Remote Work Can Be a Very Bad Way to Start a Career: “You still feel like a stranger at your own company”

From a New York Times guest essay by Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel headlined “Remote Work Can Be a Very Bad Way to Start a Career”:

Kiersten graduated from college straight into the middle of a pandemic and a precarious job market. She managed to find an entry-level job with a government contractor that allowed her to work from the safety of her home. There was no fanfare on her first day; she simply opened her laptop and began an endless series of training sessions conducted over Zoom. The sessions were helpful, Kiersten recalls, but very formal, with little room for socializing. Even among her fellow new hires, Kiersten felt at a remove. “I just stared at their Zoom boxes and willed us to be friends,” she told us. “But we never had the opportunity to interact.”

With time, she grew accustomed to the daily cadences of her job. But she still felt like a stranger at her own company, whose remote policies were haphazard at best. To chat, employees used an outdated version of Skype; in Zoom meetings, almost all co-workers left their cameras off. Months into her job, she could identify people only by their chat avatars and voices. At one point, she says, she began “obsessively stalking” her company’s Glassdoor reviews, just to try to get a sense of the company culture. She was, by her own admission, unmoored, totally unmentored and insecure, with no way to learn from her colleagues. It’s one thing to start a new job remotely. It’s another to start your entire career that way.

“I was shocked at how all the skills I had learned on how to navigate this type of environment in person evaporated remotely,” Kiersten said. “They feel entirely inaccessible to me now.” She’s not alone. While reporting “Out of Office,” a book we’re writing on remote work, we heard similar stories from early career workers who’ve felt adrift during the Covid-19 pandemic….All were grateful to be employed, but many felt left behind, invisible and, in some cases, unsure about how to actually do their jobs. While their companies adapted their work flows to function outside the office, few spent the time to craft policies to mentor young professionals, many of whom found themselves stuck on their couches, attempting to decipher cryptic emails and emojis sent over Slack.

Most newcomers are terrified of screwing up and hesitant to ask questions that might make them sound naïve. Which, of course, means that they’re also scared that they’re already failing. “I think I’m missing out on a lot of the soft skills that one picks up in the first few years of working,” Haziq, a 22-year-old living in Ireland, told us. He’s found it nearly impossible to socialize with colleagues and lacks the confidence to casually ask a question of his manager or teammates. “If I was sitting next to my manager, I could just have a quick chat and move on,” he said. “But I’m much less likely to Slack my manager and ask something because I don’t know what they’re up to at the moment. The amount of on-the-job learning has reduced dramatically.”

For Kiersten, who had never set foot in her company’s office, professional life has come to feel like an abstraction — to the point that she’s sometimes not even sure if she’s employed. Worse, her job feels almost completely transactional, with her conversations limited to, in her words, “exchanging information in pursuit of an immediate, work-related goal.”

You could chalk up some of these experiences to the harried nature of the pandemic, which required many organizations to build a work-from-home plan, as it were, while also trying to fly it. But many of the perks of truly flexible work — a self-directed schedule, distance from overly chatty co-workers, remove from office gossip and politics — could also work against younger employees. If companies don’t create intentional, structured mentorship programs to help younger and remote colleagues with on-the-job learning, they risk leaving a generation behind.

While we believe that the spontaneous water-cooler interactions of the office are often romanticized, we also recognize the ways in which gossip, after-work drinks and even body language come together to teach new employees the standards of behavior in the office. Small talk, passing conversations, even just observing your manager’s pathways through the office may seem trivial, but in the aggregate they’re far more valuable than any form of company handbook. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be translated into a remote or flexible work environment.

Almost every story we heard from adrift and isolated employees had the same root cause: well-intentioned but frazzled managers working inside systems that adapted to the pandemic by trying to cram office work into the home. “When I joined, my manager was like, ‘Oh, if we were in the office, I would’ve taken you out to lunch and gotten to know you,’” Kiersten said. “She realized that things were missing but didn’t have any strategies to replicate that type of experience.” But Kiersten didn’t blame her manager for not doing more; it was clear she didn’t have any support or practice in remotely onboarding employees….

We asked early career workers what resources they wished they could have had during those early pandemic months, and the responses were full of helpful ideas for any company. Most important, they wanted a clearly delineated mentor who — crucially — was not also their supervisor or in charge of evaluating their performance. One person suggested a dual mentor program that paired new employees with a co-worker in a similar position in the company who could offer advice on more quotidian concerns, as well as a more senior employee who could provide longer-term career advice….

Kiersten, for her part, eventually found camaraderie in her company’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. “We just spent most of the first session doing introductions and talking about quarantine work-life balance,” she said. “But it was still really nice to have a dedicated time and space to meet people not from my project team and learn about them personally and not just via their deliverable output.” Importantly, these sessions were presented as safe, off-the-record opportunities to connect but also to vent and commiserate, which is often the primary (if unacknowledged) value of in-person co-worker interactions.

But that early professional hunger for structure extended far beyond Zoom meetups. People wanted opportunities to sit in on calls with senior members of different teams — the equivalent of silently sitting in on an in-person meeting — if only to get a better sense of what others’ jobs entailed. They wanted access to email templates for specific kinds of intra-office and out-of-office outreach. They wanted to know what time was normal to reply to emails. In short, they wanted to be told what they were supposed to be doing at work and how to do it successfully. Even those who admitted that such guidance could quickly become stifling agreed that it was better than flailing around with vague expectations and zero guidance.

Speaking to those who feel left behind by remote work, we realized there’s no one template for creating mentorship opportunities and support. For organizations with a hybrid approach, where employees split time between home and the office, some of these problems may quickly abate. A few days in the office won’t fix these larger issues. But intentional design could. Truly flexible work may seem breezy and carefree, but it’s actually the product of careful planning and clear communication. It requires peering around corners and attempting to identify needs and problems before they fester. It may seem onerous at first, especially when “Let’s just go back to the way things were before” seems like such a clear option.

But it’s not. We’ve moved past that point. If we’re serious about building a sustainable future of work, we can’t leave a whole swath of employees behind. They’ll just develop bad habits and waste endless hours trying to piece together the rules of the game when someone could’ve just told them. You have to decide: Are you going to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, allowing it to tax your organization in all sorts of tangible and intangible ways, or are you going to invest in the sort of intentional mentorship and structure that will yield dividends down the road?

Anne Helen Petersen writes the newsletter Culture Study. Charlie Warzel writes the newsletter Galaxy Brain for The Atlantic, where he is a Contributing Writer. They are the authors of the forthcoming book “Out of Office,” from which this essay is adapted.


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