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For some, the office is a faraway place

From home, employees maintain productivity, but building networks is a challenge

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Shefali Kashiv joined New York’s Microsoft office after graduating from John Hopkins University last August. She was welcomed by a series of online onboarding events and worked for the company remotely until this summer. 

Kashiv didn’t get to meet all of her teammates until six or seven months after she started with the company.

“Given the fact that we met after being remote for so many months, I definitely felt that we valued it more when we were meeting in person,” she said.

Kashiv’s has become an increasingly common experience at companies where remote or hybrid work has been normalized since the start of the pandemic.

According to Gallup’s research in February, about 40 percent of employees in the United States are working completely full-time from home or have a hybrid work schedule. While skirmishes over return-to-office policies continue in industries such as technology and finance, the question of how hybrid arrangements could impact the productivity and career development of young workers is still playing out.

“I prefer no distractions, and being able to manage my time flexibly,” said Kashiv, who said hybrid work can actually increase her productivity. Working in the strategy team of customer

transformation at Microsoft, most of her work is not client-facing and can be done remotely. 

Still, there’s aspects of being in the office that remain an enticement. 

“When you go to the office, there's a lot you want to do: have lunch with someone, interact with someone … and you always have that lingering feeling of missing out,” she said.

Tech as a ally

Kashiv doesn’t have an assigned desk in what technically is her Microsoft office, in Times Square, and neither do some of her colleagues also working remotely; few find that that an issue, she said. 

“We see technology as an aid, not as a problem,” she said. “It can help us to achieve more.”

Daniel Rock, an assistant professor of Operations, Information, and Decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania points out the potential positive impact of hybrid work arrangements on productivity. 

“Some of that time ends up going back to the employer to some extent,” said Rock, adding that employees can put the time saved in things like commuting to work. “But it's uncertain long-term, because you have to reconfigure a lot of the business processes that currently exist or used to exist to match remote workers. There are all sorts of investments that companies have to make to get remote work to work properly.” 

Investments employers should consider making in a hybrid era are what Rock refers to as “intangible capital,” such as cultural assets and work styles that “generates value for the employer, (but) doesn't necessarily show up as something that's easily measured.”

A study by Time is Ltd., a productivity analytics firm, of 1,300 employees suggests a side effect of hybrid work whose impact is still unclear: new hires in the past year are found to be building an internal network about half of the size of those who are more senior. 

Even after one year at work, they’re only fully collaborating with 68 percent of the colleagues and external partners they need for the job, according to survey results.

Evan James, senior vice president of marketing at Time is Ltd. and the author of the study, said the internal network typically helps younger employees to “understand what different roles within an organization are doing, and how they can potentially move in that direction.”

“But it’s also a natural human element,” he said.

Zoom memes

Shuo Guo came to New York and joined a traineeship at the United Nations Office of Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth in early 2020. Two weeks after starting work, Covid hit Wuhan, China. 

Within two months, all U.N. staffers had shifted to remote work, with the routine lasting until the summer of 2021. When her team added a new member in the midst of the remote arrangement, it took six months for them to meet with one another.

“You create some new ways of communication, and you’ll have new channels for fun interactions with co-workers,” said Guo. One way Guo’s young colleagues bonded was, appropriately, through the sharing of memes captured from Zoom meeting. During the darkest days of the pandemic in New York, Guo made an album of humorous memes of screenshots of fellow workers’ reactions, which she shared in a chat group. Her young co-workers followed suit. “It’s good to have something cheering those days,” Guo said.

“You still have some opportunities to meet people online, nevertheless not as many as when you’re in the office,” she said, adding that hybrid work did affect her network building in the office. However, she still likes not having to commute every day, while enjoying two generally stimulating workdays in the office out of five.

Guo shifted from the trainee contract to a consultant contract during the pandemic, a promotion considered swift within the U.N. system. “I don’t think remote work can cause much loss of my future career opportunities,” she said. 

Guo believes that as long as people accomplish their work with quality, it will pay off. “Whether the office can see your work ethics and achievements is not really related to whether you’re working on-site or remotely,” said Guo, who also owed her promotion to the office’s long-time culture to advocate for career opportunities for younger workers.

Kashiv, the Microsoft worker, shared similar thoughts on the relationship between building networks and making progress in a remote or hybrid workplace. “Do I think that it is easier to do and make that network in person? Yes. But eventually, the kind of relationship that really bears fruit is the one you work with more often, your peers,” she said.  

James said one thing to consider in building a network is the role of the individuals. While a hybrid schedule can work well for professions that require less interpersonal communications, for more collaborative teams, though, hybrid work could create obstacles. “It's a balancing act of figuring out what is the right setup for individuals, teams, and for roles,” he said. 

About 53 percent of remote-capable employees expect a hybrid arrangement to last long term, while 24 percent expect to work exclusively remotely, according to results from the February Gallup poll. 

A tight labor market could conceivably give employees a greater say in where they work. “I don't think we're going back to the expectation that you're in the office every single day,” the Wharton School’s Rock said.

“Employers are having their hand forced to some extent that if they want to be able to retain some of their best talents, they're going to need to be able to offer remote work in some way, shape or form,” said Rock, “some employers are willing to lose some of that talent, and reconfigure their workforce around the people who select to be there.”

“We're seeing sort of an enormous reallocation of work around new preferences, where that dimension wasn't really available before.”

shihaof@thechiefleader.com

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