Sitting next to Nelly*

by John Q on September 19, 2020

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 couple of random points

  • 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]

  • As regards firm culture, it strikes me that Crooked Timber has a well-developed culture even though the posters have never met as a group. With some obvious exceptions like Henry and Maria, most of us never met the others in person until years after joining, if at all. And that’s obviously even more true of the (mostly pseudonymous) commenters.

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



Anon For Obvious Reasons 09.19.20 at 3:19 am

Anonymous here for obvious reasons, but…

I am an Assistant Professor. If we were all remote, I would literally never have written a paper with more colleagues, and I would barely attend local brown bags or seminars instead of ones in my direct field. And my field is one where we all have many years of effective apprentices before we begin work.

The idea that knowledge transfer remotely is the same as locally is totally inconsistent with the academic literature on spillovers. On culture spread within institutions, even more so.


ph 09.19.20 at 4:47 am

These posts on the ‘new’ work are really interesting. One cautionary note, however, many nations and many companies are not planning on moving ‘everything’ online. Online education has generally been a failure, especially in proving precisely the socialization, tacit knowledge, and ‘culture’ you describe here. Indeed, part of the failure of online education has been the belief/hope/desire that online ed is temporary, and that we’ll all return to normal next year.

Cultures and lifestyles vary nation to nation. In Asia, many folks are back in the office already. Very few Japanese companies switched all their work online and the commuter trains are running, albeit with reduced numbers.

That said, these OPs and comments are excellent. Cheers!


oldster 09.19.20 at 11:20 am

Well, there’s the problem of firm culture in a nutshell:

You were working remotely when you came to think the phrase was “sitting next to Sally.”

And you learned the correct form, “sitting next to Nelly,” only by sitting next to Nelly.

No, people who learn remotely haven’t the remotest clue.


Jake Gibson 09.19.20 at 12:29 pm

My daughter had been at her current job about a month before she was told to work from home. It has been very stressful to learn the intricacies of the job remotely.


John T 09.19.20 at 1:26 pm

In my experience working with large groups of remote and on-site colleagues one problem is that different people are in fact different. There are a lot of people who are…let’s call them ‘introverts’ – who thrive in these kinds of environments, but there are others who genuinely suffer for lack of close contacts. And there are definite advantages to in-person onboarding of young graduates, because it gives them a pre-made social group post-university. Selfishly it’s also good for the organisation if social and work groups overlap, because that reduces the chance of people leaving.


Dwight L. Cramer 09.19.20 at 3:02 pm

I think it’s way too early, and in the end will be way too broad, to say online education failed. Will the pandemic, online education and its own internal contradictions spell the end of the model of American higher education that has global tendrils and reach? IMHO, quite possibly, but not immediately.

As to how applicants are winnowed and attractive candidates brought into an organization, I’d guess we’ll see more and more paid internships, probationary employment and independent contractors. None of that is necessarily a bad thing, nor does it necessarily displace personal interviews (ZOOM or in the flesh), CV’s, academic credentials, etc. As long as those mechanisms are transitory and don’t condemn candidates to a permanent limbo, they aren’t all bad.

I think Crooked Timber has a culture. It’s probably fairly fragile. So does the United States Marine Corps. It’s pretty well established. Ditto for the Berlin Philharmoniker. Somewhere in between. But I’d be hesitant to draw conclusions from one to the other.


SusanC 09.19.20 at 3:15 pm

In the computer industry, it is common for people at the start of their career to be hired as interns on short term contracts. It’s worth noting that these positions are paid pretty well (in contrast to unpaid interns in other industries).

Now, there is a “bad” reason for hiring interns. Which is that the employer knows they definitely have budget to hire someone for the next three months to do some specific task, but have no idea whether they have budget for a full time employee beyond that time window. A solution that is sometimes reached for is interns, but using interns in this way has some serious downsides. The original post is talking about institutional memory: bad things can happen to this if all your employees were only hired last month, and know they will be gone in two months time.

A somewhat better reason, also used to justify interns. A credential such as a computer science degree is, so says this line of argument, basically worthless for indicating whether the job candidate is competent as a programmer. On the other hand, a job reference to the effect that we’re supposed successful in their previous post is a better indicator. But what about new graduates, who don’t have references from previous employers. One possible answer: interns. You’re willing to hire a bunch of people for three months, take the risk that some portion of them might turn out to be incompetent, assign someone to teach them how to do the job during that three months, then offer permanent contracts to the ones that turn out to be good. (If some choose to go and work for your competitor instead, thats fine because some of your competitors interns are coming to work full time for you. If the flow is all one way, it means you’re a rubbish employer and your potential employees all know it).

To bring it back to the current situation: bringing inexperienced new hires on board may be harder if they can’t be present in person.


Jon W 09.20.20 at 1:17 pm

I’m an associate dean for research at my institution, which mean that onboarding new employees (here, entry-level and lateral professors) is part of my job. One part of the problem there, I think, is that some of the onboarding wants to happen in the form of gentle nudges when it turns out that the new employee doesn’t grasp an aspect of the local culture, and that gentleness is harder to do when you have to make a Thing of it by sending an email or initiating a zoom call rather than via a casual conversation in the same physical space. One possible way around that might be to try to institutionalize the opportunities for check-in, not-necessarily-directive communication.

On another front and in other job capacities, I’ve been frustrated with my attempts to work in offices when they were all in-person and I was remote; not being part of the casual conversations that were part of how the work got done was a real barrier. But that’s going to vary from job to job, depending on what work the office is actually generating and how it generates it.


SusanC 09.20.20 at 3:13 pm

I am reminded here of a incident with a certain large software company (better remain nameless) with a presence in the US, the U.K. and a bunch of other places, who cancelled a project without bothering to tell the UK-based employees.

Now, if you’re all eating lunch in the same cafeteria, certain basics like “by the way, the project you’re working on has been cancelled” are more likely to get communicated.


Sumana Harihareswara 09.20.20 at 8:50 pm

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’m interested in learning more about this.

I am guessing there is also a set of skills involved in learning a bunch of implicit knowledge, making it explicit, and formally and explicitly teaching it to other people (which is necessary to take an in-person group and move it to a virtual group and successfully onboard other people). And some academic disciplines are probably going to be better at that than others.


hix 09.21.20 at 4:09 am

The linked article mainly refers to unstructured interviews as being useless. Suppose that does not exclude the possibility to design utterly bad standardized interviews. Another bad possibility is to design assessment center procedure that tend to be such major breaches of ethnical standards and require so much effort that one would be better off hiring the wrong person.

The marine corp is an interesting example insofar as their (well researched) acculturation procedure, basic training is in essence a big fraud. You get all that big talk about how few people make it to basic training, while in reality basic training is not a real hurdle. Only few leave, and the ones that do leave are rarely kicked out. Rather they in all likelihood merely received the in a very literal sense load and clear message that they do not like the culture. Still, basic training successfully instills the misperception that becoming a member makes one a survivor of some particular selective admission procedure. One then is a very special kind of person with superior attributes. Long story short: Having a strong distinctive culture does not automatically translate into having an outcome that is better than having a weak culture.

Military style trash talk, ah I’m sorry acculturation procedures (for every one of you there are 50 waiting on the doors that would kill for being here and still you are all such worthless lazy losers….. bla bla…) is not even particular innovative or limited to the military. Heck, I remember a Prof with a Secret Service background during my BA who had similar moments.

Back to the interviews as such: What is definitely a waste of time regarding selection are endless repetitive interviews. Interviewing people 40 times as some do sure won’t make them find better candidates. My (and not just mine) hypothesis is that those are largely done as part of the acculturation procedure.


John Quiggin 09.21.20 at 6:01 am

@SusanC I was briefly and ingloriously a Department Chair in the 1990s, a particularly bad time for Australian universities. The Dean (in the same building) cancelled my degree program and I only found out when an intending student phoned to ask what had happened to it. To be fair, we weren’t in the habit of lunching together.


J-D 09.21.20 at 6:24 am

Now, if you’re all eating lunch in the same cafeteria, certain basics like “by the way, the project you’re working on has been cancelled” are more likely to get communicated.

I’ve never been employed in a workplace where the staff all ate lunch in the same cafeteria. Indeed, I’ve never been employed in a workplace where there was a cafeteria. How common or how rare are they?

The Dean (in the same building) cancelled my degree program and I only found out when an intending student phoned to ask what had happened to it. To be fair, we weren’t in the habit of lunching together.

To be fair? Treat the Dean after ‘uns desert, and would ‘a ‘scape whipping?


carl d 09.21.20 at 10:24 am

Our research staff are international. It is clear that many of them suffer as they do not have the social networks that we (domestic staff) have. A lot of their social interaction is at work, and many if their other social networks are currently closed down as well. For those from the US, the worrying news add to their suffering.
Being a teacher, the main concern with mobing onlin is how boring/uninspiring it is.


hix 09.23.20 at 10:44 am

How many are still working remotely and to which extent in the first place. How many never even started working remotely? My rather limited social circle only includes one person in IT that is still going 100% remote. The rest seems to be somewhere between 100% back to office no masks and at least in person team meetings. During my last job interview (it was structured and still rather…) the people involved with the interview appear to have been the only ones adhering to any safety measures at all. There was some plexiglass and masks during the interview only because I insisted. The next office, 3 people were chatting with like, 0-meter distance. Probably some negative selection with parts of the older more responsible staff remote, still.

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