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How the ‘Zoom ceiling’ might hurt your chance of promotion

Remote workers sometimes miss out on promotions because their contributions aren’t fairly recognized.

How the ‘Zoom ceiling’ might hurt your chance of promotion
[Source photos: Rawpixel; OsakaWayne Studios/Getty Images]

When given the choice, the majority of workers would prefer to work remotely. And flexibility is one of the most important benefits when candidates consider a new job. But working from home can have a hidden downside, says Elora Voyles, industrial organizational psychologist and people scientist at TINYpulse, an employee engagement platform.

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“Remote workers aren’t getting the same amount of recognition for the work that they are doing,” she says. “In particular, there’s research that remote workers are working longer hours, actually performing better, but 50% less likely to get promoted.”

This is a case of out of sight, out of mind. Managers may not be recognizing the contributions of the remote worker because they don’t see them on a day-to-day basis.

“There’s another piece, though, too,” says Voyles. “There’s manager bias; and it could be implicit, or it could be explicit. There are well-known records of CEOs of major companies, like Goldman Sachs, basically disparaging remote work. There’s also the implicit idea that remote workers may be seen as making a choice to put work second and family or other responsibilities first.”

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What Managers Must Do

Managers have a responsibility to make sure they’re treating remote workers equally, says Voyles. The first step is to formalize remote work. In the beginning of the pandemic, many organizations scrambled to set up employees at home, and procedures weren’t well-thought-out or established.

“But now we’re in it for the long haul, and we need to do it better,” says Voyles. “It’s time to formalize those policies.”

For example, companies should make it clear how long employees should work each day. Establish specific hours, expectations, and outcomes. “Give employees a guide so that they know exactly what’s expected of them,” says Voyles. “When there’s ambiguity in-person, employees can walk up to their managers and ask questions. Remotely requires reaching out for a meeting and scheduling that. Take away that ambiguity and make everything crystal clear.”

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Managers should also set up regular one-on-one meetings with employees to make sure they’re connecting on a regular basis. Voyles recommends meeting once or twice a week, with a minimum of once every two weeks. “This is where employees can learn the feedback on their work, and managers can give the recognition that the remote workers are contributing,” she says.

Another important step is to establish equality during meetings in which some workers are in the office and others are at home. “When there are some people in person in the same room and other people who are logging in, they don’t get to hear and participate in those side conversations, and they can feel excluded,” says Voyles. “If anyone is online, everyone should be online.”

Finally, standardize performance-evaluation methods. “So many organizations are using the same strategies and methods to evaluate performance when we’re working in a completely different way when we’re remote,” says Voyles. “Ensure that whatever assessment method they create is equal in terms of its ability to assess in-person performance and remote worker performance.”

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What Employees Can Do

Women, people of color, and people with disabilities are more likely to be affected by the ‘Zoom ceiling,’ says Voyles. “Women may be making a choice to work remotely in order to balance their work with home and family responsibilities that are often placed upon them,” she says. “For racial minorities, there’s quite a bit of research coming out that they’re experiencing a more pleasant work environment and fewer microaggressions when they’re working remotely. So, they’re likely to pick remote work as an option. And for people with disabilities, they may have remote work as an accommodation.”

While remote work can bring a lot of benefits, it’s important to understand the hidden costs. Ideally, employees will have managers who are aware of the Zoom ceiling. If they don’t, Voyles suggests they talk with their manager and organization leadership to discuss formalizing the remote-work arrangement.

“Try to schedule regular meetings with your managers,” she says. “Push to do these things if your manager isn’t.”

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Don’t be afraid of a little self-promotion. “Letting a manager know your recent accomplishments can be really beneficial for remote workers because it’s not something a manager will have readily overheard as they would in the office,” says Voyles.

And consider keeping regular hours, even if they’re not 9 to 5. “I think one of the worst things that can happen for a remote employee is if their manager reaches out to them and can’t get in touch,” she says. “That can paint the picture in the manager’s eyes that the remote worker is not on task or is flaking on their job duties. Make sure it’s predictable when people can contact you. It helps with showing that you’re dedicated. In many ways, remote workers have more to prove.”

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