Remote work

Fully remote workers worry the hybrid workplace will leave them behind

Employees who work remotely fear being forgotten. Can HR ensure they get the same opportunities as their IRL colleagues?
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Francis Scialabba

· 6 min read

Like ghosts stalking their office Slack channels, will remote workers be forgotten when it comes to promotions, raises, and all manner of career advancements, while workers who show face in-office reap the benefits you’d expect of corporeal beings?

This is what some workplace traditionalists fear about the transition to a hybrid workplace—that working from home would erect a wall (or several) between in-office and remote employees, the former of whom would shake hands, make friends, and climb over their colleagues toward high-achieving careers. Remote workers share the anxiety: According to a CNBC SurveyMonkey poll released in April, 52% of employees working from home fear their in-office counterparts will be afforded better opportunities, and workers in Canada largely feel the same, as a survey last week from Cisco showed.

But given the new precedent of remote and hybrid models, it’ll be up to a combination of managers, leaders and regular worker bees alike to ensure that those working from their couches are valued, recognized, and rewarded for their contributions.

How distant is your bias?

“Historically, there’s been kind of out-of-sight, out-of-mind bias,” Scott Dawson, a website designer and the author of The Art of Working Remotely: How to Thrive in a Distributed Workplace, told HR Brew. “It’s this thing called ‘distance bias’: It’s a tendency to favor people who are closer to us in time and space.”

Distance bias, in theory, could spell a problem for much of the white-collar workforce: a Gallup poll found that 72% of white-collar workers were working from home in May, compared with just 14% of blue-collar workers. A mandatory return to the office could potentially cause a rift between workers and managers. An August survey from the background-check company GoodHire found that 68% of US workers would choose remote working options over a physical workplace, but many managers see those remote workers as replaceable: 67% of supervisors surveyed by the Society of Human Resources Management in July considered remote workers “more easily replaceable than onsite workers at their organization,” while 62% noted that full-time remote work is “detrimental to employees’ career objectives.”

Managers will tend to favor those in closer physical proximity, Dawson said. It simply boils down to human nature: “We’re wired as humans to prefer someone who sits next to us over a person who’s just a thumbnail on a screen.”

This irks younger workers in particular, who’ve struggled with feeling “less connected” to their co-workers in a remote working format, according to one UK study from Smartsheet, a workplace-collaboration software company. The feeling started in the beginning of the pandemic, but it’s been persistent throughout: Nearly half of surveyed European workers between the ages of 18 and 45 reported a fear of missing out on training and career advancement opportunities due to remote work, according to a survey by electronics manufacturer Sharp Corp, Bloomberg reported in June.

Seeing the invisible worker

Workers fearful of fading into the background do have an opportunity to guide their own destiny, however. Simply asking for more responsibility can go a long way, said Michael Alexis, the CEO and cofounder of Team Building, which provides remote teams with tools to build camaraderie.

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“Maybe the No. 1 factor is the employee taking the initiative toward [advancement]...taking on higher-level work, proactively volunteering for activities and even asking for advancement,” he said.

Also, asking for mentorship from behind a computer screen can still work, Alexis noted. Emailing a more seasoned colleague and asking to learn the ropes usually flatters older workers. “Virtual mentorship is a very real thing,” he said.

But the conditions aren’t always rife for employees to make themselves visible, so managers have to defrost the windows a bit—and HR professionals need to ensure that regular facetime with remote employees is a must. Both Dawson and Alexis agree that making dedicated time to build rapport with a hybrid team is essential. Alexis, for example, makes sure to “spend about 8% of [every meeting] doing fun, connection-based activities.”

Consistent, weekly one-on-one meetings are also essential to help remote workers stay visible. And during those meetings, Dawson recommends giving workers the opportunity to laud their own projects and work. People “get to know each other as humans” when “we carve out that dedicated time,” he said.

Managers can also go the extra mile and show remote workers that they’re seen...literally. For meetings, Dawson offered a recommendation for the otherwise oblivious middle manager: “Don’t just look at the people at the have to look at the camera just as much. And engage people, try to draw [remote] people out,” he said. Moreover, remote workers will seem less forgettable—and even indispensable—if they’re given the opportunity to lead teams.

There’s no secret that remote work can be a lonely experience, which is something that Dawson—who’s been working remotely for 23 years—was candid about. “Working remotely can be very lonely, and we all benefit from being around humans.”

Honestly? It's hard

So in order to bring remote workers into the fold—especially younger employees—it’s good for managers to be vulnerable and honest about their own difficulties on the job, Carrie McKeegan, the CEO and cofounder of the distributed company Greenback Expat Tax Services, recently wrote for Inc. Magazine. “Once things are out in the open, leaders can work in partnership with young professionals to get them the training and development they need to succeed in their roles and careers,” McKeegan wrote.

When it comes down to it, a combination of self-advocacy on behalf of remote employees and a conscientious approach from managers can go a long way to helping remote workers seem less like apparitions only Haley Joel Osment can see, and more like real human employees, just trying to do their jobs making pottery, like Demi Moore.—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Sam Blum via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SamBlum_Brew) or simply email [email protected].

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

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