Career Development

Making the Brand: How to Advance Your Career in a Remote Work Environment

Recent data and analysis show that rates of company-sponsored, remote work arrangements have mostly returned to pre-pandemic levels. However, there are still millions of workers who experience a fully remote lifestyle. Many ‘progressive’ companies have adopted this as their ‘new normal’ model and they do not plan to revert to the ‘old normal’ anytime soon.

The New Landscape

When I think of remote workers, I first tend to think of people who know their job well. The employee may have been in the role for a while or they may be otherwise well-established in their career. In reality, when a company decides to go fully remote, a sizable portion of their staff are young. Some are so young that this is their first exposure to knowledge work.

An overlooked question looms over this conversation. Can young workers learn, perform well, and advance in their jobs while not being required to leave their home or to even take a shower? Is it possible for inexperienced folks to move from an entry-level to a more senior role, without seeing anyone in person and maybe without even wearing pants during work hours?

This has never been attempted before.

The Rise of Remote Flexibility

Despite generally positive reviews in the media, significant challenges exist for workers who lack career capital or who otherwise wish to grow. For decades, the ability to make an in-person connection was an integral aspect of career acceleration. Now that traditional, in-person human-to-human contact with organizational leaders is impossible for large populations of young workers, an adjustment must be made.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, very few people worked on a remote or hybrid basis. Back in 2019, only 2.9% of job postings on Indeed were advertised as remote. In 2022, that number had approximately tripled to 8.6%. 

Now, according to data from the US Labor Department, in the fall 2022, 67.4% of establishments in the tech and media sector said their staff works remotely some or all of the time. This trend appears poised to continue.

This alteration of workplaces across America has struck rapidly, but fortunately we as humans are adaptive creatures. If you are a young person, or someone who still needs to grow in your career, and you work entirely remotely, you will need to find a way to stand out from the crowd. This can be extremely challenging and may require some creativity.

Making the Brand

A proficient marketer or salesperson obsesses about how to differentiate their goods or services from competitors. This is not a nice trait for an expert marketer to have, it is a requirement. Although workplaces are more relational, many of the same principles apply. 

Take bottled water as a brief marketing example. The companies that sell this product have somehow managed to develop loyalty in a customer base despite selling something that is both available in every US household and basically the same quality as what consumers can get at home.

Under these circumstances, one might wonder how they sell anything at all, let alone successfully differentiate their brand.

Although I am no fan of bottled water (I participated in a successful campaign in college to remove bottled water from campus – it has since returned), if I suspend my pride a bit, I must begrudgingly admit that their tactics work on me. I tend to prefer Aquafina because of factors that are less than objective. These include Aquafina’s logo, their commercials, the shape of the bottle, and my perception that it tastes better than other bottled water brands. 

Besides, you cannot convince me that “Aquafina” is not fun to say out loud, especially with the accent in their television commercials.

Is this rational? Who knows? It’s a bit annoying. I am not necessarily proud that I think this way. But it doesn’t matter.

In a marketplace or workplace, perception is reality. You cannot rationalize your way up the corporate ladder. Whether working remotely or in person, you need to get on the radar of the right people and make a positive impression.

If bottled water companies can do it, so can you.

“Do I Know You?”

Any provider of career advice will emphasize the importance of a robust and expansive professional network. One factor that directly addresses the quality of a relationship is how well you know someone. There is a well-known and pervasive cognitive bias known as, “proximity bias.”

The premise here is simple. We are more likely to remember people who we know personally because they have made an impression that stands out from others who we do not know as well.

How significant is proximity bias? A survey by Executive Networks shows that 71% of senior HR leaders and 62% of business leaders believe that proximity bias exists and that it negatively impacts remote or hybrid workers. If a strong majority of gatekeepers and senior decision makers acknowledge that this bias exists, remote workers are at a clear disadvantage when the time comes to promote someone. 

Who would you promote: someone who you know personally and like or someone who you do not know personally and like?

Is meeting someone in person a requirement to get on the good side of someone’s proximity bias?

In some cases, the answer is likely yes, in others, it may depend. For example, if you were hired recently at a company staffed by people who once worked together in an office, chances are you are on the outside of this social clique. Unfortunately, it is probably impossible to compete with this exposure unless you have the opportunity to at least get to know your colleagues in person.

If you are in such an environment and wish to advance further in your career, you had better adjust your approach to overcome this barrier.

The New Road to Career Success

Here are some ways to ‘make your brand’ and increase your chances of career advancement when working fully remote.

1. Beat Your Drum

For me, I make sure that as many people who meet me as possible in a professional setting know the following:

(1) I have a wife and baby at home. Who doesn’t like babies! I want people to think of me as a new caring, loving “dada.”

(2) I love data and spreadsheets. This is my professional identity.

(3) I am not above a “good” dad joke. In fact, I love them because they are innocent, openly cheesy, and they tend to bring people together.

(4) I write and maintain a blog called Deep Dive Careers and a weekly curated newsletter called Ryan’s Weekly Wave.

(5) I’m a self-described “snob” about the coffee that I drink.

If you think some of this sounds trivial, you might be correct, but there is more to the story. Being known for simple, memorable, and generally pro-social personality traits along with unique areas of expertise is the foundation of a personal brand. In a professional setting, you want to influence how people remember and recall you. Not only do I actively convey these tidbits about myself, I go out of my way to do so frequently.

By injecting myself into the minds of my friends, colleagues, and professional connections, it increases the chances that they will think of me when the time is right for something that I can do to add value for them and advance my pool of marketable skills. For example, the Director of Alumni Relations where I went to college thought of me when planning a recent career-related event for graduating seniors because he came across my newsletter. It led to a mutually beneficial speaking engagement.

Personal branding requires that you learn to inject yourself into the minds of colleagues and especially leaders within the organization. Speak up in meetings, be appropriately humorous, show that you are approachable and interested in connection with others.

Even the 6th Law of Power in Robert Greene’s classic, “The 48 Laws of Power” addresses this theme. Beat your drum! Or as Greene puts it, you must “court attention at all costs.” The first rule of any campaign is to get noticed.

2. Show, don’t Tell

A rich man does not need to talk about his money in order to be rich. The money is just there, within his possession. If a woman is an expert event organizer with exceptional attention to detail and communication skills, does she need to tell you that she possesses these skills? If you were told of her skills, would you believe her? We may trust what people say to varying degrees, especially when they are persuasive, but human beings mostly need to see skills and aptitudes in people’s behavior to really know the extent of their expertise.

Most people get this backwards. They try to explain to people how they are good at things, or they go about their daily activities hoping someone notices. This approach is rarely enough. A reference or referral carries more weight than a person saying they have the skill. If a colleague directly observes the skill within your activity, this counts even more.

Make sure people catch you in the act of doing something remarkable. At the very least, if you are going to try persuading someone that you are skilled at something, include examples that relate to their needs. Try mastering the Deep Dive Careers 3-steps to a job application.

Remote work tends to lull people into complacency, especially if it is their first professional job. It can feel cushy. It can feel comfortable. I recently wrote about how I felt this personally and it made me a less effective employee.

When any sort of apathy set in, stepping out of your comfort zone becomes much more important.

3. Be Open and Transparent with your Manager

If people do not know what you want, they will not make the connection between you and a problem they are tasked with solving, or an opportunity they hear about that would be a good fit for you. In the right circumstances, it is important to share your ambitions in an appropriate manner. Use your own judgment on this one because every workplace is different.

Fortunately, in their efforts to retain talent, many workplaces have become increasingly supportive of individual professional development. In many cases, open dialogue about career goals between an employee and their manager is acceptable. If your company’s culture values this, you ought to take advantage of this benefit.

If you do not get along as well as you would like with your manager, or you feel that too much honesty will harm your status within the organization, that is okay. You may be correct because sometimes it does. In these cases, it is best to find a colleague or other professional acquaintance who you can trust to have an open, honest, and mutually beneficial dialogue about your futures. 

We all have something unique to share. Open up that box and you will receive the gift of wisdom from other people.

4. Talk to People

When in doubt, choose human connection over anti-social inclinations. Message people in your company to introduce yourself. Set up a meet and greet or a ‘coffee chat’ to introduce yourself to a new colleague. It is not weird to do these sorts of things. One could argue that it is weird not to. Besides, even if co-workers are happy working from home and don’t admit it, a part of them is likely starving for an authentic, personal connection with co-workers who they never see.

Connect with them on LinkedIn. Ask for 15 minutes of their time and do not just leave it there. Ask questions about their life and experience. The quality of your network is far more important than the quantity. Do not think someone is too busy to engage in conversations like these.

Here is a hint, most of the time people will say yes because NO ONE takes these sort of initiatives unless they want something in return. Be the person who just wants to get to know someone personally without necessarily wanting something in return.

When it comes to networking, people tend to put pressure on themselves, but if you think of your interactions as regular conversation, networking should not feel like work.

There is no better way to remove the barriers that come with a virtual environment than to arrange for face-to-face time with co-workers. In the absence of opportunities for in-person connection, these sort of meetings are the next best thing because you can see each other on camera. It is the next closest thing to an in-person conversation, which is the best way to overcome proximity bias in at a fully remote work company.

5. Join Company Sponsored Groups

Many companies have mentorship programs, committees, and other initiatives that are open to interested employees. These can relate to anything from the company’s union to a group that puts together a regular newsletter about company-related updates, and anything in between. Many companies have also implemented interest groups around various topics such as diversity in the workplace, reading, writing, hiking, etc. The list goes on.

If you have access to opportunities like this and you are even slightly interested, join in on the fun. If your company does not offer anything you like, start your own and bring like-minded people together. If your company does not spend any resources on this sort of employee engagement, ask around to share your idea to determine who the right contact is and propose the idea.

If you are the catalyst for implementing these sorts of arrangements, that is part of your legacy. If nothing else, getting involved with company sponsored interest groups is an excellent way to learn about people you otherwise would never meet.

6. Find a Hybrid or In-Person Job

While I do believe that overcoming proximity bias in a remote setting is possible, I do not believe that it is easy and I prefer to stick with what I know works. This is the ‘play-it-safe’ approach. It is conservative because it adheres to the traditional framing of what has worked in the past. As someone who recently switched from a fully remote job to one with full in-person expectations, it is also the path that I have recently chosen for my own professional life.

My logic is simple. If 71% of HR leaders believe that proximity bias is a meaningful factor when it comes to succession planning and internal hiring, I am not about to gamble that the person considering promoting me is one of those 29%.

Further, over the past few years of working primarily remotely, I have learned that I am a far less effective learner at home, compared to in the office. This may change some day when I accumulate more career capital and develop a preference for working remotely, but for now, I know I am far more likely to succeed in a traditional in-person, fully at-the-office role.

If you are hesitant about pursuing a job that is fully in-person, consider this: most people prefer remote jobs. According to data from Pew Research, 60% of workers whose jobs can be done remotely, prefer to work either hybrid or remotely. This means that if you are willing to work in an office most or all of the time, there is less hiring competition.

If you lack desired experience or preferred diversity characteristics such as gender or minority status, competing against a national pool of applicants will put you at a disadvantage. Always be thoughtful about how to play to your strengths. Learning what matters most to you is an ongoing process.

7. Switch Jobs

As the workplace has shifted, the tradition of employee loyalty toward companies has faded. Younger workers are often stereotyped for their ‘job jumpiness.’ The stigma of a jumpy resume is real. In my recruiting days, hiring managers would even express concerns about “jumpy” resumes for temporary jobs!

There is a lesson here that young people understand quite well. Sometimes switching jobs is the only way to grow in a career. The market has changed dramatically from past generations. Job security comes from your total accumulation of skills, not from how long you are willing to stay at one company.

If this sounds ‘new-agey,’ consider recent studies that back this assertion. Some show that switching jobs leads to salary increases of around 10%. For a generation saddled with outrageous student loan debt and the challenge of unaffordable housing, the ability to switch jobs and earn more money is often the difference between a reasonably manageable lifestyle and a life of constant financial hardship.

*One warning: In order for any of these tactics to work, you have to perform well in the job and be there for at least some time. Unless working a temp job, you cannot do a job for a few months and then just bounce. Employers know that you could not have possibly produced anything of significance in such a short amount of time and you likely got fired. You know it too. So be honest with yourself and others.

There is no substitute for performing well and adding value in the marketplace.

As a best practice, give yourself at least a year in a professional job that helps you learn new skills before switching.

8. Dress Well

Part of the reason we dress nice is so we feel good about ourselves. Even if you are not coming into contact with anyone via video conference, it is a good idea to put on some nice clothes or to at least change out of your pajamas. If nothing else, this will help separate your work hours from your leisure time.

A remote employee who wears a nice outfit every time they are on camera will also stand out to others more than an in person employee who merely follows the minimum-necessary company dress code.

Against the Grain

Until evidence suggests otherwise, working in a remote environment before you have accumulated substantial career capital is risky. If you are going to take this sort of risk, you had better make yourself known (AKA: Beat Your Drum).

Over the course of just a few years, companies’ perceptions of remote work have changed dramatically. As a law of nature, new challenges must be met with new thinking.

The preceding 8 steps are a starting point but you will need to inject your own ideas and personality into your day-to-day affairs. Just because moving up the corporate ladder while working remotely is more difficult does not mean it needs to be more stressful. You will just need to be more thoughtful, self-aware, and strategic.

Overcoming the barriers of remote work isolation, requires initiative. It is up to each and every deep career diver to learn their own personality, tendencies, and the intricacies of their own motivation.

If you are a remote employee, your future career development will depend on the steps you take today.

*This post may contain affiliate links. These help financially support the Deep Dive Careers platform.

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