What Young Workers Miss Without the ‘Power of Proximity’


Erika Becker, a sales development manager at Verkada, values the feedback she receives from her boss in the office. However, many employees, especially white-collar workers, have become attached to working from home during the pandemic due to its flexibility. Despite this, a recent working paper by economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Iowa, and Harvard suggests that remote workers may be facing a hidden professional penalty.

 The researchers studied engineers at a large technology company and found that while senior engineers benefited from remote work, junior engineers, especially female engineers, received less feedback and were more likely to quit. This suggests that in-person interaction in the office plays a crucial role in early-career development and mentorship, which cannot be easily replicated through virtual communication. Although the study's findings are narrow and preliminary, they imply that, for some white-collar knowledge workers, the office is essential for professional growth, a sentiment that has long been expressed by elders.

According to Sara Wechter, Head of Human Resources at Citi, many major employers believe that in-person interactions provide a unique opportunity for learning and apprenticeship that cannot be replicated in a remote work environment. As a result, Citi requires most of its employees to be in the office at least three days a week.

Verkada, a technology company located in the Bay Area, has called its employees back into the office full-time, citing the need for cultivating relationships. Interviews with Verkada workers reveal that some had left jobs with flexible work arrangements in search of a physical office. Morgan Shapiro, who started working at Verkada in November 2020, struggled to manage her team of recruiters while working remotely at her former employer, Lyft. Despite being hesitant to spontaneously contact her team virtually, she found that being back in the office at Verkada was a better fit for her. During her first week there, she had the opportunity to bump into the company CEO in the hallway and was able to schedule a meeting with his assistant immediately. She believes that remote work would have made things a lot harder for her as it would have been difficult to interact with key personnel.

The shift to remote work during the pandemic has highlighted a dilemma for both companies and employees. While working from home can allow for increased flexibility in terms of childcare and work-life balance, it can also result in a career penalty for those who choose to work remotely, particularly for women, young people, and people of color who may lack crucial professional networks usually developed in a person. This can result in disparities in promotions and pay later on. Furthermore, remote workers may miss out on intangible benefits such as creativity, collaboration, and mentorship, which are harder to measure but can profoundly impact a worker's career development. Research has shown that in-person teams receive 21% more feedback than remote teams, highlighting the importance of physical proximity in developing professional relationships. Flexible work arrangements may have growing pains, and the cost of remote work may not be evident until later on.

A recent study has shown that remote work can negatively impact the performance of junior engineers, younger workers, and women. The study found that these groups benefit greatly from in-person interactions with more experienced colleagues. However, remote work has brought benefits for working parents and others with personal commitments. A survey from FlexJobs showed that a majority of women and men would consider finding a new job if they could no longer work remotely, citing better work-life balance as a benefit of remote work. Companies are now faced with the challenge of balancing these conflicting factors.

According to a study titled "The Power of Proximity," companies that have implemented a hybrid model of work, with some employees working remotely and others in the office, might not be reaping the benefits of in-person collaboration. The study found that having even one remote team member can reduce collaboration between the remaining team members. However, experts argue that companies can find ways to support their remote employees by using innovative technologies such as videoconferencing platforms like Gatheround. Lisa Conn, the CEO of Gatheround, suggests that companies offering flexible work should have all meeting attendees join virtually, even if some are physically present in the same location. Verkada employee, Ms. Becker, credits her personal and professional growth to the time she spent in the office, becoming a more confident manager, and comfortable with providing constructive criticism. She attributes her transformation to advice from her mentor and boss, who sits next to her in the office.

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