3 mins

A recent study found that remote working has a significant impact on junior software engineers who rely on regular feedback to develop in their roles.

A recent academic report has found that physical proximity has a significant impact on collaboration and feedback levels amongst software engineers, with junior engineers feeling the effect of any changes most significantly.

The report, published by Harvard University and titled The Power of Proximity to Coworkers, was written by economists Natalia Emanuel, Emma Harrington, and Amanda Pallais. It observed software engineers at an unnamed Fortune 500 firm between August 2019 and December 2020. Of those engineers, 637 worked out of a single building, while 418 worked across multiple buildings several streets apart.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors noted that there were 23% more comments on code provided by those working in the same building compared with those spread across multiple offices. The gap was even larger for female engineers, with those working in the same building as their colleagues receiving 38% more feedback on their work than those with distant teammates. 

The arrival of the pandemic, and the sudden shift to remote work it brought, confirmed that this feedback gap between colocated and distributed teams was causal; it shrank by 74% once the buildings closed and all teams were physically distant. “Proximity enhances the depth and speed of online collaborations,” the report concluded.

Junior engineers impacted the most

The impact of the loss of physical proximity was felt most by less experienced engineers (measured by tenure or age), according to the report. These ‘proximity effects’ were “particularly concentrated among those with the most to learn from their coworkers,” the report noted.

That sudden drop in feedback was also a factor in the decision of younger engineers to leave the firm, with those in the one-building teams five times as likely to quit once they had to work remotely, compared to engineers in multi-building teams, who were only twice as likely to quit.

“Workers’ revealed preferences show online communication cannot substitute for in-person collaboration, particularly for younger workers and female engineers,” the report went on.

A boost to productivity?

However, the report did also find that physical proximity reduced the number of programs written per month by 21%. The report concluded that the difference might be driven by “senior engineers who may write fewer programs when sitting near coworkers because they give more feedback to junior colleagues.”

That said, a reduced output does not always translate to reduced productivity, particularly if proximity results in higher quality code and better learning opportunities for engineers.

A desire for remote work continues to be a priority for many engineers, and a large number of companies have opted for a hybrid model in which employees have some flexibility over where they work. 

That approach, however, requires careful consideration by managers. The report notes that even in pre-pandemic times, feedback levels declined when a team had even one engineer in a different building. “Teams’ attempts to accommodate distant teammates by, for example, moving in-person meetings online, have substantial negative externalities,” continues the report.

As for what this means for managers dealing with both the ongoing impact of the pandemic and a challenging recruitment environment, the report highlights additional factors that must be considered. While remote and hybrid working might appeal to engineers in the short term, the report shows that the longer term impacts shouldn’t be underestimated.