What young workers miss without the ‘power of proximity’

One of the first major studies on remote work shows a hidden penalty of flexibility: less supervision

By Emma Goldberg and Ben Casselman

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-- EMBARGO: NO ELECTRONIC DISTRIBUTION, WEB POSTING OR STREET SALES BEFORE 3:01 A.M. ET ON MONDAY, APRIL 24, 2023. NO EXCEPTIONS FOR ANY REASONS -- Employees at the technology company Verkada, which has called its workers back into the office five days a week, in San Mateo, Calif., April 18, 2023. One of the first major studies on remote work shows a hidden penalty of flexibility: less supervision. (Aaron Wojack/The New York Times)
-- EMBARGO: NO ELECTRONIC DISTRIBUTION, WEB POSTING OR STREET SALES BEFORE 3:01 A.M. ET ON MONDAY, APRIL 24, 2023. NO EXCEPTIONS FOR ANY REASONS -- Employees at the technology company Verkada, which has called its workers back into the office five days a week, in San Mateo, Calif., April 18, 2023. One of the first major studies on remote work shows a hidden penalty of flexibility: less supervision. (Aaron Wojack/The New York Times)

Published: Sat 29 Apr 2023, 11:48 PM

At least 10 times a day, Erika Becker, who works as a sales development manager at a technology company called Verkada, turns to her boss with questions. “Did I handle that correctly?” she asks. “What could I have done better?”

Becker, 28, comes into her office in San Mateo, California, five days a week, along with all of her colleagues. The routine is a stark departure from her previous role at Yelp, where she worked from home and often spoke with her boss by phone just once in a day. Becker has rediscovered an upside of the office: feedback. Lots of it.

“It’s like if there’s something in my teeth, I want you to tell me,” she said. “Because I want to move up in my career.”

Since the start of the pandemic, sweeping workplace changes have arrived far faster than the research examining their effects. More than 50 million Americans, largely in white-collar jobs, began working from home at least part of the time. Many of them, especially working parents, became fiercely attached to the flexibility. In recent months, as large employers — including Amazon, Disney and Starbucks — have tried to call workers back to the office, thousands of employees have objected, pointing to a track record of productivity at home.

But remote workers may be paying a hidden professional penalty for that flexibility, according to a working paper from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Iowa and Harvard. The research is among the first major studies to demonstrate the professional downside of remote work.

The economists — Natalia Emanuel, Emma Harrington and Amanda Pallais — studied engineers at a large technology company. They found that remote work enhanced the productivity of senior engineers, but it also reduced the amount of feedback that junior engineers received (in the form of comments on their code), and some of the junior engineers were more likely to quit the firm. The effects of remote work, in terms of declining feedback, were especially pronounced for female engineers.

“We find a now-versus-later trade-off associated with remote work,” said Harrington, an economist at the University of Iowa. “Particularly for junior engineers who are new to this particular firm, and younger engineers, they receive less feedback from their senior colleagues when they’re remote”.

The study’s findings are preliminary and relatively narrow, directly measuring just one form of interaction among one set of workers at one technology firm. But the authors said their findings suggested something broader: that the office, at least for a certain type of white-collar knowledge worker, played an important role in early-career development. And the mentorship and training that people get in person had so far proved hard to replicate on Slack and Zoom.

“It’s what grandparents have been saying for a long time,” Emanuel, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in an interview this month. “Face-to-face meetings are very different from FaceTime.”

For some major employers, the research confirms a sentiment that has guided their decision-making on hybrid work: “It’s hard to replicate the opportunities for apprenticeship and learning that come from in-person interactions,” said Sara Wechter, head of human resources at Citi, where most employees are in the office at least three days a week.

At Verkada, the San Francisco Bay Area-based technology company that called its workers back into the office five days a week, interviews with several employees showed why some people were choosing to leave jobs with flexible work arrangements in search of an office where they could cultivate relationships.

Morgan Shapiro, who joined Verkada in November 2020, had previously worked at Lyft, where she struggled to manage her team of recruiters once the pandemic sent workers home. When questions came up throughout the day, she worried about reaching out to her employees spontaneously, because she knew the anxiety that a sudden calendar invitation could provoke.

During her first week at Verkada, back in an office, she realised what she had been missing. She bumped into the company’s CEO in the hallway, and he invited her to set up a meeting to talk about her department’s approach to compensation, which had come up during her job interview. She emailed his assistant to schedule the conversation right away.

“I also knew his assistant because I had gotten coffee with her,” said Shapiro, 36. “If I was remote, that would have been a lot harder because she would have said, ‘Who is this person trying to get time with the CEO?’”

Shapiro, who had a baby this year, noted that increased flexibility in her field had also made it easier for in-office employees to give priority to child care when crises arose. “Of course, if you need to be home, be home,” she said. “Home is first.”

Shapiro’s experience highlights a particular challenge for companies and workers navigating return-to-office tensions: The career penalty for remote work may be greatest for women, young people and people of colour, who often lack the professional networks that being in the office can help provide. But numerous surveys find that those same groups of workers are also the ones who value flexible arrangements the most, and who are the least likely to return to the office voluntarily.

“Those who want remote work — those who will likely take advantage of remote work — are likely those who will lose jobs or at least lose out on opportunities because of remote work,” said Kweilin Ellingrud, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute who has studied how remote work affects career development.

Worse, Ellingrud said, the price of flexibility may not be obvious to workers or companies until years later, when disparities in pay or promotion emerge.

Take Jackiez Gonzalez, 36, who works remotely in social impact for Best Buy, and signed up for a mentoring programme for employees of color. She was told that participants would gather regularly to discuss career development. But she learned a month after signing up that she had been accidentally left off the calendar invitations for meetings.

“When you’re remote, you’re out of sight, out of mind,” Gonzalez said of the experience, adding that although she has largely felt positive about her flexible work arrangements, “there are growing pains.”

The intangible benefits of in-person work have been challenging for researchers to study because they are, by definition, hard to measure. Existing studies of remote work have tended to focus on call centres or similar workplaces where productivity is easy to define and measure — but where creativity, collaboration and mentorship may be less important.

Emanuel and her colleagues focused on software engineers at a Fortune 500 technology company, which the researchers had agreed not to identify. Before the pandemic, some engineering teams at the company were working in the same building, holding meetings in person and interacting with colleagues in the cafeteria. Other teams were split among buildings and held most of their meetings online to avoid the 20-minute walk across the company’s campus.

The economists were able to measure feedback by looking at the number of comments that engineers made on one another’s code — a routine and essential form of interaction at most software companies. They found that before the pandemic, engineers working in the same building received 21 per cent more feedback than those working in different buildings. Once the pandemic hit, and everyone worked remotely, the feedback gap virtually disappeared, suggesting it had been physical proximity — not some other difference between the groups — that had led to greater feedback for in-person teams.

The “power of proximity,” as the researchers call it in their paper’s title, was particularly large for newly hired engineers, younger workers and women. Engineers younger than 30, for example, tended to receive more feedback, especially from their more experienced colleagues — but only if they were all in the same building.

“These effects are really concentrated,” Emanuel said. “The folks who really benefit the most from being in person are junior engineers and also are younger. Those are the groups that you might imagine have the most to learn.”

Notably, engineers — especially younger workers and women — who had previously been on teams that were all in the same building were more likely to quit their jobs once the pandemic sent everyone home. There was no such surge in departures among people who had previously worked on teams spread across multiple buildings. That suggested workers missed in-person interactions, Emanuel said.

The challenge for companies is that remote work has also brought real benefits for many employees, particularly for working parents and others juggling responsibilities at work and at home. In a survey from FlexJobs, a remote-job search site, 60 per cent of women and 52 per cent of men said they would consider looking for a new job if they could no longer work remotely; 62 per cent of women and 56 per cent of men said better work-life balance was a benefit of remote work.

“Employee sentiment on remote work is crystal clear,” said Reyhan Ayas, senior economist at Revelio Labs, which collects and analyses job postings, layoff notices and other workforce data. “Employees, if they are able to work from home, would like to work from home.”

Many companies have embraced a hybrid model, permitting some employees to work remotely while allowing or requiring others to be in the office. Still, the power of proximity paper calls that approach into question: The economists found that the benefits of in-person work apply only when an entire team is physically together.

“If you have even one remote teammate, that can still result in less collaboration between the remaining teammates,” Emanuel said.

Still, many hybrid-work experts maintain that companies can find inventive ways of supporting their remote workers. There are even technologies emerging to enable that, including Gatheround, a videoconferencing platform that, among other functions, ensures all meeting participants get equal time to speak — by cutting people off once they have gone on longer than their colleagues. Gatheround CEO Lisa Conn advises companies offering flexible work to have in-person attendees — even if some are together in the same space — join hybrid meetings on their own laptops.

At Verkada, Becker attributes parts of her growth at work to the time she has spent in the office. She has become a more critical manager, comfortable with prompting her 19 sales representatives to discuss ways they need to improve.

“When I came in as a manager, I was everybody’s biggest cheerleader,” she said. “What I struggled with is having tough conversations.”

She made the shift because of advice she got from her own boss, who sits next to her: “It’s having a mentor tell you: ‘Hey, you gave that feedback. Are they implementing it?’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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