Aug 21 · 7 min read
You love the commute as a remote worker, but you dread the constant assumption of your in-office peers that you’re working in your undies while watching TV? You share this dilemma with your roughly 4 million fellow American remote workers.
Perception is a reality to the presumptuous critic. Even in a world with increasing demand and appreciation for remote work, we still have a huge gap in understanding and in skilled, experienced and effective virtual leaders and office workers.
Those gaps can impact your career unless you learn to manage your response to these challenges.
What you can do as a WFH employee
You’re not physically visible, your presence is virtual. That means your peers and your leaders will get their cues about your presence in other ways. The good news: you can influence those cues.
Your availability and transparency about your whereabouts replaces the visual in-office cues. If you have an instant messaging tool at work, such as Cisco Jabber, Skype, or Windows Live, your status (online, away, in a meeting) becomes your face to the public. If you’re going to lunch, don’t just set your status to “away.”
Change the status text to “away for lunch until 1 pm.” It is specific as opposed to vague, which leaves room for interpretation, which is what you want to reduce by all means. It creates accountability, sets an expectation and builds trust that your being “away” isn’t a catch-all for any type of absence. Invest the 20 seconds it takes to modify your status text, it’s well worth it.
Master Virtual Communication
Most of your communication will provide no visual cues about you. You will email, use a messenger and be on the phone a lot more than you would if you were in an office. Even if you’re not seen, people pay attention to changes in your voice and they are more sensitive to background noise or read between the lines in your email.
Our brain uses every available cue to help us evaluate a setting we’re in. Similar to running around with a blindfold, our other senses increase to make up for the lack of visual orientation. You will use communication to provide those cues.
When you’re on a call, don’t do other things in parallel. You think they don’t notice when you mute your line, but how you respond and interact on a call gives away your mental absence. Research shows that we can only be in one place at the same time. There is no such thing as multitasking. We want to tell ourselves that and it’s incredibly deceptive.
Don’t make room for suspicion.
It will chip away at the trust placed in you. Once people notice that you aren’t fully present in the moment, they will ask why. If you are distracted, state openly what’s going on. Be transparent and don’t leave it to assuming the worst.
If you have a lot of background noise, consider Krispr. It’s a superb noise cancellation tool that is loved by digital nomads.
Don’t Abandon Your Appearance Because You WFH
You may not have to wear slacks and dress shoes every day, but don’t develop a habit of wearing PJs. They say you are what you wear. You feel the way you dress. You feel like relaxing in PJs. Even if you wear jeans with a shirt, you will feel the difference. It will help your mindset and your posture will change as well.
If you have to jump on a video call, it will show your professionalism. If you prefer t-shirt and jeans and want to quickly “dress up for the occasion,” use the reporter approach: always have a blazer ready to dress up your “screen presence.”
Block out visual distractions
Consider a room divider. You won’t need to worry about the paint chipping off your wall or ugly storage boxes stacked in your office. If you want to go really fancy, use a green screen. There are affordable, simple solutions out there. Zoom makes it easy to create virtual backgrounds with other backgrounds to remove visual distractions.
On-time, high-quality deliverables at work should be the norm regardless of where you work. Since you’re not visible, your outputs make you visible. Communicate delays and known hurdles ahead of time to manage expectations. Running early versions of your work by your team or leadership also helps to align early on so you don’t produce results that didn’t meet the expectations.
Be On Time
No one can see that you’re still on the other line or in the meeting room with so-and-so. If you can’t be on time, create a text macro (a shortcut) you can use within seconds to tell folks that you’re running behind by a few minutes. Most phones allow text replacements. Typinator is a useful tool you can install on your computer to do that.
Embrace And Master Collaboration & Communication Technology
In essence, these tools contribute to shaping office culture as extended meeting rooms, water coolers, and so forth. Your meeting room may be your telepresence or WebEx. Your water cooler may be your Slack, Jabber or another instant messaging tool. You need to collaborate, meet and communicate – sometimes in groups, other times 1:1.
Sometimes you’ll have brief exchanges, other times heavy releases of information. The best fit for sharing a presentation with a team wouldn’t be a phone call. Pick the right tool for the nature and objective of the conversation you’re about to have and master your tools.
Technology is wonderful when it works and when a user has mastered it. Few things at work are more annoying than a host being unfamiliar with the presentation tool s/he’s using. More importantly, it creates an impression.
We’re not talking about the occasional technical hiccups of an interrupted connection or those delightful reboots of your PC right at the start of your call. We’re talking about fiddling around with software while others are watching and about struggling to bring up the right screen while you have a gazillion browser tabs open (including the one with all the hilarious cat gifs). That’s going to leave an unprofessional mark on you and will confirm your worst critic in their presumptions.
Be Intentional As You WFH
Since you’re not frequently seen like your peers, to circumvent the “out of sight – out of mind” principle, you’ll have to become intentional about your interactions. No one can read your mind anyways. Your absence doesn’t necessarily equal a lack of ambition, so make sure you proactively communicate your career ambitions.
Schedule time with your leadership to work on a path with clear goals and metrics. This will help you to clearly communicate your contributions and show the value you add as you report on your progress towards those goals. It will remove the question of whether or not you do as much valuable work as your in-office peers. You’re showing results – just like your non-remote colleagues.
Remove the guess-work about what you do by (over)communicating your work (planned, in progress, finished). You can do that via several channels:
- Share your projects and progress updates on your company’s SharePoint or similar platforms (intranet, collaboration boards).
- Summarize your current work pile (projects, milestones, achievements) when you are asked in team meetings.
- Include a link to your own update page on your intranet or corporate social collaboration platform in your email signature. It could say “Need an update? View project progress on my status page.” A simple click answers the question “what is s/he working on?” Try using Kanban in Trello. It looks beautiful and will help your own focus as well.
To move your career along, lead a project that creates high value for the organization. This will boost your visibility with leadership communicates the value you bring. Business likes to see outputs that create value for the organization. If you contribute to the business goals of your organization, you increase trust and the question where you work will fade into irrelevance.
Have Your Cake And Eat It, Too
If you want to reap the benefits of being more productive and eliminating your commute, you don’t have to sacrifice your career ambitions. Traditionally, being physically present was the only option to start and grow a career.
Times are changing. While the acceptance and favor of remote work are increasing, the traditional office culture and mindset is still adjusting to the trend. You cannot WFH and be present in the office at the same time. You can, however, influence your public perception (and the mindset toward remote employees) by reducing assumptions about your work.
“There’s no favorable wind for the sailor who doesn’t know where he’s going.” (unknown)
You don’t have to sacrifice your career goals. Be intentional with your career ambition. You know what they say: Failing to plan is planning to fail. Make your ambitions known and work with your executive on a plan that’s measurable wherever you are.
Show them what you’ve got, tiger!
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