Erika Becker, 28, is a business development manager at Verkada, a technology firm in San Mateo, California. At least 10 times a day, she turns to her boss, “Did I do this right? What could I have done better? »

“If I’m doing something wrong, I want to know. I want advancement in my career,” she said.

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

Since the pandemic, the upheavals at work have tumbled much faster than the research that analyzes their impact. Millions of North Americans have taken to working from home, at least part-time. Many, especially parents, are fiercely keen on the flexibility of this arrangement. They oppose efforts by big corporations — like Amazon, Disney, and Starbucks — to bring them back to the office, citing their excellent virtual productivity.

But this flexibility has a hidden professional cost, argues an economic study published by the New York Federal Reserve and Harvard and Iowa Universities. This is one of the first major analyzes of the disadvantages of teleworking.

Economists Natalia Emanuel, Emma Harrington and Amanda Pallais studied the case of engineers from a large technology firm. Virtually, the productivity of senior engineers increased, but younger engineers received far less guidance and feedback on the quality of the computer codes they were working on. Young engineers were more likely to quit. The less supervision resulting from telework had more effects for women.

“There’s 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 recent hires – receive much less feedback from senior engineers. »

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

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

“That’s what grandparents have been saying for a long time,” says Natalia Emanuel, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “Seeing each other face to face is much better than seeing each other on FaceTime. »

For some employers, the study confirms the perception that guided their decisions about hybrid working. “It’s hard to replicate virtually everything that promotes in-person learning and training,” says Sara Wechter, chief human resources officer at Citi Bank, where most employees work in the office at least three days a week. .

The intangible benefits of face-to-face work are difficult to study: by definition, they are poorly measured, say the researchers.

Natalia Emanuel and her colleagues looked at software engineers working in a large firm (not identified in the study). Before the pandemic, some engineers worked as a team under the same roof. They saw each other in person at formal meetings or around the same table in the cafeteria. Another group of engineers were dispatched 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 measure feedback by counting comments made by engineers on co-workers’ codes – a form of interaction essential 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: physical proximity is what makes this increased collaboration possible.

“The Power of Proximity” (that’s the title of the study) mostly benefited newly hired young engineers, especially women. Engineers under 30 generally received more feedback from more experienced colleagues, but only if they worked in the same building.

“These effects are very concentrated,” says Natalia Emanuel. Those who benefit the most from office work are young engineers; those who have the most to learn, no doubt. »

At Verkada, Erika Becker says her new skills come in part with her time in the office. As a manager, she is more critical and she is not afraid to approach her 19 representatives to discuss the improvements they need to make.

“When I first started as a manager, I was super encouraging to everyone. But I was afraid to bring up the difficult topics,” she says. She changed on the advice of her boss, her immediate neighbor in the office: “It’s a mentor who says to you, ‘Hey, you gave them instructions. Do they put them into practice?” »