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Life and Work: Advancing Your Career as a Remote Employee

As working remotely becomes more commonplace ­— either by necessity or choice — a SWE member who has found success working from home shares tips and inspiration.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, what did you think when you heard someone was a remote employee? You may have thought, “Oh, how lucky they are,” or “I’m sorry you have to work all alone,” or “How do you stay on task
at home?”

Then, suddenly, in late March 2020, nearly all job roles deemed nonessential went from full time in the office to full time working from home. Many of us have had to deal with child care and remote-schooling challenges throughout the pandemic, bringing a whole different set of challenges.

At the time of this writing, shopping, restaurants, and in-the-office work environments have begun to open up in most regions of the U.S., though there are now calls to rethink this.

Just as it was an adjustment for everyone who had to start working from home immediately, it was a large adjustment for me, back in 2017, when I shifted from in the office full time to working from home.

And now that I am seeing many social media posts by friends considering remaining remote employees — and with companies looking to scale back physical office spaces as the new normal unfolds — my experience and observations seem even more relevant.


Life and Work: Advancing Your Career as a Remote Employee
Credit: Sorbetto

Points to consider

When you’re used to seeing your colleagues in person every day, popping into their offices for a quick question or sharing stories on the way to the cafeteria, all of that “water-cooler” talk instantly goes away once you work remotely. How do you maintain contact with your colleagues? How do you keep up to date on projects and continue to demonstrate your value? How do you advance your career?

First, be visible as much as you can. This means being engaged in all aspects of meetings, phone calls, and emails and being on video. Throughout the pandemic, you may have discovered communicating with your colleagues required more effort. You need to make a conscious effort to reach out to team members since you aren’t going to randomly run into them in your home hallway. Even if no one else turns video on, turn your video on, and call people rather than sending that IM or email. Hear their voices; watch and listen to those nonverbal cues that you can’t get otherwise. You also want to continue cultivating relationships you’ve already built and focus on building new relationships through continued conversations. Once it is safe to do so, travel when possible to meetings and schedule extra time/days for catching up in person with colleagues. This will continue to keep you “seen” in the office, so you are not forgotten. 

Being a remote employee brings challenges and misconceptions that you and your peers must overcome. You must set boundaries for yourself and your team. Just because you work from home doesn’t mean that you are “always on.” Determine your office hours and let others know of those boundaries as well. There may be the occasional time you need to meet outside of those hours because of a customer issue or a specific situation, but don’t always give up your time. If you don’t respect your own boundaries, others won’t either.

If you have a global team and need to adjust or split your time throughout the day, that is OK — do what works best for you. For instance, I have employees in Europe, India, and the U.S. I have many early-morning and late-night meetings because of time-zone overlaps. To accommodate, I stop earlier than many of my U.S.-only counterparts to re-engage again later in my evening. My India employees often shift their days to start later since they have many late-night meetings. Even if your company doesn’t have an official policy on adjusting your work hours, I would recommend proposing to your manager about shifting your workday to do what works best for you. I’m sure there’s enough work for 15-plus-hour days, but you need to set the boundaries.

You need to make a conscious effort to reach out to team members since you aren’t going to randomly run into them in your home hallway. Even if no one else turns video on, turn your video on, and call people rather than sending that IM or email. Hear their voices; watch and listen to those nonverbal cues that you can’t get otherwise.

Advancing your career

As I mentioned, you need to be visible, and this is very important for advancing your career. People also need to know what your career goals and aspirations are. Do you want to move up the ladder? Are you open to relocation? What types of roles are you interested in? You will want to revisit the career-aspiration conversations several times a year. I recommend having the conversation at your annual focal delivery time, about six months later, and again at the end of the year. It is good to reflect on your past year, where you want to go next year, consider whether you are on track, and what else is missing in your journey. When you find skills or experiences are missing to get to the next level, having a development conversation regularly is a great time to ask for new and more challenging projects to obtain those skills/experiences.

Don’t forget to also have these conversations with strategic colleagues who can help advance your plans. For instance, is there a peer leader who has different circles of executives they deal with? And, HR, finance, and legal are also involved in key conversations at the company. If they know you’re open to a larger scope and want a director role, for instance, they can mention your name in the next big opportunity being discussed in staff. If no one knows your aspirations, they can’t help you achieve your goals.

Lastly, find connections with your colleagues. Since you can’t have a casual chat in the hallway with them about what they did over the weekend, plan a few minutes in your next 1:1 to create a connection. When you find something you have in common, you’re more likely to have a successful working relationship. Perhaps you went to the same university; your kids are both interested in the same sport; or you enjoy the same type of food, exercise, drinks, sports team, etc. The possibilities are endless! Connecting on common ground gives you something to talk about and creates a more personal experience for both of you.

In summary, be visible, overcome misconceptions about being a remote employee, let others know your career aspirations, and find ways to establish personal connections with colleagues.

Author(s) Information

  • Life and Work: Advancing Your Career as a Remote Employee Lynda Grindstaff, F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board

    Lynda Grindstaff, F.SWE, is a vice president of engineering with McAfee. An active SWE Fellow and senior life member, she is the past chair of the editorial board and has been recognized by the Society as an Emerging Leader and Prism award recipient.

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