Coding feedback suggests remote workers face ‘hidden penalty’


A working paper studied the price younger workers may pay for working remotely.
A working paper studied the price younger workers may pay for working remotely.
Photo: Cult of Mac Deals

One of the first major studies of the surge in remote work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic suggests out-of-office workers face a “hidden penalty.”

It’s a reduction in feedback and guidance, which may harm people early in their careers the most. The study looked at engineers at a large technology company and the way they offered feedback on each other’s code.

Study finds remote workers may face ‘hidden penalty’

As large companies have started reversing course on remote-work policies sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic — to the objection of many employees, who point to their remote productivity — a new study says workers are paying a hidden price for flexibility, according to a new report in The New York Times.

Apple is one such company, which began requiring corporate employees to work in the office at least some of the time in April 2022 after delays.

The study findings come from a working paper by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Harvard University and the University of Iowa. Because workplace changes happened swiftly amid the pandemic, academic study of it is only just now catching up.

The Times described how the study worked:

The economists — Natalia Emanuel, Emma Harrington and Amanda Pallais — studied engineers at a large technology company. They found that remote work enhanced the productivity of senior engineers, but it also reduced the amount of feedback that junior engineers received (in the form of comments on their code), and some of the junior engineers were more likely to quit the firm. The effects of remote work, in terms of declining feedback, were especially pronounced for female engineers.

Study looked at comments in engineers’ code

The study looked closely at comments engineers made on one another’s code. It found that helpful commentary was 21% higher among engineers in the same building versus those in separate buildings prior to the pandemic.

And once the pandemic hit and everyone worked remotely, comments dropped off overall. That suggested physical proximity had been the most important factor.

‘Power of proximity’

The study called it “the power of proximity” and said it helps younger workers the most.

“We find a now-versus-later trade-off associated with remote work,” said Harrington, an economist at the University of Iowa. “Particularly for junior engineers who are new to this particular firm, and younger engineers, they receive less feedback from their senior colleagues when they’re remote.”

The Times acknowledged that a study of one company is narrow. But it suggests that in-person training and mentorship is difficult to replicated on collaboration platforms that many companies use (Zoom, Slack, etc.).

“It’s what grandparents have been saying for a long time,” said Emanuel, a Federal Reserve Bank of New York economist, in a recent interview. “Face-to-face meetings are very different from FaceTime.”

Cultivating relationships in person

The article included interviews with young workers who considered leaving flexible arrangements in order to find office work where they could cultivate relationships better.

And it also hit on the “out of sight, out of mind” warning, suggesting that some who choose remote opportunities may lose out in subtle ways and not recognize the impact on career success until much later.

“Those who want remote work — those who will likely take advantage of remote work — are likely those who will lose jobs or at least lose out on opportunities because of remote work,” said Kweilin Ellingrud, a McKinsey Global Institute director who has studied remote work’s affect on career development.


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