How to use your on-site trips strategically as a remote employee

In organizations that aren't fully remote, remote employees can sometimes be forgotten about, seen as black sheep or as separate from the group. To your colleagues, you can be seen as that weird cousin people only see for the yearly family gathering and who people sort of know but not really. If you're a remote worker you probably have had that feeling of being excluded from the group, or showing up and people forgetting who you are. Even if you've had plenty of interactions with your colleagues in the past (maybe you worked on-site for a couple years), you're not on people's minds as much.

Have you ever visited the office, walked into a meeting, and had someone introduce themselves as if you're new to the company? Have you gotten that blank stare from a coworker you just talked to over the phone last week about a deliverable, as if they don't recall the conversation? Or maybe you wanted to be put on a high-value new project but were passed over for consideration.

The on-site trip (especially for those out of the state or the country) can be a great antidote to this, but only if approached with purpose. The on-site visit should not be seen as simply "working from headquarters for a week", but instead a strategic opportunity to maintain existing relationships with colleagues, build new ones, and advance your career. And with only having so much "face time" as a remote employee, it's important to make the trip count.

NB: this post assumes you take regular (of whatever cadence) trips to the company's office on-site. If you don't, there will be a separate post detailing why you should be.

In advance of the trip

I mentioned that it is not enough to simply show up when you travel on-site, but instead to be deliberate and strategic about the trip. That might sound abstract up until now, so let's shine some light on how you go about that. Doing the work up front to identify opportunities for yourself as part of your next trip is the most important work you can do. These opportunities can take the form of any of the following (and any more you might think of):

  • colleagues to meet with -- existing ones -- ones you don't know -- ones new to the company -- someone junior to you (possible to mentor them) -- someone at your level -- someone who is a level above you (possible to be your mentor) -- hiring managers for open jobs within the company -- your manager (grabbing lunch is usually a good idea to reconnect) -- your manager's manager, if possible
  • a presentation on a company-relevant topic you could give with your team members
  • organize a group outing

Note that it's important to be strategic but also genuine. The list above is purposefully diverse in that it provides for opportunities that are not just beneficial to you, but to your colleagues and the company as well. Don't express interest in projects or people just because you think they could benefit you or just for the sake of expressing interest. Have genuine interest in projects and people, and this will go very far in establishing positive relationships within the company.

Once you have a list of people, reach out to them to set up individual chats. Let them know why you're reaching out (if it's someone you don't know or don't know well). Obviously if these are coworkers you already know and have a good working relationship with, these chats can be super informal and can probably happen more organically as opposed to being scheduled. For those you don't know as well, email is usually the communication method you want.

While the content of these emails is enough to cover a whole new post, be sure to let those you're reaching out to know you work remotely and will be in town for so-and-so dates. This is important in non-fully remote companies as sometimes people will need to reschedule and might reschedule to a date when you won't be in town, not knowing that you wouldn't be able to attend.

After doing your reach outs, talk to your manager to review your upcoming trip. Hopefully your manager is already identifying opportunities for you, but it's important to be more proactive when remote. Review your list of brainstormed people and opportunities to see if he/she might be able to help you with any introductions or ideas you might not have thought of. Obviously if you're going to be meeting with any hiring managers in the hopes of transferring within the company, it's probably best not to discuss this with your manager, but of course I don't know your company's HR policies so proceed with discretion.

Make sure your manager and your team members know you've got this "connecting time" booked into your schedule and that, while you'll attend all mandatory meetings, you won't have full availability while you're in the office. Hopefully the trust element is already there and they'll totally understand this, but if not make the case for how these "connecting times" are a way to make sure you're not missing out on anything by being remote that could hurt your work and connection to the team. Few organizations will reject collaboration and anything that inhibits it, so this argument should help you in case of any pushback.

Lastly, depending on your standing within the company, you might identify a meeting you normally wouldn't get invited to or hear about and ask your manager to get you looped in. This should be something just enough above your pay grade that it will be beneficial to you, yet not high enough that your being there will raise eyebrows. Do research ahead of time so you can have context and contribute to the discussion during the meeting.

While on-site

While you're on-site, just because you already have a list of people to meet with doesn't mean that you shouldn't make an extra effort to introduce yourself to people you don't recognize.

Be sure you're prepared for your one-on-one chats ahead of time, taking into consideration the person you're meeting with and the context of the conversation. It will be up to you to drive the conversation, so have questions prepared, be able to articulate what you do in your current role, etc.

Towards the end of your chats, let your new contact know you'll be back in town in "X" number of weeks. This not only provides an opportunity for follow up but also suggests these on-site visits are a regular thing for you and you're important enough to travel back regularly.

Depending on how the conversations go, if you think both parties are open to establishing a mentoring arrangement then feel free to setup more regular one-on-ones. Just be aware, usually these can take a couple times of meeting in person to establish enough of a working relationship to pursue something like mentoring, especially remote mentoring. So just be sure to use discretion here as to avoid coming off as socially tone-deaf.

One of the opportunities I listed was giving a presentation on some subject with your colleagues. This is a great way to gain more visibility for both yourself and your team, as long as - and this is important - the topic selected is one that is of interest and value to the company. This shouldn't be a topic on some niche part of some design or development framework, or some obscure marketing technique, but something both meaty enough and general enough that you can present to an audience of individual contributors as well as more senior leaders. This is the strategic way to go about it if you are interested in career advancement as a remote employee. While you're not going to get a promotion out of it, it at least raises your visibility among peers and leaders in the company.

This is something to talk to your manager ahead of time about so that he/she can help promote it. Doing the presentation with a group is also a great way of not putting all the focus on yourself as "that remote employee". This way others will not see you as separate from the group but instead an integral part of it and you're just doing what you would normally do if you were always on-site.

In general, when you're on-site you want to make it seem like you're always on-site. In meetings you're not the "remote guy", you're "Dave, working on the re-platforming project" or whatever. Part of overcoming the "black sheep" hurdle is in actively contributing to conversations and meetings while you're on-site. Don't over-dominate the conversations, but also don't shy away from speaking up often. Your colleagues don't hear from you in the hallway and water cooler conversations, so consider this as making up for that (I'm partly serious and partly joking here). Speaking up will help deter any notions that you're separate from the group or that remote inhibits or affects communication.

Another opportunity mentioned was to be on-point for organizing a group social outing. In keeping with the goal of not standing out as separate from your company, such an outing should not be for the express purpose of seeing you while you're in town, but instead for the general enjoyment of the group.

A few days after the trip

When you get back home, follow up with your manager to discuss the trip. The reason to discuss the trip before and after with your manager is for more than just administrative reasons - instead it is to provide him/her with context for career development. Discuss what you got out of it, your plans for next steps, projects you might want to be involved with, opportunities for improvement, etc. Don't be afraid to go into detail. Your manager will likely value any over-communication over just a "yeah it was a good trip". Your company pays a lot for travel/accommodations so it's important they know it wasn't all for naught. Your manager may even get clued into "goings-on" within the company that he/she wasn't even aware of, that might be of benefit to themselves to pursue.

Perhaps most importantly there might be projects or mentorships you pursued while on-site that are a bit of a reach for you now - be sure to discuss this with your manager to see if he/she can help push things from their end. Assuming you have a good relationship with your manager - and if you're trusted enough to work remotely you probably do - he/she should be going to bat for you. It's often forgotten that that's what the "HR" component of management entails. And job expectations or not, good managers enjoy being involved in their reports' growth.

Based on the context of your individual conversations, it's good to follow up on these as well. People can get busy, so it's good to follow up usually a couple days after you get back home. This helps you stay "present" even though you're not physically there.

If you're looking for an actionable timeline, the following is one I've come up with having taken several on-site trips in the last few months myself and have seen positive results from:

  1. 5 weeks out in advance of your next trip - brainstorm your list
  2. 4 weeks out - talk to your manager about your upcoming trip
  3. 3 weeks out - reach out to your list to setup time on their calendars
  4. 2 weeks out - prepare for presentation or outing
  5. 1 week out - prepare for the chats you set up
  6. While on-site - have your 1x1's, presentation, outing, etc.
  7. Few days after trip - follow ups
  8. Few days after trip - follow up with manager

A side note

Before ending this post, it should be noted that if you're not that confident in your communication skills, or are still very early on in your career or time with the company, it's fine to take a gradual approach to this. Don't bite off more than you can chew. You'll have to take the advice and action plan here and measure it against your own unique scenario. You might have to skip "X" or maybe only reach out to "Y", but the general idea and execution still stands. Maybe one trip you introduce yourself to one person, then two to three trips later you lead a meeting or go after a new job posting, etc.