Sitting next to Nelly*

One of the big questions about the shift to working remotely has been “what about new staff?”. To spell this out, the idea is that, while experienced workers can do everything they need to online, new employees will need personal contact to pick up tacit knowledge and firm culture. It’s inherent in the argument that these terms are difficult to define with any precision – if not, they could be formalised and taught.

This is part of a debate that’s been going on for a couple of centuries, between proposals for formal education in work-related skills and learning on the job, sometimes through apprenticeships and sometimes through “sitting next to Nelly”, that is, picking up the relevant skills by working with people who have already acquired them.

Before 1800, and with the partial exception of ministers of religion, on the job training was the only kind on offer. Since then, starting with lawyers and doctors, formal education has steadily expanded at the expense of on the job training, across a wide range of occupations and in many different countries with radically different labor markets. That includes some economies and industries where lifetime employment by a single firm has been the norm and others where work is largely done on a contract or ‘gig’ basis.

This process has always been contentious. Terms like “credentialism”, “overqualification” and “academic” (used pejoratively) have set the tone of much of the discussion. Nevertheless, there has been little evidence that the trend has been or will be reversed, and no one has managed to find, and sustain, a successful altern ative.

The work of hiring, ‘onboarding’, promoting and firing employees has not been exempt from the process. “Human resource management” emerged as a distinct profession in the second half of the 20th century, taking over much of this work from individual managers. HR departments have in turn begun to outsource some of these tasks to specialised firms such as headhunters and ‘separation management advisers’, though onboarding still appears to be done in-house for the most part.

The shift to remote working will provide another test of this process, at least when firms start hiring new staff on a large scale. Some of the concerns expressed about lack of in-person contact will probably prove to be well-founded (though not insuperable). Others, I think, will not. After a few in-person (and ideally one-to-one or small group) meetings to be introduced to new colleagues, most new hires will be able to learn the ropes through email and Zoom.

A striking example of “in-person illusion” in relation to hiring is continued reliance on face-to-face interviews, despite decades of research showing that they are (worse than) useless. I must admit that I am just as subject as others to the illusion that I can assess skill from an interview, even though I know all about the research. Having done some interviewing by Skype, I think it is less effective in conveying the illusion, leading to more reliance on text-based evidence (CV, letters of recommendation and so on), which, if not reliable is at least not wholly valueless. [Update:Tyler Cowen has pointed me to literature suggesting that interviews aren’t valueless, but are less valuable than most people think. I’d say the same is true of a lot of the claims made about the benefits of in-person contact]

  • I first encountered this, as “sitting next to Sally”, and have used that phrase for many years but “Nelly” appears to be standard

25 thoughts on “Sitting next to Nelly*

  1. I’ve had to bring 5 new people into my team since we moved to 100% remote work. It has been a serious challenge. Not just because it’s not as easy to work side by side with them and support them as they learn the ropes, but because I spend way more time bouncing between meetings than before

    Definitely have felt the challenges as a team lead. The new team members also have mentioned it’s a lot more difficult.

    But it’s not insurmountable, and all the new team members are working well. What is definitely lacking is the sense of team we had prior, without meeting in person it’s hard for new team members to “fit in” with the social cohesion of the old team.

  2. IIRC mediaeval universities earned their bread and butter by training doctors and canon lawyers. The former were almost entirely useless, and the latter only in church courts, but that was a much larger niche than now. The guild of alchemists operated mostly outside the university, but see the polymath Paracelsus. He had a job for a while lecturing at Basel University, in style – he taught in German and staged burnings of the works of Galen and Avicenna. Tip to JQ: try livening up Econ 101 by incinerating the works of Hayek and Friedman with a megawatt laser.

  3. Miro: Thanks for this useful comment
    James; AFAICT, medicine wasn’t taught in universities – barbers doubled as surgeons, and other doctoring was learned on the apprenticeship model. The only job-related education was for priests which would include canon lawyers.

  4. We’re about to replace someone who’s leaving so it’s going to be a fun challenge. Luckily we are getting some tips from the leaving person based on their onboarding process in their new job. We also, in a shocking new development, probably going to be involved in selecting the new team member! Some previous new hires have turned up on their first day to looks of blank ignorance because the boss hasn’t mentioned to anyone else that he’s hiring so if he’s running late it can be exciting for everyone. But I hope video interviews + we all get to see the CVs will be the extent. I share John’s distaste for “character” interviews but do like a variant on the dancing monkey interviews used by FAANGs

    Luckily my team is made up of antisocial geeks who relish the chance to work from home so hopefully the new member will be the same and we can just add them to the official chat program, the unofficial chat program, and maybe run a video meeting all day every day until they get sick of us 🙂

    Sounds as though we might also have to do “Friday in the office” or something slightly social as well. We have a shared air fryer and a balcony area where we used to do beer and chips for the team on Fridays (and thanks to flexitime that was generally about 11am and afterwards we went home for the weekend). I’m willing to commute out one day a week, I think.

  5. (there was a link in the dancing monkey comment but WordPress wouldn’t even acknowledge that I’d tried to post if I included it. Sorry)

  6. We had a staff member who joined one day before the lockdown started, so they didn’t get a chance to meet most of the staff in-person. There have subsequently been three other staff who have started after everyone moved off-site. It’s not ideal, but it does depend a bit on personalities and how comfortable they feel talking to people over telephone or video conferencing. It seems all the new staff have been able to cope and integrate, although possibly taking a longer time.
    I think the quality of the internet connection plays a very important role. Over a good connection it’s possible to have a relaxed conversation that can be as collegial and productive as in the office. In some ways it can be more productive since you can have a meeting without being interrupted by other things going on in an office. OTOH if the internet connection is bad or the audio quality is low then it can be tiring, frustrating and incomplete, where people just give up on the meeting and resort to email. In retrospect the people in charge of rolling out network infrastructure have been negligent in the extreme and have done real economic damage by not understanding how much potential a good network holds.
    I have been interested to read some of the commentary around on office dynamics and whether working from home will persist. It strikes me now that there is a lot of redundancy in the modern office and many of the norms of office habitation have just been reproduced without question since the days before desktop computers and widespread access to the internet. The office culture in many places is also set by one or two people who wield a lot of power in setting norms that they either believe to be “standard” or suit their preferences. Everyone else is forced into that environment whether it is the most productive for them or not. There is an interesting chapter on office environments and people’s sense of control over space in Tim Harford’s book “Messy”.
    As in the discussion about lockdown, the control exerted over employees is ignored by a lot of economic commentators – especially academic ones, who I suspect have never experienced just how bad some workplaces can be and how little control people can have when their economic well-being is at stake.

  7. ‘I’d say the same is true of a lot of the claims made about the benefits of in-person contact‘

    Apologies this is a bit tangential to the point of the OP. In political campaigns there’s a lot of valorisation of the one to one ‘persuasion conversation’ – getting to as many voters in person as possible. It’s very resource intensive, but even if you could do it to scale it’s far from clear that it effectively shifts votes. If employment doesn’t drive learning from ‘sitting next Nelly’, and Nelly at the front door won’t shift your vote, maybe our ideas of how to value human contact are a little too outcomes focused?

  8. Well, there are companies that haven’t bothered with offices from the get go. They might hire half the people through face to face meetings and the other half entirely through the internet, with the latter half generally being employees who are overseas. Company culture is passed on by saying, “Do this, I don’t care how.”

    Everyone seems to have overseas employees these days, whether they are ones and zeros torturing companies or a lady who makes silly hats for the Melbourne Dog Food Cup.

  9. PS: canon law was big business because the Catholic Church controlled family law, including the necessary divorces and annulments of the ruling class. See Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and a good number of high-ranking people you have never heard of like Blanche of Navarre and Jeanne de France.

  10. You’re right about the long history of medical schools. But it still seems as if most physicians learned on an apprenticeship model.

    I read that both medical schools and law schools were traditional components of universities starting in the Middle Ages; but as far as I can tell it was common for lawyers as well as doctors to learn though an apprenticeship/internship model.

  11. I run a Melbourne-based SME in data analytics and digital technology, We have had a couple of remote and overseas staff for maybe 5 years now and, in fact, started the business with 2 people: 1 in Melbourne and 1 in Perth; both working from home. I might have a little insight into this (albeit anecdotal).

    Working from home now for the entire team has been bad for productivity. We’ve been using video conferencing with staff and clients for years but there is nothing like in-person back and forth to solve problems. More so, in fact, in industries like ours where there are so many introverts.

    From an employer’s perspective it is not about distrusting staff. There are always going to be slackers and I’ve seen some true creativity in the office when it come to looking busy. This is about keeping people on track. Working remotely creates communication barriers and reduces casual but critical collaboration and knowledge sharing. For small teams like ours this is noticeable. Despite what the PR people at Zoom or Microsoft Teams might say, all the digital tech in the world won’t solve that (yet). If, by contrast, you are working on something where you have to solve 90% of more of it by yourself, then absenting yourself for a day or two to nut it out is probably a good idea. But that’s not how most firms I know work. No one person solves the problem mostly by themselves. They stand up, walk over to their colleague and use them as a sounding board. That is, by far, the fastest way to solve something.

    I feel there is a touch of, dare I say it, arrogance in the claim we should and can all work from home. This is all very well if you are your own boss and can afford a proper home office. Most of my staff are sharing a kitchen table with their domestic spouse, or housemate (no, not because I don’t pay them enough). So amongst people who, technically at least, can work from home, I can’t imagine many have a separate room with a door you can shut, and an ergonomically sound set up. So older staff working on single projects with enough assets to have paid for a spare room might be as, or more productive working from home. One of my staff in Berlin fits that bill and he does okay (although even then, we all notice the barriers).

    I’ve spoken with 4 other SME owners who feel the same way. They are all professional service firms that, technically, can do their work anywhere. One of them (a lawyer) has made the point that the legal liability of having staff working from home is a nightmare and has yet to be resolved. I don’t have a view on that and I’d be curious to know what people think.

    For those of you who made it this far, sorry for being so longwinded. I have rarely commented on this site (even though I read it regularly), but I did feel I needed to say something about the reality of working from home.

  12. Thank you so much for this comment, Kevin, it’s very interesting to get a first-hand perspective.

  13. Chasing the rabbit further down the hole, *why* did Frederick and Charles of Anjou support universities? The same held for he University of Naples, founded by Frederick as a public institution. Partly it’s because they were cultivated men as well as ambitious and ruthless potentates, with a genuine interest in learning. But I suspect there’s another reason, similar to that of the Koch brothers. They wanted to build networks of intellectuals dependent on them and likely to supply arguments for their continuous disputes with other monarchs and, especially, the Papacy, Universities were secular foundations, chartered by secular rulers, not by the Catholic Church. In Henry II’s day (late 12th century), the only place to look for literate administrators was the Church; which could more than a little awkward, as with Becket. It’s as if the only people capable of running your bank were paid-up Communists. By 1300, the kings of France had capable lay sidekicks like the law professor Guillaume de Nogaret, who organised a kidnapping of the Pope. The early universities helped drive along this shift.

  14. James Wimberley,

    Interesting analysis. Your thesis looks very plausible to me. A clear example of the long lineage of (attempted) “regime change” as a political tactic.

    Business schools today inculcate the tenets of neoliberalism into the class of business enablers who facilitate the running of the current system. “Old-fashioned”, independent and critical academics like Prof. J.Q. seem to be a dying breed.

  15. Footnote to my above post. Quote from Wikipedia.

    “Nogaret is a major character in Les Rois maudits (The Accursed Kings), a series of historical novels by Maurice Druon, which were adapted into a television miniseries in 1972 and again in 2005.”

    The Accursed Kings (French: Les Rois maudits) is a series of historical novels by French author Maurice Druon about the French monarchy in the 14th century. Published between 1955 and 1977, the series has been adapted as a miniseries twice for television in France.

    American author George R. R. Martin called The Accursed Kings “the original game of thrones”, citing Druon’s novels as an inspiration for his own series “A Song of Ice and Fire”.”

  16. i can’t find an extended clip of de Nogaret in the Rois Maudits TV series, but here is the great scene of the judicial murder of Jacques de Molay (Gerard Depardieu) by King Philippe le Bel (Tchéky Karyo) and de Nogaret (Jérôme Anger), on the left of the watching grandees, wearing a superb hat.

    We can be pretty sure that de Nogaret would have approved of fellow-jurist John Yoo’s expansive views on the powers of the executive. I suspect he would also have despised Yoo as the kind of toady courtier who won’t get his hands dirty.

  17. This was the suppression of the Templars?

    Yes, Jacques deMolay was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Philip IV of France (known as Philip the Handsome and also as the Iron King) was the king who suppressed the Knights Templar, and Guillaume de Nogaret was his chancellor, and also a major character in Les Rois Maudits, a series of potboilers by Maurice Druon, cited by George RR Martin as a major inspiration for A Song Of Ice And Fire, and twice adapted for television.

  18. IIRC – and I’ve not been able to check this – the other great and hugely wealthy miltary order, the Hospitallers, got a lot of the Templars’ property but decided to drop the banking business as too dangerous.

  19. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) is generally considered the lineal successor of the Hospitallers. The Most Venerable Order of Saint John, which operates the St John Ambulance Brigade, has a disputed claim to originating from the SMOM.

  20. SMOM’s main game for a long time has been as an agent of papal diplomacy with the aim of increasing RC religionist numbers, and Vatican influence, power, and wealth. SMOM is the only country without land. It has diplomatic relations with over 110 countries, has UN and related bodies observer status, and is the Vatican’s second treaty-making (concordats, and “cooperation agreements”) sovereign entity only recently supposedly to have finally come under complete papal control in 2017. It has many sleeper agents placed in high political, administrative and business offices globally. It is “sovereign” when it deals with nation states, but not when it deals with the Vatican. It issues passports, licence plates, stamps, and coins.

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