The 100% Remote Career

Leaders are grappling with a new, “never in the office” job path that some workers are taking. Will firms lose out on some key talent?

Back in the old days—that would be 2000 through 2019—full-time all-remote careers were almost unheard of. After all, only 4% to 5% of the workforce was entirely remote, and those positions were outliers.

But the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that on any given day, one-third of Americans are working from home. Another survey, conducted in March by Pew Research, shows that 35% of US jobs that can be conducted remotely are occupied by fully remote workers. Clearly, say experts, many workers are now, for the first time, basing job choices—their entire careers, in fact—on staying at home. It’s quite a challenge for leaders. “There’s a vast talent pool that may become hidden from firms,” says workforce transformation expert Maria Amato, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

On the one hand, companies aren’t going to miss all of the workers who insist on staying remote: some may be weak performers. On the other hand, as leaders point out, too much can be lost in the absence of face-to-face collaboration. “Employees working remotely don’t bond as strongly with company and coworkers, nor develop the same kind of trusting depth of relationships,” says human resources expert Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

Workers who stay remote can create other challenges for managers. Over time, their careers can look and feel similar to those of small business owners, experts say, with lots of solo work time and limited collaboration. “They tend to be mavericks,” says business psychologist James Bywater, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “There’s limited chance to supervise them, and it can be really hard work.”

But in today’s tight labor market, that effort may be worth it—especially for highly skilled workers, experts say. They suggest that HR leaders need to keep an eye out for high-quality remote employees, especially from populations with less flexibility to commute into offices. This may even be the case where the firm is pushing for people to return to the office. “Talented pockets of the workforce are opened up by this,” says Amato, citing as examples caretakers, underrepresented minorities, and people with disabilities. Indeed, the latest numbers from the BLS indicate that women, who typically shoulder the bulk of caretaking responsibilities, are clinging to remote options: 13% more women than men are currently working from home.

Talented employees who are deciding to go all-in on remote may be doing so in part because they’ve hit career plateaus and find themselves unable to advance beyond midlevel roles. This is particularly true in companies without substantial precedent for employees to work remotely, says Tamara Rodman, senior client partner in the Culture, Change, and Communications practice at Korn Ferry. At traditionally in-person companies, the path upward may be much trickier—and therefore unattractive to top talent. Leaders need to remember to focus on remote employees. “It’s out of sight, out of mind,” she says. “Everyone has to do more legwork to build relationships and stay top of mind.”

And experts still do not recommend remote arrangements for early-career employees, who might be unaware of what they’re missing in the office. “In a meeting, you watch how leaders read the room and address different stakeholders,” says Rodman, “There’s a lot of learning that happens in those environments.”


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