More than three years following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still reckoning with the seismic changes it prompted in practically every sector of daily life. When it comes to work, perhaps the most visible legacy of the pandemic is the drastic expansion of remote and hybrid roles. According to a recent New York Times article, COVID caused more than 50 million Americans to begin working from home at least some of the time. Three years later, while many employers are prioritizing a return to in-person work, thousands of workers have expressed a distinct preference for remote work, citing benefits from increased flexibility to consistent productivity. However, a new study suggests a potential hidden long-term detriment lurking among these advantages, particularly for less-established workers – reduced mentorship and feedback.
Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Iowa, and Harvard recently published the results of a study that examined teams of engineers at a large technology firm. Before the pandemic, some of these teams worked in the same building and met in person, and some worked in different buildings and met primarily online to reduce travel time to meetings. The economists’ research focused on a single metric: the number of comments made by engineers on each other’s code, a routine and essential form of feedback in the industry. They found that pre-pandemic, the engineers who worked in close physical proximity received 21% more feedback than those who did not. Once the company went remote in response to the pandemic, all teams began receiving the same amount of feedback, suggesting it was indeed proximity and not any other factor that caused the previous difference.
The economists behind this study have dubbed this potential benefit of in-person work the “power of proximity,” extrapolating the possible real-world impact of their findings, particularly among junior employees. Their study found that engineers under 30 tended to receive more feedback from more experienced colleagues, but only if they were in the same building. These findings prompted these economists to posit that “the office, at least for a certain type of white-collar knowledge worker, played an important role in early-career development,” providing opportunities for training and mentorship that can be difficult to replicate using remote technology.
While these results suggest a potentially crucial consideration that employers and workers alike may be overlooking as they navigate a permanently changed work landscape, it is important to note the narrow scope of the study, examining just one feedback mechanism specific to one industry. Ultimately, more research is needed to gauge just how distinct and consequential this “power of proximity” may prove for younger employees across industries. But only by holistically and impartially examining the emerging pros and cons associated with remote, hybrid, and in-person work can employers and employees work together to build a future work culture that supports everyone.
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