I have accepted a new job at Microsoft. I work for a team in Redmond, but, I still live in Ottawa, Canada. I have spent the last 5 years working remotely for Microsoft Canada. I won’t say I’ve mastered the art of working remote but I’ve learned a few tricks to help manage a successful career remotely.
In Part 1 I will discuss:
- How did I end up working remote?
- When do you tell the hiring manager you won’t relocate?
- Why is working remote such an issue?
- Why would a manager hire me as a remote employee?
- How to thrive in the company as a remote employee?
- Staying sane as a remote employee
- Does working at home impact your career?
- Is it worth it?
How did it start?
5 years ago I got a phone call from an employee at microsoft. At the time I was teaching programming, database and business analysis courses. I was a frequent speaker at Microsoft events. I figured the call was a request to present or help out at a local event. Instead the first words I heard after the usual greetings were “Have you considered your career”. To be honest I hadn’t given any serious consideration to working for Microsoft. Any jobs of interest were in Redmond, Washington (Microsoft head office). I had two boys in school, and a husband with a good job in Ottawa. For me, moving simply wasn’t an option.
This call was a little different. It was for a job as a technical evangelist at Microsoft Canada. Canada! So no need to move to the US. The title alone was too intriguing to pass up. I submitted my resume and went through a gauntlet of interviews. But once again location was an issue. They wanted me to move to Toronto. First things first, I convinced them we should go through the interviews and then discuss location. I never told them I would move to Toronto, I simply asked them to talk to me before deciding having me work from Ottawa was a deal-breaker.
When do you tell the manager you won’t relocate?
Rule number one: Don’t lie! I have never told a hiring manager I would move just to get to the interview. I certainly don’t open the conversation with “by the way I won’t relocate”, but I never lie or mislead them just to get an interview.
When I find a position of interest, step one is always to find out more about the job. Set up a short call or informal meeting with the manager. In Microsoft we refer to this as an informational. It’s a chance for you to learn more about the job, and for the hiring manager to learn more about you. It’s a good idea regardless of whether you expect to work remotely or not! It is hard to tell from a written job description what a job entails, and it’s also a chance to find out if you and the manager are likely to get along. I’d rather have a bad job with a good manager than a good job with a bad manager (of course what I really want is a good job with a good manager! but I’ve experienced all the possible combinations in my career). If the meeting is going well, i.e. I still want the job and the manager is encouraging me to apply, that’s when I break the news. I explain that I have some bad news, I am interested in the job, but relocation isn’t an option and would they consider hiring me as a remote employee..
More than half of the time, the opportunity ends there.
When the manager says remote is not an option, I always ask if they could wait until after the interview process before making a final decision. I encourage the manager to wait until I have deeper insights into the job, and the manager has deeper insights into my skills. During the interview process we can discuss the specific concerns around having a remote employee and strategies to alleviate those concerns. But, understand, that there are some jobs that do require an in person presence. If this is one of those roles, you are wasting your energy and the manager’s time pursuing the role. Accept it and move on. Finding a role you want remotely requires patience and persistance.
Why is working remote such an issue?
There are a number of reasons a manager may not one someone working remotely. Understanding these concerns can help you determine if the working remotely is a deal breaker or simply an obstacle to be overcome.
Some jobs are better suited for working remotely than others. Does the job require regular access to special equipment? Does the job require organizing in person events? If a job frequently requires your physical presrence in a particular location, then you are facing an uphill battle. In these situations you are unlikely to get the job without relocation.
Does the company and the team already have remote workers?
Some companies are very open to working remotely, others actively discourage working from home. If the company has never had a remote worker you will run into all sorts of complications: How do you get IT support when you are having issues with your computer? What is the policy for expensing travel to and from the office? Does time spent in transit count as working hours? If there is an Annual General Meeting, a big in person announcement by the CEO, or a company holiday party will you travel to the office for those occasions? Does the company understand the impact on your personal life when you have to travel to the office? Are you expected to travel on weekends? What are the accepted methods of travel (plane? train? car? first class? economy?)
If the company does not have remote workers, do they have people in the office who regularly work from home?
Companies with a work at home policy are more likely to have a way for you to connect to the company network from home, an IT support team who can help you solve issues remotely
Does the company have customers they work with remotely?
Companies who work with remote customers are more likely to have tele-conferencing capabilities so you can easily present screens from your laptop and collaborate with co-workers remotely. Office rooms as more likely to have cameras and microphones in meeting rooms so you can be a part of larger meetings as well.
Just because the company has policies in place for remote workers, doesn’t mean the team you are applying to knows how to deal with it. If you join a team in the habit of walking down the hall for impromptu meetings, making decisions in elevators, and having all their meetings in person, you have a challenge ahead of you. Best case scenario you will often find out after the fact that decisions were made, because they simply forgot to start up the conference bridge, or just had a quick chat in the hallway and didn’t think it was necessary to bother you. It’s not malicious! It’s simply human nature. Everyone is trying to get things done, you get caught up in a good conversation you don’t always stop to think, wait there is someone who isn’t in the room we need to call in! The simple fact you are not physically present means there is a risk you end up out of the loop. Worst case scenario (and sadly this can happen) you have someone on the team who actively takes advantage of your absence to make themselves look good an make you look bad. So far as I know, that’s never happened to me! So assume best intentions!
Your work habits
Have you worked remotely before? It’s a different life waking up every day having breakfast and walking 10 steps to your office. No-one popping by your desk to ask if you saw the latest episode of Game of Thrones. No donuts in the kitchen (though you still get the email telling you there are donuts in the kitchen at the office). No-one to sit with at lunch. Instead you have your home with all its distractions: dirty dishes, laundry, house cleaning, weeding, tele marketers calling, odd jobs to be done, maybe kids coming home from school before you finish your work day? It’s not for everyone, and not everyone can thrive in that environment. It takes some discipline to get your work done and stay connected.
At many companies networking is key to a successful career. It can help you get things done. It can help you get credit and visibility for the things you do. It can help you find little projects that are ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ that get you the raise, the award, or the promotion. It is also how you will your next job in the company. When you work remotely networking is more difficult.
I am very fortunate to have work at a company and to apply for jobs with managers who really want to see me succeed. Some of them have had remote employees in the past who were unfortunately unhappy and unsuccessful for one or more of the reasons outlined above. Some teams at microsoft are very dynamic: roles and responsibilities change frequently. The job I am applying for might work remotely, but what happens in 6 months when they re-org? What if my original job disappears? You want to be sure you join a team whose goals you can support in different ways. You don’t want to get caught in a position where there is only one thing you can do remotely. How will you grow? How will you get promoted? How will you keep yourself challenged and motivated?
Sometimes the most important conversations don’t happen in the meeting room, they happen immediately afterwards when you are walking out of the meeting and discuss the meeting in the elevator on the way back to your desk. Sometimes a chance encounter in an elevator gives you a rare opportunity to talk to a senior team member in person. Remote workers don’t have this opportunity.
If you work remotely how often are you going to visit the office? Will you travel by plane, train automobile? Hotel, meals, and transportation costs add up fast! Spending money for you to visit the office may mean less money for doing business!