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How to Keep Climbing the Ladder While You Work From Home

By Julie Weed | November 2, 2020 | The New York Times

You’re stuck working from home, but does your career need to be stuck, too? Worried about keeping employees safe, many companies are pushing return-to-office dates deep into next year, so workers face more months toiling from spare bedrooms and kitchen tables.

To keep progressing professionally, reach out for feedback, polish your skills and stay visible (on Zoom, Slack or however you keep in touch with your bosses).

Ask how you’re doing

It’s OK to seek feedback more often now that people aren’t in the same office, said Wonya Lucas, chief executive at Crown Media Family Networks, which owns the Hallmark Channel. It’s also more important than ever to keep track of your to-do list, with quick check-ins to clarify or confirm directions.

Employees may wonder if they are checking in too frequently — or not enough — to make sure they are on the right track. The simplest solution is to ask your manager how he or she wants to be briefed (by Slack message, email or phone call), how often or under what circumstances, and with what level of detail.

“Managers can be struggling, too, so they’re not necessarily thinking about you,” said Elizabeth Umphress, a management professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. “Sending an email asking to meet about communications expectations gives them time to think about what they want,” Umphress added, “and you can come to that conversation with ideas, too.”

Level up your skills

If the time you’re saving on your commute or business travel hasn’t been subsumed by your children’s online schooling or other pandemic tasks, you may have time to expand or deepen your skill set.

Ask your manager what you should focus on improving or which skill he or she is using most right now, Lucas said. There are plenty of free or low-cost online classes, video tutorials and other resources on every aspect of the business world. It may even be beneficial to go back to school part time.

Getting started can sometimes take courage. “Terrified of writing? Take a writing class!” said C.J. Liu Rosenblatt, an executive coach in Seattle.

Don’t be shy about asking a co-worker with a skill you covet — like wrangling complex PowerPoint presentations, wielding infographics software or explaining complicated concepts — for advice on how to improve, Lucas said. People like to be noticed for their strengths and usually won’t mind sharing tips.

Interactions matter

Communication skills are more important than ever, said Jean Choy, an associate dean at the Foster School of Business, whose focus is executive education and international initiatives. For example, some people like to chitchat before getting to the meeting’s agenda, and others like to get right to business, she said.

“Figure out the other person’s style and adapt to it, to communicate most effectively with them,” Choy said.

Learn how to express empathy better, as well. “There’s a lot more that work people are dealing with,” she said. “Offering understanding and flexibility will go a long way.”

In online meetings, be present and visible, said Lucas, who noted: “In a physical meeting, all eyes are on the speaker, but in a virtual meeting, all faces are seen at all times by everyone.”

Keep your camera on and lean in a bit to show you are focused, she advises. “You don’t have to be the first to talk, but do try to come up with one smart comment or provocative question in the meeting so you’re seen as bringing value,” she said. Offer positive feedback in the chat window if appropriate.

Get exposure

Volunteer for tasks outside your job description to gain new knowledge and get in front of new groups, Lucas said. “Experience and exposure go hand in hand.” You might offer to mentor new employees, create remote social opportunities or pitch in to help a team rushing to meet a deadline.

Even within your own team, capitalize on your best characteristics by seeking out work where you are most likely to shine, Umphress said. If you excel at defining problems, coming up with creative solutions, writing or selling, look for those opportunities.

“If your co-workers or your manager see your skills, they’ll see your value to the business,” she said.

If you’ve made the effort to acquire a new skill or do some interesting research, offer to hold a “lunch and learn” virtual meetup to share your new knowledge and gain recognition that way.

See the big picture

Seek out employees with different job descriptions like marketing, finance, human resources and learn what they do.

“You will always be judged on how well you do in your own area, but unless you understand how your group’s work fits into the company’s overall goals and strategy, you wont rise far,” Lucas said.

Take advantage of the virtual break rooms, happy hours or lunchtime hangouts your company is hosting, to meet people, she said. Connecting with someone about a shared interest like sports or pets “can lead to the courage to ask that person to a virtual lunch,” she added.

Ask which skills or jobs have been important to that person and what his or her journey has been. “Curiosity may even turn into referrals or job offers, but in all cases will be illuminating,” Lucas said.

If you are a manager

Your career trajectory will hinge at least in part on having a crackerjack team, Umphress said. Go beyond surface changes to make thoughtful individual adjustments and accommodations so your staff can do its best work.

Burned-out employees can’t sustain high-quality output, she said, and “the most likely to leave will be your most talented and best performers, because they will have the most choices.”

Choose your goal

Define your intention, said Rosenblatt, the career coach. Perhaps you’re aiming for different responsibilities, a promotion or a move to another division.

“Find small ways to gain experience in the area you want to move to,” she said. Do some research. There may be an office task force or a volunteer organization outside work to join.

“Stretch yourself — say yes,” Rosenblatt said, “even if it makes you uncomfortable.”

Not all the opportunities will help you, she said, but it’s hard to know in advance which will be fruitful: “Even saying yes to the wrong thing will have value if it shows there’s something you don’t like.”

If your boss doesn’t support you

Gaining visibility can be especially challenging in a virtual workplace if your boss isn’t passing your good work up the chain or, worse, is taking credit for it. Ask to join the meeting where your work is being presented. Ask peers to speak up for you and acknowledge your contribution to the project.

Take a business-based rather than emotional approach, Choy said. It’s more effective to present a concrete reason that you should be part of a presentation or high-visibility team, for example because you did the research and can answer questions about the data.

A request that helps the business or could make your boss look good “works much better than telling them you felt hurt not to be included,” she said.

Lucas agreed: “Performance matters, so focus on results.”

Give yourself a break

If you do need to tread water at work, that’s OK, too. Careers can span 50 years, and for this moment, personal health may need to eclipse professional growth.


Julie Weed
The New York Times

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