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You’ll never build a personal brand–unless you stop hiding behind remote work

March 14, 2022, 5:31 PM UTC
Research suggests remote work has made workers’ collaboration more siloed, with fewer connections between different parts of the business.
Daniel Acker—Bloomberg/Getty Images

COVID-19 canceled the office—or at least that’s what many employees seem to think these days. Many have grown comfortable with remote work and are resisting growing calls from employers to return to the office, even if only for a few days a week.

But in doing so employees in many sectors risk shooting themselves in the foot–and missing out on important career and personal development benefits that are hard to achieve through Zoom meetings alone. That can be especially pronounced for newer or younger employees who haven’t had the chance to build strong networks yet. 

When the pandemic first hit, it produced a moment of remarkable unity between employers and employees on the need to shift to remote work. Two years on, that’s starting to fray as employers realize what they have lost from office-based work while many workers are reluctant to give up their new arrangements.

Employees can point to studies—such as this two-year survey by Great Place to Work—showing that productivity has increased or stayed the same with remote work. However, those only tell a narrow part of the story.

We know from experience that being in the office with colleagues leads to stronger connections, better collaboration, and more spontaneous interactions. This results in a higher quality of work and an ability to see the bigger picture, which leads to long-term benefits for employees.

Learning and skills acquisition tend to stick much better when they are done in person. On video calls, there’s a clear tendency for participants to check out and get distracted—a very frustrating phenomenon for a supervisor and one that over time leads to slower growth in skills and learning.

Some of the most important learning in offices takes place after meetings, in the corridor, or by the coffee machine, as participants discuss what they learned and exchange experiences. On remote calls, that opportunity is lost at the click of the “End Meeting” button.

Office collaboration also helps employees look beyond their immediate team and experience the organization as a whole. Working alone at home, by contrast, can lead people to get isolated on their own projects and limit contact to people they already know. Recently, for example, a colleague asked me to jump on a call because I happened to be in the office early, allowing me to contribute to and learn from an aspect of the business outside my usual group.  

I’m not alone in seeing this. Researchers at Microsoft recently found that company-wide remote work had made workers’ collaboration “more static and siloed,” with fewer connections between different parts of the business.

Building a personal brand–and the career advantages that come with that–has also become much harder in the Zoom era. Hiding behind a screen makes it much harder for people to remember you and feel emotionally connected. In-person presence is key to projecting the trust that is crucial in building relationships. It also creates a much more effective environment for providing feedback to coworkers on their performance, a process that is predicated on empathy and intimacy.

The timeless human skills of presenting yourself well, building rapport, and forming emotional connections are steadily eroding through remote work—but are as important as ever for business success. This is especially the case for industries that have a large client-facing element, such as consulting. Yet they are still highly relevant for roles that require attention to internal customers.

The loss of visibility and personal brand through remote work may pose a serious obstacle to career advancement. Separate studies of a Chinese and a U.S. firm that split their workforces between the office and remote locations found that those in the office were more likely to win promotions. 

With the labor market so tight, companies may feel there’s not much they can do to get workers back out of their homes. But it can be done in a non-coercive way by reminding employees of what they’re missing, staying flexible through hybrid arrangements, and ensuring they are getting tangible benefits from time spent in the office.

Ultimately, though, employees need to be more aware of the long-term costs of shunning the office and start taking advantage of opportunities to return. 

Stan Hannah, PhD, is a partner and leader of the talent and organizational development practice at Plante Moran.

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