibility of each other and the wider goals of the company.” Rhys Black, founder of Delocate
From taking charge to being more visible in the workplace and prioritising that career conversation, individuals and organisations alike will begin to live in the space that allows for innovation and growth if they lean into vulnerability and accept the discomfort that brings. Only by doing so will this give each of us the opportunity to move forward and take the next step. Bravely. With conviction and purpose.
This article is co-authored by May Ireland, founder of VirtualPeer and Gabriel Kesseler, community manager for Delocate, July 2020. Inspired by:
Delocate.co - Rhys Black, founder. Gabriel Kesseler, community manager. We help companies become wildly productive remote organisations using tried and tested methods.
Hubstaff.com - Tyler Sellhorn, Director of Customer Experience and champion for all things remotely inclined.
RemotelyConnected.io - Lance Robbins, founder. Helping remote brands build high-performing teams that will shape the future of the workplace at a fraction of the cost.
VirtualPeer.co - May Ireland, founder and Leadership & Performance coach. Accelerate your learning with coach-facilitated peer groups. Share the journey and grow together.
Image from Antonino Vasalli, Unsplash