Remote Workers and the “Power of Proximity” Myth

the disadvantages of remote work are being pushed into a laptop

While we were knee-deep in the pandemic, Bold crunched the numbers and determined that remote work is what most employees want. The flexibility that such schedules offer provide better opportunities for work-life balance. Likewise, according to research, over 90% of companies have actually shown modest gains in productivity with flexible work structures. But according to recent research described in the New York Times, there appears to be some noted disadvantages of remote work. Specifically, those preferring to work at home may be doing themselves a disservice in terms of professional development. The lack of onsite social interactions and feedback could be undermining advancement of remote workers. As such, some are suggesting it’s time to bring workers back into the office.

disadvantages of remote work as exemplified by an access card
The disadvantages of remote work aren’t that big of a deal–not when compared to the advantages.

Before we go throwing out the baby with the bath water, it’s worth exploring the research in closer detail. There’s little doubt that communication can be affected when employees work from home. One of the noted disadvantages of remote work previously reported involve changes in social contact. For some tasks and jobs, this could indeed limit both productivity as well as the advancement of remote workers. But it’s unlikely that this affects all remote workers the same way. And even if it did, the solution likely involves changing company policies rather than bring everyone back into the office.

The Latest Research Data

The research reported in the Times involved a large-scale study of more than 1,000 employees. All worked at Vitality, a wellness and financial services firm in the UK. And automated data collection as performed for 5 months using Microsoft Workplace Analytics. The outcomes measured in the study included employee wellbeing, job capacity, as well as productivity. The study also examined collaboration, work meetings, and work quality. The results demonstrated that despite the average meeting times increases by 7.4%, quality declined. Likewise, collaboration hours fell by 5.6%. And it was determined that both work productivity and performance fell. These disadvantages of remote work were believed to undermine the advancement of remote workers in some instance.

In postulating how these disadvantages of remote work affected some staff, the researchers offered some ideas. Specifically, they believed junior staff members generally need more social contact face-to-face for professional development. It was suggested that the lack of more regular and personal feedback hurt such development and the advancement of remote workers. In contrast, more senior workers that performed more complex tasks likely do much better with remote work. Having developed in more social and interactive settings, these individuals likely thrive to a greater extent remotely. Certainly, this research offers some important discoveries. But the hypothesis suggesting remote work may not be for younger employees is far from conclusive.

Different Tasks, Different Preferences

In exploring the evidence a bit further, additional studies provide a more thorough picture regarding remote work. In a survey conducted in 20 global companies, the specific tasks of a job is what best determined the effectiveness of remote work. Specifically, jobs involving individualized procedural tasks and focused creative projects performed better remotely. Without office distractions and interactions, they became more proficient. Likewise, employees that routinely engaged in group activities seemed to do best with hybrid work models. It was only those involved in high-level creative projects that required collaborations that experienced disadvantages of remote work. This had nothing to do with their seniority but simply the fact that in-person collaboration was essential for the task.

some people working in the office pretending they're happy
Working in the office has its advantages, but advancement of remote workers is more of a function of leadership shortcomings, not proximity.

At the same time, individual personality variations also affect whether or not remote work settings are effective. In another study that explored employee engagement, advancement of remote workers was comparable in all settings. However, some workers were more individualistic in nature and others collectivistic. The individualistic workers preferred autonomy and responsibility and thus performed well in remote environments. The collectivist employees, on the other hand, had greater social needs and liked onsite job situations. Therefore, disadvantages of remote work differed based in personal profiles. Here again, for junior and senior employees, advancement of remote workers wasn’t affected if it meshed with their personalities.

Application of the Research

advancement of remote workers as shown by a home terminal
Is the advancement of remote workers impeded by lack of proximity to bosses? Probably not.

Given this broader assessment of available information, there may indeed be some disadvantages of remote work for some. Those whose personalities thrive in face-to-face social settings may not perform as well remotely. Likewise, those whose tasks demand a high level of collaboration may not do as well via videoconferencing platforms. For these workers, the lack of feedback and onsite guidance could affect their advancement of remote workers. These important take-home points are the ones businesses need to recognize. For employees who respond well to more continuous feedback, structures should be pursued to accommodate these needs. This is not the responsibility of the individual worker but instead that of the company itself.

(Read up on the evolving videoconferencing platforms in this Bold story.)

Though disadvantages of remote work exist, research supports many advantages as well. Companies can reduce costs by adopting effective remote work policies and can enlarge their talent pool as well. They can also promote better work-life balance for their workers, which also can boost productivity and performance. But such policies do not come in a one-size-fits-all version. Instead, businesses must customize work schedules based on task, employee characteristics, and the need for feedback. Depending on these variables, remote, hybrid or onsite options may be ideal. Ultimately, it’s up to businesses to figure this out in order to promote advancement of remote workers and all staff. For those that don’t, setbacks in performance, employee attrition, and innovation are quite likely.

Shining a Light on the Proximity Myth

By examining single research studies in a microcosm, one might assume most workers need to be in the office. Opportunities for social interactions, collaborations and feedback suggest office proximity is preferred. But this perspective focuses on the disadvantages of remote work and not its positive components. In fact, advancement of remote workers in autonomy, job satisfaction, responsibility, and work-life balance has been repeatedly demonstrated. It is only the occasional employee who needs an onsite schedule in order to excel. Businesses must therefore appreciate this myth of proximity and act accordingly. And if concerns about the advancement of remote workers exist, they must be the ones to find the solution.


If you want a job heavy on remote work, read this Bold story that offers up six important tips!

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