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Sitting next to Nelly*

September 20, 2020 - 16:45 -- Admin

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