A Reflection on Research and Personal Experience

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Wes Griffith, Senior Director at Coinbase

Wes Griffith, Senior Director at Coinbase

In the evolving narrative of the modern workplace, remote work has undeniably etched its permanence in some fashion. However, the debate continues. For example, my current employee is strongly remote first but is iterating on options for colocation. Further, in a recent interview, I watched Barry Sternlicht, CEO of Starwood Capital, state that the US was behind the rest of the world in returning to the office.

Reflecting on my journey from an early career individual contributor (IC) through leadership roles to now leading a team with diverse tenure in a remote-first company, I’ve witnessed firsthand the pivotal role of workplace settings in professional development and team dynamics.

Early Career Growth: The Value of Proximity

Starting as an early career IC, the informal lessons gleaned from relationships with peers and the formal learnings through proximity to my manager were invaluable. In my experience, there was a clear benefit in the spontaneous collaboration and mentorship that occurs in a collocated environment, which, at the time, I couldn’t imagine thriving without. This belief is echoed by recent insights from surveyed leaders who responded that ‘in-office time was either a somewhat or very important factor in an employee receiving a promotion or salary increase.’ While remote work offers improved work-life balance and productivity, it may also stifle cross-functional collaboration and team camaraderie, which can be a key input for early career development.

 While remote work offers improved work-life balance and productivity, it may also stifle the cross-functional collaboration and team camaraderie which can be a key input for early career development.’ 

Recognizing these nuances, my current company, a staunch advocate of remote work, recently decided to offer summer interns and early career software engineers the ability to work collocated. This initiative underscores a shared understanding of the importance of proximity in the formative stages of one’s career, facilitating easier access to mentorship, peer learning, and the informal absorption of organizational culture—elements I found crucial in my early days.

Leadership Close-Up: The Benefits of Being Near

Leading a team primarily composed of early-career individuals brought this perspective full circle. Proximity allowed me to observe their informal work habits and provided them with easier access to my guidance. This setup not only benefited me as a developing manager myself but also enhanced our ability to build a cohesive team culture. In my personal experience, leading a mostly early-in career team remotely would have likely made it harder for me as the leader to provide helpful feedback and establish a team culture that influenced the team results.

Leading Experienced Teams: Balancing Proximity and Perspective

Transitioning to leading a larger, more experienced team, I think the dynamics shift. While the value of informal interactions remains, the strategic perspective required at the senior leader/executive level often extends beyond the immediate workplace. Senior leaders and executives are tasked with absorbing broader market and industry trends and translating these insights into actionable strategies for their teams. Here, remote work can provide the flexibility and bandwidth to explore these external influences more thoroughly, assuming leaders effectively bridge the communication gap back to their teams.

Conclusion: A Hybrid Future Shaped by Flexibility and Inclusion?

The landscape of work is not one-size-fits-all. As leaders, acknowledging organizational maturity gaps and the needs of teams across different career stages is important to settle on the right approach. The data suggests employees have a growing preference for flexible work arrangements (87 percent will work remotely, according to a McKinsey study), with significant portions of the workforce embracing remote or hybrid models. However, as we navigate this terrain and make decisions as leaders, our organizations depend on those decisions to 1) foster career development for all employees, 2) mitigate the risk of employee isolation, and 3) be a competitive employer for potential candidates.