Erika Becker is a Sales Development Manager at Verkada. She asks her boss questions 10 times per day. She asks, "Did you handle it correctly?" What could I have done differently?
Ms. Becker (28), along with her co-workers, comes to her San Mateo office five days a weeks. This is a far cry from her former role at Yelp where she often worked from home, and spoke to her boss only once a day. Ms. Becker discovered a new benefit of working in an office: feedback. There's a lot of it.
She said, "It would be like if I had something in my mouth. Tell me." "Because i want to advance in my career."
The pandemic has brought about sweeping changes in the workplace that have been far more rapid than the research on their effects. Over 50 million Americans in white-collar positions began to work from home, at least partially. The flexibility was a big draw for many, particularly working parents. Thousands of employees objected to large employers, including Amazon, Disney, and Starbucks, trying to bring workers back into the office in recent months. They cited their record of productivity while at home.
According to a paper by economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Harvard, remote workers could be paying a hidden penalty in terms of their professional status. This is one of the first major studies that shows the downsides to remote work.
The economists, Natalia Emanuel and Emma Harrington, studied engineers in a large tech company. The economists found that while remote work increased the productivity of senior engineering, it reduced the feedback junior engineers receive (in the form comments on their code) and made some junior engineers more likely to leave the company. Female engineers were most affected by the effects of remote working, particularly in terms of feedback.
"We found a trade-off between remote work now and later," said Ms. Harrington. She is an economist from the University of Iowa. "Especially for junior engineers and younger engineers that are new to the firm, they get less feedback when they're remotely."
The findings of the study are preliminary and narrow. They measure only one type of interaction between a group of employees at a technology company. The authors' findings, however, suggested that their study was more general: the office played a significant role in the early career development of a certain kind of knowledge worker. The mentorship and training that people receive in person has been difficult to replicate using Slack or Zoom.
In an interview conducted this month, Ms. Emanuel said, "Grandparents have been saying it for a very long time." Face-to-face meeting is very different from FaceTime.
The research has confirmed a sentiment for some major employers that guided their decisions on hybrid work. "It is hard to duplicate the opportunities for learning and apprenticeship that come from face-to-face interactions," said Sara Wechter. She is the head of Human Resources at Citi.
Verkada is a Bay Area technology company which calls its employees back to the office every day. Interviews with several of their workers revealed why people left jobs that offered flexible working arrangements for offices where they could build relationships.
Morgan Shapiro joined Verkada as of November 2020. She previously worked for Lyft where she struggled with managing her team after the pandemic sent employees home. She worried about reaching out spontaneously to her staff when questions arose throughout the day.
She realized how much she missed her office during her first week back at Verkada. In the hallway she bumped into Verkada's CEO, who invited her to arrange a meeting. They would discuss the compensation policy of her department, which was discussed during her interview. She immediately emailed the assistant to set up a meeting.
"I knew his assistant as I had coffee with her," said Ms. Shapiro. If I had been remote, it would have made things more difficult because she would have asked, "Who is this person who wants to meet the C.E.O.?" ?'"
Ms. Shapiro who gave birth to a child this year noted that the increased flexibility of her profession had made it easier for office employees to prioritize child care in times of crisis. She said, "Of Course if you have to be at home, then be at home." "Home comes first."
Shapiro’s story highlights a specific challenge that companies and employees face when navigating the return-to office tensions. Women, young people, and people of colour may suffer the greatest career penalties for remote work, as they often lack the professional network that working in an office can provide. Numerous surveys show that the same groups of employees who prefer flexible work arrangements are also those who are least likely to return to their office.
Kweilin Elliottrud, director of McKinsey Global Institute and researcher on the effects of remote working on career development, said: "Those who desire remote work - those who are most likely to take advantage of it - will probably lose their jobs or lose out opportunities as a result of remote employment."
The price of flexibility, according to Ms. Ellingrud, may not be apparent for years, until disparities in promotion or pay are evident.
Jackiez Gonzalez, a 36-year-old Best Buy employee who works in the social impact department remotely, signed up for an employee mentoring program. Participants would meet regularly to discuss their career development, she was told. She learned that she had been mistakenly left off of the calendar invites for meetings a month after she signed up.
"When you are remote, you are out of sight and out of mind," said Ms. Gonzalez of her experience. She added that, while she is generally happy with the flexible work arrangements she has chosen, "there have been growing pains."
Researchers have found it difficult to quantify the intangible benefits that come with in-person work. The majority of existing studies on remote work focus on call centres or other workplaces that are easy to measure and define, but may not be as important for creativity, mentorship and collaboration.
Ms. Emanuel, along with her colleagues, focused their attention on software engineers working at a Fortune 500 company that the researchers agreed to remain anonymous. Before the pandemic some engineering teams were located in the same building. They held meetings and interacted with their colleagues in the cafeteria. Some teams were divided between different buildings, and most meetings were held online in order to avoid a 20-minute walk around the campus.
The economists could measure feedback by counting the number of comments made on each other's code. This is a common and important form of interaction in most software companies. Before the pandemic they found that engineers who worked in the same building got 21 percent more feedback compared to those in other buildings. After the pandemic, everyone began working remotely and the feedback gap almost disappeared. This suggests that it was the physical proximity of the teams, not any other differences, which led to the greater feedback received by in-person teams.
Researchers call this "power of proximity" in the title of their paper. It was especially strong for newly hired engineers and younger workers. Engineers younger than 30 years old, for example, tend to get more feedback from more experienced colleagues, but only when they are all located in the same building.
Ms. Emanuel stated that "these effects are very concentrated." The junior engineers who are also younger are the ones that will benefit most from attending in person. You might think that those groups have the most to gain.
Those engineers, especially women and younger workers, who previously worked in teams all within the same building are more likely to leave their job once the pandemic sends everyone home. No such departures were seen among those who previously worked in teams that had been spread out across several buildings. This suggests that workers were missing in-person interaction, said Ms. Emanuel.
Remote work is a real benefit for many employees. This includes working parents, and those who have to balance work and home. According to a FlexJobs survey, 52 percent of males and 60 percent females said that they would look for another job if they were no longer able to work remotely. 62 percent said remote work was beneficial, and 56 percent said it improved their work-life balance.
Reyhan Ayas is a senior economist at Revelio Labs. The company collects and analyses job listings, layoff notifications, and other data on the work force. "Employees would love to be able to work at home if it was possible."
Many companies use a hybrid model that allows some employees to work from home while others are required to be at the office. Yet, the "power proximity" paper questions that approach: The economists found the benefits of physical presence only apply when the entire team is present.
Even if you only have one remote teammate it can result in less cooperation between the other teammates, said Ms. Emanuel.
Many hybrid-work specialists maintain that companies are able to support their remote workers in innovative ways. Gatheround is one of the technologies that can help. It's a videoconferencing system that allows all participants to have equal time in meetings by stopping them when they speak longer than their peers. Gatheround CEO Lisa Conn advises businesses that offer flexible work to allow in-person participants, even if they are in the same room, to join hybrid meetings using their laptops.
Becker credits her success at Verkada to the hours she spent at the office. She is now a more critical supervisor, and she's comfortable asking her 19 sales reps to talk about ways to improve.
She said, "When I first started as a manager I was everyone's biggest cheerleader." "What I find difficult is having difficult conversations."
She changed her mind because her boss, who sits right next to her, told her, "Hey, I know you gave feedback." Are they implementing the feedback?