Why Recent College Grads Shouldn’t Work Remotely

Caroline Beaton

In today’s flexible, tech-based workplace, recent college grads are increasingly seeking remote work opportunities right out of college. But there are some compelling reasons they shouldn’t.

Marissa Mayer’s Bold Move

In February 2013, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer banned her 12,000 employees from working from home. Though her memo really only affected around 200 workers, her message went viral:

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.

HP, Bank of America and others later followed suit to varying degrees.

Was Mayer’s move the right one? Considering Mayer was unable to resuscitate Yahoo!, and it was recently bought by Verizon, maybe not. But the number of variables involved obscure the impact of her decision.  

The Research

Coincidentally, a month after Mayer’s memo, Stanford researchers Nicholas Bloom and John Roberts released their findings from a more controlled experiment on working from home. The Chinese company Ctrip conducted a nine-month study, where a portion of employees worked exclusively from home and another portion stayed at the office as a control. “The only difference between the two groups was the location where they worked,” Bloom and Roberts note.

Here’s what happened: Performance for remote workers increased by 13%, compared to no gains for the control group. Researchers attribute the result in part to fewer breaks, sick days and distractions. Meanwhile, turnover dropped by 50% among home workers.

The experiment seemed like a success. Ctrip decided to offer the option to work from home to all its employees.

A Downside

Then, Bloom and Roberts  summed for the Harvard Business Review, something unexpected happened: half of the remote workers changed their minds and returned to the office; three quarters of the control group (who’d initially requested to work from home) decided to stay.

Why? “The main reason seems to be that people who worked from home were lonely,” Bloom and Roberts  wrote. Perhaps this is a cultural difference, owing to China’s collectivism. Or maybe Mayer knew what she was talking about.

At a conference in April 2013, Mayer acknowledged that “people are more productive when they’re alone … but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”

Dozens of kununu reviews reveal a similar ambivalence toward working from home. One employee said that working remotely felt fine for the first 2 years, but progressively felt worse and worse.” Another employee complained of working remotely “in your own vacuum.” Many others commented on remote “communication breakdowns.” Another employee at a remote company said that there’s “little opportunity for rapport, teamwork, and fostering relationships.”

The Promotion Problem

There’s another, seldom-discussed consequence of Ctrip’s work-from-home experiment. Remote employees were 50% less likely than their peers to get a performance-based promotion. In other words: even though they were more productive than their in-office peers, they were less valued by their company.

Remote workers are often out-of-sight, out-of-mind – even if they’re pulling most of the company’s load. Kununu reviewers commented on this phenomenon: They pigeon hole you,” one said. “With all the remote working, one has a very hard time building up relations with those you work with.” Another wrote, “Our remote office in Indy seems to be piloted by a group of VERY out of touch execs that are a few hundred miles away.”

Perhaps Mayer saw this possibility as a problem for a company that desperately needed great leadership and new talent. A case study on Mayer’s work at Google before joining Yahoo! reveals that “she was very hands-on, and she liked to mentor those around her.” Mayer recognized the importance of collaboration, mentorship and side-by-side company culture.

These attributes are most important for recent college grads, who need guidance and patient leadership. New employees don’t need to be productive above all else; they need to be learning.

Here’s an example from my own life: The kind of work I do as a freelance writer is best done at home and alone, but I’ve made sacrifices in exchange for my chosen career path. I don’t have built-in mentors, routine feedback or organized trainings. Though my learning curve has shortened on matters of business and marketing, in other areas – like writing – it’s become longer as I’m forced to find my own mentors and run my own education.   

The office is a womb. Without it, recent grads risk loneliness and, worse, becoming irrelevant and ignored in a fast-paced, relationship-based work world.

A Compromise

In short, because offices offer training, learning and connecting through “osmosis,” they may be more advantageous to recent grads than otherwise-appealing remote work opportunities.

But there’s a compromise between the millennial desire for flexibility and their need for training and exposure.

Gallup State of the American Workplace report found that employees who spend 50% or more of their time working remotely are less engaged and feel more disconnected than their in-office counterparts. When employees worked out of the office 20% or less of their time, they were more engaged, enthusiastic and committed to their work.

In other words, employees new to the workforce shouldn’t hesitate to work from home some of the time if their company allows it. But, when they do work remotely, it’s critical to manage their impressions, says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard:

“You have to make sure that people feel that when you are available, you are fully present. If you sound distracted, or you have kids crying in the background, or you don’t seem focused on a conference call, that’s going to be a difficult impression to overcome.”

 

Working in-office may be a hard sell for recent college grads craving an autonomous lifestyle. But the promise of training, mentorship and moving up at the company may ultimately win out.  

 

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Caroline Beaton (@cs_beaton) is kununu’s millennial career expert. She’s an award-winning writer and entrepreneur who helps ambitious millennials change their habits and behaviors to lead more fulfilling lives. Her writing has been has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many others.