What Young Workers Miss Without the ‘Power of Proximity’

Ms. Shapiro, who had a baby this year, noted that increased flexibility in her field had also made it easier for in-office employees to give priority to child care when crises arose. “Of course if you need to be home, be home,” she said. “Home is first.”

Ms. Shapiro’s experience highlights a particular challenge for companies and workers navigating return-to-office tensions: The career penalty for remote work may be greatest for women, young people and people of color, who often lack the professional networks that being in the office can help provide. But numerous surveys find that those same groups of workers are also the ones who value flexible arrangements the most, and who are the least likely to return to the office voluntarily.

“Those who want remote work — those who will likely take advantage of remote work — are likely those who will lose jobs or at least lose out on opportunities because of remote work,” said Kweilin Ellingrud, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute who has studied how remote work affects career development.

Worse, Ms. Ellingrud said, the price of flexibility may not be obvious to workers or companies until years later, when disparities in pay or promotion emerge.

Take Jackiez Gonzalez, 36, who works remotely in social impact for Best Buy, and signed up for a mentoring program for employees of color. She was told that participants would gather regularly to discuss career development. But she learned a month after signing up that she’d been accidentally left off the calendar invitations for meetings.

“When you’re remote, you’re out of sight, out of mind,” Ms. Gonzalez said of the experience, adding that while she has largely felt positive about her flexible work arrangements, “there are growing pains.”

The intangible benefits of in-person work have been challenging for researchers to study because they are, by definition, hard to measure. Existing studies of remote work have tended to focus on call centers or similar workplaces where productivity is easy to define and measure — but where creativity, collaboration and mentorship may be less important.

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