Working from home is a red-hot trend, a skill that when you excel at it can lead to tremendous productivity gains. The numbers of remote workers are swelling, with the 2017 State of Telecommuting report showing that the number of US employees working from home at least half the time has grown 115 percent in the last 12 years, to nearly 4 million as of 2017 (the number has only grown since then).
But new research from University of California Santa Barbara researchers gives pause to fans of the seven-second commute (to the screened-in porch) and lovers of a sweatpants dress code.
The study shows that face-time (being in the office for face to face encounters) signals a sense of commitment, and that those who work remotely and don't have that face-time are seen as less committed, don't have as strong performance reviews, and don't advance as often or fast as in-office workers. Remote workers also don't get the best work assigned to them as a result.
This study makes me want to scream. Not for its findings, but for what its findings say about us as leaders. More on that in a moment.
It gets worse. The study also shows that to show commitment to the job, remote workers feel they must work harder than in-office counterparts and feel compelled to be "always-on" to make up for the lack of face-time. Worse still, as the researchers wrote in the study:
"Because they (employees) operate in a competitive signaling environment, they have to continually engage in the behaviors that produce desired signals to the point where they often feel that they're sacrificing their personal lives for their job."
Signals include attending extra meetings at odd hours or writing lots of extra emails, for example. All this leads to burnout and disengagement. As co-author of the study and USCB management professor Paul Leonardi told Business Insider: "Even if remote employees are successful in getting promoted and achieving career goals, they'll have already 'died trying' in the process and compromised their work-life balance."
The researchers aren't alone in their career-killing conclusion on remote work. CNBC's Make It contributor and bestselling author Suzy Welch recently said that "leadership is an inside job that starts in the room where trust happens." She explained that in-person, team-building moments are key for building trust and that being removed from them "can be terrible for your career."
So what's a remote worker to do to have a remote chance of not tanking his/her career?
Here's how to have your (homemade) cake and eat it too.
I'll start by being a bit naïve. I see what this new research shows, but remote work simply has to work. We must will it into working; it's too important an option for an increasingly growing number of people. The answer cannot be, if you want to get promoted, get into the office more. It fights the very nature of the changing nature of how work now gets done. We need a more progressive mindset.
And as someone who now works from home, I can confirm the slew of life-changing benefits it offers--so the pursuit of a "happy medium" is well worth it.
Researcher Leonardi says all is not lost. To signal commitment and "stay on the radar", remote workers can turn on their video for meetings (presumably dressing as if they were in the office). They can demonstrate responsiveness and availability with rapid turnaround time on emails.
I've also found success with dedicating 10 percent of my working time as "human connection" time, driving to face-to-face meetings or using the power of video conferencing, and yes, even attending work/social events to still enable trust building. No one said working from home means going off the grid.
You can also get clear on the rules of engagement with management for working from home, spelling out objectives, goals, success criteria, and establishing check-in points.
To avoid burnout, it's important to set clear boundaries of when you're "working" and when you're "at home." (Being careful to set a maximum number of hours you'll work)
More important than all of these tips though is this: If leaders want to embrace and support something as fundamentally valuable to employees as working remotely, they can do it. If they want to make promotions independent of the amount of face-time, they can do it. Indeed, plenty already are. It comes down to how supportive of employees are leaders willing to be.
You can design for remote work, from the ground up if need be. It's about resetting expectations for how much face-time is really needed and learning to reward performance, not presence.
So the research says what it says, I get it. But this is one time I believe organizations/its leaders must create the reality employees are clamoring for.