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life at work |  The hidden cost of telecommuting for teens

life at work | The hidden cost of telecommuting for teens

Erika Becker, 28, is the Director of Business Development at Verkada, a technology company in San Mateo, California. At least 10 times a day, she turns to her boss: “Did I do it right? What could I have done better? »


“If I’m doing something wrong, I want to know about it. I want to get ahead in my career.”

She comes to work five days a week, like all her colleagues. It’s a huge change from her old job at Yelp, a 100% virtual job where she often only spoke to her boss once a day on the phone. Baker rediscovers the perk of going to the office: advice and supervision. Full of guidance and supervision.

Photo by Aaron and Jack, The New York Times

Erika Becker, Director of Sales Development at Verkada

Since the pandemic, disruptions to work have declined much faster than research analyzing their impact. Millions of North Americans are used to working from home, at least part-time. Many of them, especially parents, are very keen on the flexibility of this arrangement. They oppose efforts by major corporations — such as Amazon, Disney, and Starbucks — to bring them back to the office, citing their excellent virtual productivity.

But this flexibility has a hidden career cost, says an economics study published by the Federal Reserve of New York and the universities of Harvard and Iowa. This is one of the first major analyzes of the disadvantages of remote work.

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disadvantaged youth

Economists Natalia Emmanuel, Emma Harrington, and Amanda Bales studied the case of engineers from a large technology company. In practice, the productivity of the senior engineers increased, but the younger engineers received less guidance and feedback on the quality of the computer code they were working on. Young engineers were more likely to quit. Less supervision resulting from remote work had greater effects among women.

Photo by Aaron and Jack, The New York Times

Everyone is back at the office at Verakda in San Mateo.

“There is a trade-off between now and later in telecommuting,” says Emma Harrington, an economist at the University of Iowa. “In remote work, young engineers — especially new hires — receive much less feedback than senior engineers.”

The published results are preliminary and fragmentary: they measure one type of interaction in a single group of workers from a single technology company.

But the study points to a broader conclusion: The office plays a critical role in the development of certain types of knowledge workers early in their careers.

The mentoring and coaching these young people get in person also doesn’t happen on Slack as it does on Zoom.

“That’s what grandparents used to say a long time ago,” says Natalia Emmanuel, an economist at the New York Federal Reserve. “Seeing each other in person is much better than seeing each other on FaceTime.”

For some employers, the study confirms the perception that has guided their decisions about hybrid work. “Almost everything that promotes personal learning and training is difficult to replicate,” says Sarah Fichter, chief human resources officer at Citibank, where most employees work in the office at least three days a week.

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The intangible benefits of face-to-face work are hard to study: By definition, they are poorly measured, researchers say.

Most previous studies on remote work have targeted call centers or similar workplaces, where productivity is easier to define and measure, but where creativity, collaboration, and mentorship are generally less important.

Natalia Emmanuel and her colleagues looked at software engineers working for a large company (not identified in the study). Before the pandemic, some engineers worked as a team under one roof. They saw each other in person at formal meetings or around the same table in the cafeteria. Another group of engineers was sent to separate buildings. The meetings were online, to avoid the 20-minute walk required to see each other on the company campus.

The three economists were able to gauge reactions by accounting for the comments engineers made on co-workers’ code — a form of interaction necessary in software companies. Before the pandemic, engineers working in the same building received 21% more feedback than those working remotely. From the pandemic, everyone found themselves working from home and the gap disappeared. Bottom line: It is physical proximity that makes this increased collaboration possible.

“The power of proximity”

Most of the newly recruited young engineers, especially women, benefited from the “power of proximity” (this is the title of the study). Engineers under 30 received more feedback from more experienced colleagues, but only if they worked in the same building.

“These effects are very concentrated,” says Natalia Emmanuel. Young engineers benefit most from office work. Those who do have a lot to learn, no doubt. »

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At Verkada, Erika Becker says her new skills come in part with time spent in the office. As a director, she is more critical and not afraid to contact her 19 reps to discuss what improvements they need.

“When I started as a manager, I was very encouraging to everyone. But I was afraid to touch on difficult topics,” she says. She has changed by following the advice of her boss, her immediate neighbor in the office: “The mentor is the one who tells you: ‘Hey, you gave them the instructions. Are they putting them into practice?’” »

This article was originally published in The New York Times.