We love telecommuting. It allows us to write this column from wherever our life happens to land us in any given week. It’s the perfect deal—for us— and for a great many people, from nearly every industry and geography, today.
But telecommuting can also be a total disaster, especially if you want to climb the ladder to leadership. Because the facts are, even in this age of ubiquitous technology and open-mindedness toward flexible work arrangements, working remote still comes with a cost: diminished face time. Sure, that won’t kill you in your early career. As long as you’re an individual contributor with enough talent, you can do almost any job from home—write code, analyze legal documents, design marketing materials, or sell financial services. The list goes on and on and gets longer every day.
But what you can’t always do very well from home is lead. To lead, it’s no good blowing into town for important meetings and showing up at retreats. You have to muddle in the muck in between. People have to see how calm you stay in a PR crisis, how decent you are to new employees who don’t have the hang of things, how much you sweat during a tough deal, and how hard you work on a deadline without bitching and moaning. Or how you don’t do any or all of the above.
Companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven’t been consistently seen and measured. It’s a familiarity thing, and it’s a trust thing. We’re not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every “crucible” moment at the office, but at least they’re present and accounted for. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I’m committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can.
Telecommuting sends another message, one that says you value lifestyle flexibility over career growth. Again, that can be just fine. We recently met a lawyer who has worked for her corporate headquarters in Illinois for 12 years from her home in New Jersey. “My husband has a great job in Manhattan, and my kids love their school. I enjoy working with my colleagues, even if it is on the phone,” she said.
“Who needs to be CEO?” Well, obviously she doesn’t, and maybe you don’t either. But for anyone who has dreams of leadership in any meaningful way, telecommuting can get you only so far. The road to the top is paved with being there.