While employees didn’t necessarily discuss everything at watercoolers in offices pre-pandemic, that one-on-one interaction often played an important role in discussing promotions.

Now, because of the shift to remote work, limited or no in-personal interaction has in many cases shifted how staff get promoted, experts say.

W. Wayne Turmel, the Nevada-based co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute, says that organizations must understand that proximity bias exists — even if it’s not intentional. (That’s the notion that managers tend to remember those who are physically and visually close to them.)

So if a manager was thinking of who to promote internally, pre-Covid they might have looked no farther than the person in the cubicle beside them. Now, that may mean the person they Zoom with frequently.

“Before the pandemic, it was assumed that people who worked remotely or from home more often were choosing lifestyle over career, and the systems defaulted to those in the office,” Turmel explained. “That’s no longer the case, and HR can help by explicitly outlining what it will take for people to be considered for promotions and lateral moves inside the organization.”

To be sure, promotion disparities between remote and in-person workers occurred prior to the pandemic. A 2015 Stanford Graduate School of Business study found that while at-home workers were more productive, they weren’t promoted as much as those who worked in the office.

A 2019 report from the University of California Santa Barbara showed that being seen while working yielded positive outcomes for employees “because it is a strong signal of their commitment to their job, their team and their organization.”

A May 2021 Korn Ferry survey showed almost 60 percent of 581 professionals feared they’d harm their career advancement if they admitted that they wanted to continue working remotely.

According to a LinkedIn study, promotions were down in 2020 — not too surprising considering the erratic nature of work during the onset of the pandemic in the U.S.

Virtual work: Helping or harming promotions?

So is the hybrid or remote setting hampering existing employees from getting promoted? That depends on who you ask. Dan Belcher, the Oklahoma-based founder and CEO at Mortgage Relief, which provides pre-foreclosure services, says virtual promotions are different.

“Employees have limited access since communication in a virtual environment is difficult. In addition, in a virtual setup, promotion is far less likely,” he said.

Ravi Parikh, CEO of campground search engine RoverPass, however, believes virtual settings don’t hurt an employee’s ability to discuss a promotion if their manager checks in regularly.

“I have one-on-ones regularly with employees. While it’s not possible for us to talk every day, we check in regularly and they know they can reach me anytime,” Parikh said.

Promotion policies and communication

Belcher notes that organizations are changing or creating policies as they adapt to remote and hybrid work models.

“In a remote-work setting, personalizing the process is important,” he said. “Having a procedure benefits everyone in the organization, as does providing a clear set of business standards and objective staff-performance metrics. Internal alert systems can inform workers when an opportunity arises — a replacement to watercooler discussions, if you will.”

Belcher also recommends that organizations tap technology “and be open about the process. The rules must be clear for everyone.”

Parikh of Rover Pass recommends that HR leaders iron out messaging about opportunities before advertising them. Business leaders should be aware that since communication about potential promotions is now largely through written communication, they need to be careful not to promise anything they can’t back up, he says.

Parikh also advises sharing a full list of everyone’s duties so others know what each worker’s responsibilities are — something that could make it easier for them to learn about a role they’re interested in.

Balancing data with personalization

It’s vital for business leaders to include data-driven performance metrics alongside the usual considerations when deciding whom to promote, says Jon Hill, chairman and CEO of Texas-based energy recruiting firm The Energists.

“This is especially important in a hybrid environment, where remote and in-person employees will be compared side by side,” he said. “Having data on productivity, task-completion rate and sales puts all employees on an even playing field and allows the top performers to rise to the top, regardless of where they work.”

At the same time, while office environments are helpful in spurring one-on-one talks, that’s not necessarily the case in hybrid settings and certainly not in all-remote businesses, Hill notes. Phone and video chats now are the norm, but they require more pre-planning, he adds.

“It’s important that managers put this effort in,” he said. “I encourage team leaders to have one-on-one conversations with remote employees once a month to check in and give feedback. If you’re mindful of the ways remote work changes the office landscape, you can prevent those changes from limiting the opportunities available to employees.”

Processes and policies matter

Joe Flanagan, a senior employment advisor at Velvet Jobs, an employer branding firm based in California, says that while the parameters of what constitutes good performance have changed and there is a greater focus on building inclusive virtual processes, managers and HR leaders “need to take a comprehensive view of performance and achievements while promoting employees.”

“Organizations that have already established these processes are the only ones benefitting, and others are losing a key source of available talent within their workplace,” Flanagan said.

HR leaders may need new ways to measure performance in such areas as ownership, accountability and innovation, he adds.

Posting promotion opportunities online will help, but HR and different departments should give updates to managers that can be passed down, according to Remote Leadership Institute’s Turmel.

Even a Slack channel can help people stay updated about opportunities, he suggested.

HR leaders and managers looking to fill spots will need to be proactive, Turmel adds. That means identifying potential candidates and asking them, “Hey, have you thought about this?”

Companies can make it easier for employees to be noticed by establishing guidelines regarding when physical presence will be demanded and what the rules will be for those working away from the office, Turmel notes.

HR can help by streamlining processes for announcing job openings and allowing video interviews rather than in-person visits early in the process, he says. A gentle nudge to leaders to consider everyone on their team, regardless of location, rather than going to the first person that crosses their mind will help, Turmel adds.

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