Many tech companies are shifting to embrace remote work as a permanent option for all employees. In the midst of this sea change, a lot of people are either concerned about or unaware of how promotions can happen in remote settings. One tech employee on Twitter shared that he fears, “You can’t get promoted over Zoom.” He was quickly corrected by many in the remote work community who frequently get promoted over Zoom, but he probably isn’t alone in his concerns.
Upon finding out they would be working remotely for the foreseeable future, many people considered their chances for career advancement to be over. The consensus seems to be growing and advancing in your career is much more difficult if you’re working remotely.
I understand why some people have that perception, but my career and personal experience prove that it’s wrong. I’ve been working fully remotely at Buffer for nearly five years now. I was hired as a press crafter and am currently head of public relations. All of my promotions and career conversations have happened over Zoom.
I am a firm believer in remote work and the opportunities it gives to both companies and employees. According to my company’s 2020 State of Remote Work report, 98 percent of remote employees plan on working at least partially remotely for the rest of their careers. I’m in that category, and I also intend to grow and continue to get promoted while staying a remote employee. Although I can’t guarantee that my experience and advice will be applicable for everyone because each work environment is unique, I have specific things I’ve done that have helped me and colleagues with whom I’ve shared these techniques.
Remote-First Versus Partially Remote Companies
I work for a company that is fully distributed. This means that, not only are we remote, we also have teammates across many time zones, including some who are nomads and move often. Because of this, all our career discussions and promotions happen over Zoom; the current situation isn’t new for us. We are at the far end of what my CEO calls the remote working scale. On one side of the scale is an office-based team. At the far end of the other side is a company like Buffer that’s fully distributed.
I would argue that at either end of this scale promotions aren’t a big question because they happen in the same way for everyone. They either occur in person, or they happen over Zoom. Where things get tricky is the companies in between the two poles. These range from mostly office-based with a work from home option to remote teams either entirely in one or spread across many time zones. An office-based company with a work-from-home option is the point on the scale where there’s the most room for difference in how employees are treated based on whether or not they’re in the office. As such, I’ll use this example the most.
This set-up is the current reality for many tech giants and probably many smaller tech companies as well. They had an office, but they have transitioned to remote work during the pandemic. Because it’s unclear what the future holds in terms of safety for gathering in enclosed spaces, many, including Twitter and Spotify, have decided to allow employees to work remotely indefinitely. At the same time, they are keeping their offices for a time when it will be safe to go back. Although all of their employees may have initially been in one or two time zones, reports indicate that people are taking advantage of remote work options by moving out of cities and seeking more space and cheaper rent elsewhere. The new reality for companies will be that their employees live in time zones across the United States, if not worldwide.
One caveat I’ll share here is that getting promoted remotely and feeling valued as a remote employee who works with an office-based team requires that the company see the value in having remote employees. Recognizing their value, the company will invest in ensuring that their remote employees are included in all aspects of the company culture and not treated as second-class citizens.
Here are a few examples of things a company can do when they have an office-based and remote split to ensure everyone feels included:
- Default to asynchronous communication.
- When holding meetings, ask everyone to join via laptop to even the experience.
- Document communication transparently to avoid quick, in-person conversations that exclude remote workers.
When it comes to career progression specifically, though, here are two suggestions. Although they might seem quite fundamental, the two things a company should do to ensure fairness are:
- Mandating regular one-on-ones between managers and direct reports that are not just status updates.
- Establishing a detailed career framework that makes clear where the employee is in their progression and what it will take to advance.
How I’ve Advanced My Career Remotely
The first time I got promoted at an office-based company, I made a case for my promotion, presented my work, and made sure my manager knew of my accomplishments. I recommend starting to research promotions at your company and find out what is required. Often, the same things that happened in an office can be done remotely.
One key cog in career progression that people often discuss is networking. Although networking remotely is quite different from its in-person equivalent, it’s certainly not impossible. The advice I outlined in that article for networking remotely applies within a company as well. If relationships seem to play a big part in promotions where you work, you should start networking within your organization. I recommend starting with horizontal networking in particular and building from there.
Ultimately, I see two essential requirements for getting promoted. First, that the employee is doing great work, and second, that the employee knows what it takes to get promoted. That second point comes back to the career framework I mentioned earlier. It’s challenging to get promoted if you’re unsure what it takes in the first place.
The secret to success in remote work is communication. Everything centers on having strong communication skills, which goes double for conversations around promotions and career advancement. Clear communication means polishing up your writing skills to ensure you’re conveying all of the information necessary without confusing someone by using too many technical terms, acronyms, or slang words. Another important part of communicating clearly is showing up to one-on-ones prepared to talk about goals, recent projects, and career progress.
Advocate for Career Conversations
Ensure you know what cadence your manager is comfortable with in terms of conversations about career progression. This often differs from company to company and sometimes even team to team in one organization. I’ve known managers who check in once a month on career progress whereas others prefer quarterly chats. Just make sure you’re having a regular conversation that both you and your manager are comfortable with to keep your career progression top of mind.
I’ve always been upfront with managers about wanting to have regular conversations about my current performance and the things it will take to advance me in my role. I show up to those conversations ready to discuss both recently completed and upcoming projects, which makes them a lot more valuable.
Keep Lists of Career Accomplishments
To help with the career conversations I just mentioned, I highly recommend getting into the habit of keeping a list of career accomplishments from your current role. I’ve done this for years, and I recommend it to so many people. Often, when work is moving quickly, it’s easy to lose track of what you’ve accomplished. Still, you need to track your achievements because other people won’t do it for you. Since managers generally have several direct reports, they can’t always remember every detail for each of their teammates.
To overcome this problem, I keep a simple note where I mark the year and the quarter, and I write down accomplishments for that quarter. This way, if there are quarterly or annual check-ins, I am prepared to show what I’ve accomplished, even if it was months ago. Keeping this simple list also means that I’m ready with examples anytime my manager asks about something in our career conversations. This technique has made performance reviews a lot easier and helps by keeping handy examples that I may have otherwise forgotten.
Show Your Work
One of the biggest challenges with remote work is that your manager can’t look over your shoulder and see what you’re working on. Ideally, in a healthy office environment, your manager also wouldn’t do that either. What is more common in an office setting, however, is running into your manager in passing. During these casual encounters, you can give immediate updates on projects if any questions arise. You can also share wins more frequently. Still, however you showed your work at the office, you can also find ways to accomplish the same thing remotely.
As a public relations professional, I spend a lot of time working with the media. I keep spreadsheets of my media contacts that my manager has access to, which includes the dates I last contacted them. One of my design colleagues has a different approach. Each Friday, she sends a bullet point list of updates on what she’s accomplished during the week to her team’s main Slack channel.
Another idea is to enlist the help of a colleague. The two of you can work together to highlight each other’s accomplishments in public spaces. Buffer uses a recognition system called Hey Taco, which allows us to send each other taco emojis to recognize a person’s work. Those emoji tacos can later be redeemed for real prizes. Giving colleagues tacos in public channels on Slack helps recognize their work where their manager and other teammates will see.
Ask Others for Advice
Finally, another helpful approach is to align with someone else at your company who is keen to get promoted or was promoted recently. Ask about what they’ve done and what worked for them. Ideally, this person would be someone on your immediate team or someone who has experience working with your manager to help give you specific insights, but anyone within the company should work.
Parting Thoughts — Partner Up!
Both of the last pieces of advice rely on helping or supporting colleagues and receiving their help in return. Some people would rather not enlist others’ help to advance in their careers for fear that that other person might get promoted over them. I would recommend shifting strategies to the complete opposite frame of mind. View your development as tied to others; you’ll be able to grow and advance because others do too. Said another way, I don’t shine if you don’t shine. This outlook is called Shine Theory, a concept created by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. They describe Shine Theory as “an investment, over the long term, in helping someone be their best self — and relying on their help in return.”
I recommend finding people at work who will practice Shine Theory with you. Embracing Shine Theory has been a game-changer for me in my career and friendships, and I believe it can help as people transition to new careers where they work primarily remotely.