Erika Becker, a sales development manager at a technology company called Verkada, asks her boss questions at least 10 times a day. “Am I doing it right?” she asked. “Can I do better?”
Ms. Becker, 28, comes to her San Mateo, Calif., office five days a week with all her colleagues. The routine was a departure from her previous role at Yelp, where she worked from home and often spoke with her boss on the phone only once a day. Ms. Becker has rediscovered a benefit of the office: feedback. a lot of.
“It’s like I have something in my teeth and I want you to tell me,” she said. “Because I want to advance in my career.”
Since the start of the pandemic, sweeping workplace changes have come much faster than studies examining their impact. More than 50 million Americans, mostly in white-collar jobs, have started working from home at least part of the time. Many of them, especially working parents, develop a strong attachment to this flexibility. In recent months, as large employers including Amazon, Disney and Starbucks have tried to bring workers back to the office, thousands of employees have protested, pointing to the record of working from home productivity.
But remote workers may pay a hidden career penalty for that flexibility, according to a working paper by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Iowa, and Harvard University. The study is one of the first major studies to demonstrate the detrimental professional effects of remote work.
Economists — Natalia Emanuel, Emma Harrington, and Amanda Pallais — studied engineers at a large technology company.They found that remote work increased the productivity of senior engineers, but also reduced the amount of feedback (in the form of code reviews) received by junior engineers, with some junior engineers more likely to leave the company. Remote work disproportionately affects female engineers in terms of feedback declines.
“We found a now versus later trade-off associated with remote work,” said Ms. Harrington, an economist at the University of Iowa. “Especially for new junior engineers and young engineers at this particular company, when they are remote, they get less feedback from their senior colleagues“
The study’s findings are preliminary and relatively narrow in scope, directly measuring only one form of interaction among a group of employees at a technology company. But the authors say their findings point to something broader: The office, at least for certain types of white-collar knowledge workers, plays an important role in early career development. The mentoring and training that people get in person has proven difficult to replicate on Slack and Zoom.
“This is what grandparents have been saying for a long time,” Ms. Emanuel, an economist at the New York Fed, said in an interview this month. “In-person meetings are very different from FaceTime.”
For some major employers, the research confirms a sentiment that guides their decisions about hybrid work: “It is difficult to replicate the apprenticeship and learning opportunities that come from face-to-face interactions,” says HR director Sara Wechter. At Citi, most employees are in the office at least three days a week.
At Verkada, a Bay Area-based tech company that calls its employees back to the office five days a week, interviews with several employees revealed why some are choosing to leave jobs with flexible work arrangements in search of an office that fosters relationships.
Morgan Shapiro, who joined Verkada in November 2020 and previously worked at Lyft, struggled to manage her recruiting team once the pandemic sent employees home. When questions arise throughout the day, she fears reaching out to staff, knowing that sudden calendar invitations can be anxiety-inducing.
After her first week in Verkada, back at the office, she realized what she had been missing. She bumped into the company’s CEO in the hallway, and he invited her to a meeting to discuss compensation issues her department had brought up during interviews. She emailed his assistant to set up a conversation right away.
“I also knew his assistant because I had coffee with her,” Ms. Shapiro, 36, said. “If I was far away, it would be much more difficult because she would say, ‘Who is this person who wants to spend time with the CEO?'”
Ms. Shapiro, who had a baby this year, noted that the increased flexibility in her field also makes it easier for current employees to prioritize child care in times of crisis. “Of course, if you need to go home, go home,” she said. “Home comes first.”
Ms. Shapiro’s experience highlights a particular challenge that companies and employees face as they navigate the tensions of returning to the office: The professional impact of remote work may be disproportionate to women, young people and people of color, who often lack The professional networking needed to work in an office can help provide that. But numerous surveys have found that these same groups of workers are also the ones who value flexibility the most and are the least likely to voluntarily return to the office.
“Those who want to work remotely — and who might take advantage of it — are likely to lose their jobs or at least opportunities because of it,” said Kweilin Ellingrud, director of the McKinsey Global Institute, who has studied telework. How work affects career development.
Worse, Ms Ellingrud said, the cost of flexibility may not be apparent to workers or companies until years later when a pay or promotion gap emerges.
Take Jackiez Gonzalez, 36, who works remotely at Best Buy’s social impact and signed up for a mentoring program for employees of color. She was told that participants would meet regularly to discuss career development. But she learned a month after signing up that she had accidentally been excluded from the conference calendar invitation.
“When you’re far away, you’re out of sight, out of mind,” Ms. Gonzalez said of the experience, adding that while she was largely positive about her flexible work arrangement, “there were also growth moments. troubles.”
The intangible benefits of face-to-face work have been a challenge for researchers to study because, by definition, they are difficult to measure. Existing research on remote work tends to focus on call centers or similar workplaces, where productivity is easy to define and measure—but creativity, collaboration, and mentoring may be less important.
Ms. Emanuel and her colleagues focused on software engineers at a Fortune 500 technology company, which the researchers agreed not to identify. Before the pandemic, some of the company’s engineering teams worked in the same building, meeting in person and interacting with colleagues in the cafeteria. Other teams are spread out across buildings and hold most meetings online to avoid the 20-minute walk across the corporate campus.
Economists can measure feedback by looking at the number of comments engineers make on each other’s code — a routine and fundamental form of interaction at most software companies. They found that, before the pandemic, engineers who worked in the same building received 21% more feedback than those who worked in a different building. Once the pandemic hit and everyone was working remotely, the feedback gap all but disappeared, suggesting that physical proximity—rather than other differences between the teams—led to more feedback from the in-person teams.
As the researchers put it in the paper’s title, “the power of proximity” is especially important for newly hired engineers, young workers and women. For example, engineers under 30 tend to receive more feedback, especially from more experienced colleagues—but only if they’re all in the same building.
“These effects are really concentrated,” Ms Emanuel said. “The people who really benefit the most from face-to-face are the junior engineers, and they’re younger. Those are the groups that need the most learning as you might imagine.”
Notably, once the pandemic sent everyone home, engineers who had previously worked on teams in the same building—particularly younger workers and women—were more likely to quit. There was no such surge in departures among those who had previously worked on teams spread across multiple buildings. Ms Emanuel said it showed employees were missing out on face-to-face interactions.
The challenge for companies is that remote work also offers tangible benefits to many employees, especially for working parents and others who juggle work and family responsibilities. In a survey by remote job search site FlexJobs, 60% of women and 52% of men said they would consider looking for a new job if they could no longer work remotely; 62% of women and 56% of men said a better Work-life balance is a benefit of working remotely.
“Employee perceptions of remote work are pretty clear,” said Reyhan Ayas, senior economist at Revelio Labs, which collects and analyzes job postings, layoff notices and other workforce data. “If employees can work from home, they will be willing to work from home.”
Many companies have adopted hybrid models, allowing some employees to work remotely while allowing or requiring others to work in the office. The “Power of Proximity” paper questions this approach, though: Economists have found that the benefits of face-to-face work only apply when the entire team is together.
“Even if you have one remote teammate, it still leads to less collaboration among the rest of the team,” Ms. Emanuel said.
Still, many hybrid work experts insist that companies can find innovative ways to support their remote workers. There are even technologies emerging to make this happen, including Gatheround, a video conferencing platform that, among other things, ensures that all meeting participants have equal speaking time – should they speak longer than their colleagues , they will be cut off. Lisa Conn, CEO of Gatheround, recommends that companies that offer flexible working allow on-site attendees to use their own laptops for hybrid meetings, even if some are gathered in the same space.
Back in Verkada, Ms. Becker attributes some of her growth at work to the time she spent in the office. She has become a more critical manager, comfortable prompting her 19 sales reps to discuss ways they need to improve.
“When I was a manager, I was everyone’s biggest cheerleader,” she said. “The difficulty I have is having difficult conversations.”
She made the switch because she got advice from the boss sitting next to her: “It’s a mentor telling you—’Hey, you gave feedback. Are they implementing it?'”