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Remote Work is a Disaster for the Next Generation of Engineers

There has been much that has been said in technical journalism about the wide reaching and “universally beneficial” effects of remote work. I don’t plan on restating any of them. Instead, I want to focus on the experiences of junior engineering talent, a perspective that I find is constantly ignored in these discussions.

It makes enough sense. Those authoring the published literature are always among the most senior in terms of industry experience. Their anecdotes are one of greater time savings, more flexibility, a more diverse workforce under them. It’s the new normal everybody, nothing to see here, move along, etc.

When I say junior engineering talent, I’m referring to the youngest part of the workforce: those in or have just recently graduated college, generally starting their first foray into their career industry. Unlike the rest of the workforce, these employees probably have little to no experience working in any office, let alone a remote one. They often have underdeveloped interpersonal skills and no established industry relationships. At the same time, these workers represent the foundation of the next generation of engineers.

They are an investment in the future, but an investment that is being sabotaged by the way that most companies choose to approach remote work.

juniors benefit more from the office

There are two primary reasons why an engineer benefits from coming into the office:

  1. getting out of the house (ie, context switching is important)
  2. building stronger interpersonal relationships with their peers

Both of these benefits are even more critical for junior engineers. Freshly graduated talent hasn’t always developed the skill of concentrating on work while still at home. Many younger members of the workforce cohabitate due to the cost of living, and distractions multiply and abound. Switching context by traveling to the office is one of the best ways to build good work habits and drive daily focus.

More pressing is the issue of developing work relationships. Established members of the workforce lose little when making the transition to remote work; their work relationships have already been built or at the very least, they are comfortable enough in their industry to know how to get things done and communicate with people.

For junior workers who often require frequent attention and mentorship, the remote distance gap can become insurmountable. What was once a “quick question” in the days of office work is now a Slack-powered back-and-forth where feedback can take minutes or hours. Acceptable for a seasoned employee to ask an informed, targeted question, but probably more work than its worth for a less confident junior.

juniors benefit less from remote work

Many of the supposed benefits of remote work also simply do not apply to junior engineers.

They do not have the same incentives to be at home that older workers do: they are often single and do not have a family to be around or children to watch over. The benefit of “being able to work from anywhere” doesn’t really help junior engineers, who often don’t really have any way of knowing where they want to settle down anyways.

Even working for a company that offers a hybrid work experience or “optional office attendance” will not give juniors more benefits than simply being fully remote. Remember that office benefit #2 was being able to collaborate in-person with other members of your team. If nobody on your team is choosing to come in, then you would get just as much benefit from working out of your local library or Starbucks.

Going further, because there aren’t that many people choosing to work in the office anymore, there isn’t as much of an incentive to go into the office. In extreme cases, engineers that were previously in-person have packed up and moved to distant, cheaper locales to take advantage of income inequality. As an engineer, even if I go in, I’m not going to see my coworkers anyway, so why would I go? It’s a chicken-egg dilemma. By going remote, Pandora’s box has been opened, and it’s probably impossible to close it at this point.

just support your juniors

Bottom line: stop treating all of your workers the same. If your business isn’t completely in-person, you need to compensate for the needs of your junior engineers.

  1. Provide your employees with a colocation budget to spend on getting out of the house. Many companies already do this for their workforce.
  2. Proactively train and assign direct mentors to your new hires.
  3. Reduce or eliminate all sources of friction or delay when a junior needs to ask a question.

There’s no need to stop the inevitable march towards remote work: it makes economic sense. That said, it’s time that businesses start to listen to the needs of the next generation of workers.

Published July 20th, 2022

The ramblings of a software engineer, with an emphasis on security.
© Aaron James 2022