Connecting Remotely

A recent Slashdot post referenced this article from Network World about telecommuting and career advancement.

Over 60% of 1,320 global executives surveyed by executive search firm Korn/Ferry International said they believe that telecommuters are less likely to advance in their careers in comparison to employees working in traditional office settings. Company executives want face time with their employees, the study said.

I suspect this is true to some extent, but it probably depends more on an organization’s culture than anything else.  Some organizations deal better with it than others.  When I moved to my current division it quickly became obvious that they weren’t used to dealing with remote workers.  The majority of the people in my new area were co-located.  So there was a definite bias to walk down the hall or go over to the next building to deal with a local coworker before calling someone who was remote, even if the remote person was responsible for the thing in question.  I also frequently saw meeting notices that listed a conference room but without a call-in number. 

What helped was some initial face time via a visit to the site to establish people and roles (i.e. a series of “all hands” meetings in the area).  Once they established you as the person responsible for something they tended to be more likely to reach out and contact you.  But it’s a two way street, in that you, as a remote worker, also have to keep your “eyes” open and maintain contact with people, so as to reinforce your place in the organization.

Management also recognized the cultural clash and took steps to make changes, such as organizing “best practices” sessions on remote work and having some managers work from home from time to time to get a feel for it.

Granted, working remotely is somewhat less efficient than being able to walk down the hall and have a whiteboard discussion over some design point or technical issue.  But I don’t see it going away anytime soon, especially for people in technical professions that don’t absolutely require a physical presence.  Companies are putting together more and more teams that are geographically dispersed, because the people with the skills are likely to be in different locations.  This is especially true if the work is project-based.  Teams form and reform over time as different projects come through.  It simply isn’t cost-effective to move people to one location for a single project.

As for career advancement, I don’t think it’s a problem, at least since the organization I’m in is working to make sure to include remote workers.  I guess we’ll see.

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