Getting ahead at any company requires a certain amount of strategy. But a company that operates virtually—with no offices, no cubicles, and no in-person meetings? That’s a different game entirely.
As the leader of a global professional services firm that operates in a completely virtual manner, I have dozens of people working without a traditional office environment. Some work from home, others are always on the road, and some prefer the local coffee shop (or bar). But regardless of where they work, there are some things that distinguish the best digital workers from the rest.
If you’re looking to impress in your virtual workplace, follow these five steps to success.
Step 1: Be Available
The most important thing you must do to succeed in this environment is to be available. Since you’re not sitting down the hall from your boss or teammates, you need to keep online communication open. If your co-workers have a hard time reaching you when they need to, it slows down their progress—and the company’s.
Does that mean you’re destined for a life chained to your desk? Not necessarily. I really don’t care where you work: If you can be productive bagging rays by the pool or are able to effectively perform your duties on top of a mountain, that’s great—as long as I can reach you. But just as you wouldn’t slip out of a physical office in the middle of the afternoon without telling anyone, you shouldn’t mysteriously go MIA from the web. If you need to be offline during normal business hours, let your boss, subordinates, or anyone else who may need you know that you’ll be unavailable and when you’ll be back.
Step 2: Be Productive
Once you’ve got the availability down, it’s time to get to work. And I mean, really get to work. Since your boss can’t see that you’re putting in time every day, you don’t get much credit for effort. As a virtual worker, you can only prove you’re working hard by producing results.
Sounds simple, but where I see employees trip up is when they’re struggling with an assignment or when something’s more difficult than it appears. If that’s the case, say something to your manager. He’ll still be able to tell you’re working hard if you ask for help, but if you prolong the task and don’t get it done in a reasonable amount of time, he might just think that you’re taking advantage of the flexibility of working remotely.
Step 3: Set Boundaries
This may seem counterintuitive as a way to impress, but the virtual employees I respect most are the ones who get their work done—but who also establish work-life boundaries. Without an office to leave at the end of the day, it can be easier for your work life to seep into the rest of your life. I, for one, am a huge workaholic, and have no problem reaching out to my employees at odd hours of the night. I can easily fill my employees’ free time with work—but I will also respect whatever boundaries they establish as long as they continue to turn in good work.
It’s unlikely that your boss wants to interrupt your exercise time, your family time, your dog-walking time, or your reality TV time (and if she does, you have bigger issues to deal with). So be clear with her (and yourself!) about what your work-life boundaries are. As long as you’re getting your work done, your boss shouldn’t blink when you tell her, “Not right now—I am watching The Bachelor.” You’ll be a happier employee, and your work will show it.
Step 4: Manage Your Career
Doing your job well may win you kudos, but it will not ensure that you continue to grow as a professional. After all, working virtually can lead to an “out of sight, out of mind” situation where your steady contributions are taken for granted and no one is pushing you to greater heights.
So, in order to advance your career, you have to be proactive about seeking out more challenging assignments and plotting a development course for yourself. Work hard to find new areas in which you could contribute or high-level projects you could take on, and don’t be shy about sharing with your boss and co-workers what your goals are within the company. If you don’t, you won’t advance.
Step 5: Connect and Lead
Creating culture and camaraderie in an office-less organization is very difficult. So, your company likely needs connectors who pull people together to share experiences and build a collective ethos. And if you can be that person while still getting your work done, it will be a huge testament to your success.
Look for ways to be a leader among your virtual colleagues: Force everyone in your local area to leave their homes once a week and find a place to get together and work. Offer to help on assignments. Swap stories. Counsel one another. Your efforts will not go unnoticed by your colleagues—or your manager.
Succeeding in an office-less environment is difficult. It requires an enormous amount of self-discipline and a commitment to yourself and the company. There is a clear distinction between those who survive in this structure and those who thrive, but follow these steps, and you’ll be climbing up the (virtual) career ladder in no time.