Career growth for remote workers has been a lively subject of debate in a world where it’s become normal for companies to offer some level of remote work. In the 2022 State of Remote Work, an annual report I lead at Buffer, we dug into this more.
To start, 97 percent of the more than 2,000 respondents selected that they’d like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their career, which is just another in a long list of reasons that remote work is here to stay. When asked whether career growth is more or less difficult for remote workers, a plurality of those surveyed said it was more difficult.
Interestingly, however, a later question in the survey asked remote workers to identify their biggest struggles. Just 15 percent of respondents selected career growth as a top struggle, though. This data suggests that, even if some remote workers are concerned about growing their careers, it largely takes a back seat to other concerns like unplugging, loneliness, motivation, and working across time zones.
Seeing so many remote workers say that they think remote work has no impact on their career growth is illuminating. Personally, I'm in that same group.
Over the years, I've managed to grow in my career while working entirely remotely. From experience, what I have going for me is that I work for an organization with a clear career framework for our fully remote team, but career growth has also been top-of-mind for me regardless of whether I’m working remotely or not.
In my experience, I’ve seen that several significant factors influence career growth.
3 Factors That Influence Career Growth
- How an organization is structured.
- How organizations approach career growth.
- How individuals approach career growth.
I’ll get into each of these in more detail and unpack how they influence a career trajectory.
How Do Companies Handle Remote Work Careers?
The belief that remote work could harm someone’s career trajectory if that person works remotely for an office-first or office-occasional organization holds some truth. Suppose a hybrid organization isn’t aware of the biases that can accompany splitting a team between office and remote. In that case, the career growth of remote workers likely suffers as a result of this environment.
Caroline Fairchild, editor-at-large at LinkedIn News, explains how this structure can especially discriminatory: “Proximity bias — the idea that employees with close proximity to their leaders are seen as better workers — may affect how managers evaluate performance. And this will penalize women, people of color and working parents the most, as these groups are spending less time in the office than their peers.”
The solution, in my opinion, is for hybrid organizations to adopt a remote-first approach in which they are intentional about their time together in person. Dropbox has a great approach here, they have shifted to a remote-first paradigm but kept their office spaces. According to the company blog, “Dropbox Studios will be specifically for collaboration and community-building, and employees will not be able to use them for solo work.” This way, any time spent together is for close collaboration rather than daily work, which could lead to subtly encouraging everyone to work primarily from the office again. Organizations can find many ways to overcome the challenges of the hybrid-work model, and being remote-first is a great one.
On the flip side, what about entirely remote companies? One argument holds that a fully remote setup can be damaging for careers as well. The thinking here is that a fully remote approach leads to learning loss from colleagues in an office and missed opportunities for mentorship. Remote work might not be right for everyone’s learning preference, but the same can be said for office work, and I disagree that either make career growth harder by nature.
Individuals must decide what type of company structure feels best for their own learning and work styles. For any remote workers in hybrid organizations, I’d recommend paying close attention to how promotions happen and working to encourage a remote-first environment for more equality for all workers.
How Organizations Can Approach Career Growth
Ultimately, a massive part of anyone’s career growth depends on how well various organizations are set up to support it. This support will vary wildly depending on the organization’s size. For instance, at smaller organizations and startups, individuals might drive more of their own growth. At Buffer, an 85-person company, we have a clear, company-wide career framework, and several teams have even more specific frameworks for their areas.
Looking at the data from the 2022 State of Remote Work, some telling differences exist between the respondents who said remote work had no impact on career growth versus those respondents who believe it makes growth more difficult. Notably, 55 percent of respondents who struggled with growing their careers said their company doesn’t provide growth opportunities. Meanwhile, 56 percent of the respondents who selected no impact said their company provides clear remote career growth opportunities. Clearly, a company’s commitment to supporting growth makes a huge difference.
Career growth opportunities can take many different forms. Companies can establish a culture where individuals can work on new and different projects that deepen or expand their skill sets either within their own areas or by working cross-functionally. Some larger organizations also set up programs where employees can do internal internships on other teams. GitLab even created a temporary assignment to shadow the CEO, which is a really unique career experience that GitLab employees can apply to take part in.
Further, of the group with a positive outlook on growth, 58 percent specified that their company helps them connect with colleagues as it relates to work, and 65 percent said they have the opportunity to socialize with colleagues. The other group reported 45 percent and 50 percent, respectively, in their responses here.
Networking remotely is entirely possible, though different, and organizations can do a lot to assist and support employees in these endeavors. For example, at Buffer, we use Donut, a Slack bot, to connect teammates for social calls once a week. This practice is a priority for us, and we treat these calls as opt-out rather than opt-in because the connections formed between teammates across the organization not only helps them feel more connected but can have very real benefits when it comes to team cohesion and connectivity.
Another way for companies to support employees is to provide a training or learning budget for conferences, courses and other types of development. These programs can differ quite a bit, but offering some form of career growth opportunity is one way to keep employees engaged with their work and the organization as a whole. Doing so clearly helps employees feel that career advancement is more achievable for them remotely.
Finally, managers naturally play an important role in career growth for remote workers. In one-on-ones and other interactions, managers can support an individual’s growth by asking about or helping them to create career plans. As Perfeqta, a talent development agency, has argued, managers asking about career goals is also a way to be a better ally to underrepresented groups.
Companies can find lots of big and small ways to support remote workers with their career growth. At a time when, in tech especially, there’s a competitive marketplace for talent, ensuring that existing teammates are supported and feel they have growth opportunities could have a big impact on overall retention.
What Individuals Can Do to Grow Their Careers
Although growth within one organization is naturally impacted by its policies, individuals can do a lot for their own overall career development, whether inside or outside of their organizations. I’ve written about getting promoted remotely by focusing on communication, advocating for yourself, and keeping career lists. Of course, the organization must have systems in place to help employees advance, but individuals naturally play a crucial role in navigating those systems as they grow.
Building up a roster of mentors while working and network remotely is possible. I’ve been working fully remotely for six years now and have grown my career and skills a considerable amount in that time, and I can name many people I admire who have done the same. One benefit that I’ve had is that, in addition to working for a fully distributed remote organization, we have a clear career framework and approach to individual growth within the organization.
Another big part of career growth is learning. There are tons of places to learn and develop new skills online, and many companies will offer to cover some portion of a subscription to online learning platforms like Skillshare. I’ve also learned a lot from peers and mentors over the years. One strategy I’ve used is to reach out to people in the same role at other companies in a similar industry for knowledge sharing. This kind of cold outreach has led to some incredible connections over the years. There are also many ways to network remotely to find peers and mentors in similar industries or roles.
Of course, growing can also mean outgrowing. Sometimes the best thing for career growth is moving to another company. Over the last year, 33 million Americans quit their job in what is now called The Great Resignation. The reality is that in certain industries, and tech is one of them, there is a lot of opportunity for growth, and a large number of companies are hiring. Although it can be a difficult decision to make, if it feels like growth is stagnant in your current company, you can often find great opportunities at another.