2020 will be the year of the successful remote worker

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Things change in the business world quickly. What worked last quarter is often woefully ineffective just a few short months later. From marketing tactics to departmental budgets, successful business on the rise can usually be identified by its ability to adapt on the fly and roll with the punches. Similarly, a new study finds that the very idea of a good employee and successful career is currently undergoing an evolutionary period.

As recently as just a few short years ago, the notion of working remotely carried a pretty major stigma. Employees telecommuting from home have historically been considered unambitious and complacent. Working from home may be great from a work-life balance perspective, but the biggest knock on a remote approach to employment has been that it leaves little room for growth, career advancement, or perhaps most importantly, a pay raise.

Now, researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York are proclaiming that just isn’t the case anymore. As remote work capabilities continue to advance and make one’s physical presence in an office increasingly superfluous, working from home isn’t a career death sentence anymore. 

All in all, the team at the RPI Lally School of Management has found that telecommuters in 2020 receive just as many career opportunities as employees who report to an office day in and day out. Of course, just like anyone else, remote worker’s career prospects are now largely determined by the quality of their work.

“Although telecommuting has experienced rapid growth, some workers are reluctant to try telecommuting for fear that it will hurt their career,” explains study author professor Timothy D. Golden in a press release. “This research helps answer that critical question: Does it hurt your career if you telecommute? My study shows that it depends heavily on the employee’s work context.” 

To be clear, if you’re an employee of a company that doesn’t typically allow their employees to work remotely, you probably shouldn’t just stop showing up one day and expect a promotion. According to professor Golden, one of the biggest deciding factors towards a remote worker’s success these days is the level of acceptance of such an arrangement in their company. If you’re part of a company with many remote workers, you’re more likely to be offered a promotion as a telecommuter than within a company that is trying out remote work for the first time.

That being said, more and more businesses are coming around to the idea of telecommuting. It isn’t an outlandish prediction to say that within 10 years the number of remote workers in the United States will double or even triple.

Suddenly working from home each day sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? Before you throw away your suit and tie for good, though, take note of some of the study’s other findings. 

While remote workers in many companies are being offered more opportunities than ever, the study’s authors also mentioned that these promotions often don’t come with quite the same bump in pay that may be offered to a full-time office employee. However, remote workers can still attain those elusive raises by showing their “devotion” by putting in some extra hours. If a telecommuter regularly puts in some extra effort, they’ll be much more likely to see a pay raise on the same level as any other employee.

So, like so many other aspects of business, there’s a give and take situation at play here. Remote work obviously offers a number of benefits; no commute, the ability to work in your underwear, no inter-office politics, etc — but you may have to add an hour or two to your work day if you still want a nice pay raise as a telecommuter.

Additionally, the occasional visit to the office for a little one-on-one facetime with the boss can make a world of difference. Remote workers who find the time to pop in on a semi-weekly basis usually put themselves in a better position to be offered a promotion and more lucrative pay bump.

To research their findings, the team at RPI analyzed promotion and salary data collected on more than 400 corporate employees.

“In this study, I wanted to use objective data — actual promotions and salary increases — rather than simply rely on survey responses, as had been done in previous research,” Golden says. “In this way, we can begin to uncover the true impact of telecommuting on fundamental career outcomes, such as promotions and salary growth over time.”

It’s been philosophized and preached for centuries: the only true constant in life is changes, and office life is no different. In many ways, widespread acceptance of remote work in the US is long overdue.

“Previous research has tended to treat all telecommuters as one homogeneous group, and my research suggests that telecommuting is not a one-size-fits-all work arrangement,” Golden concludes. “Telecommuting arrangements are often unique, and differences in these arrangements must be understood and taken into account when determining how best to be successful. This study suggests contextual factors are especially important to consider when determining telecommuting’s effect on promotions and salary growth.”

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.