Millennials and Gen-Zs are well known for their different attitude to work in comparison to older colleagues. They are the digital natives who lobbied, long before Covid-19, for a more flexible working environment. They have bucked Henry Ford’s 40-hour workweek by insisting on a better work-life balance because they want the flexibility to pursue other interests. And for the most part, proved that their digitally connected approach to work was quite doable.
Companies heralded as the most innovative of the past decade have achieved this accolade not only because of their clever new products and services but also for their open-minded approach to changing HR policies to meet the needs of their bright young employees.
Of course, a large proportion of the global workforce now has no choice but to work remotely. The Covid-induced work-from-home experiment has been largely successful with most companies reporting the same, if not improved productivity from their staff, the majority of whom report better work-life balance, an easier ability to bring their “true selves” to work and significantly reduced stress.
The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020 conducted amongst 9,100 respondents across 13 countries, including South Africa, has reported that despite 45% of employed millennials and Gen Zs never having worked remotely before the pandemic, more than 60% say they would like the option to work remotely more frequently when the crisis is over.
And in that statement lies the heart of the matter; young people would like to work remotely more often, not forever. Younger employees are more likely to be single so have either been alone for the duration of lockdown, stuck in the family home with limited peer-engagement or confined to their bedroom/office in shared living spaces, all of which are unsuited to work and have negative impacts on mental health. The office offers them an escape, a social ecosystem if you like; a place to meet people and have access to decent connectivity, a printer that works and conversations at the water cooler.
So lonely is working from home for many that more than 1.2 million people have tuned into The Sound of Colleagues, a web page and Spotify playlist of workplace sounds, including keyboards, printers, chatter and phones ringing.
As The Guardian reports, progressive employers are racing to find ways to recreate the joys and perks of office life. “Google is laying on cookery classes and mindfulness sessions, as well as offering $1,000 to each employee for equipment.”
It’s important to remember that physically going to work is more than just an opportunity to feel part of something and make new friends. As Kati Peditto, an environmental-design psychologist at the U.S. Air Force Academy says, “Career positioning also matters – people who have already built strong social and professional networks may not suffer much from the lack of face-to-face contact at the office, but for those still trying to make such ties, remote work can be alienating.”
And while networks are essential for career growth, so is learning on the job and making a good impression on your seniors. Neither of these is as easily done remotely.
Of course, online learning is now readily available for all employees and progressive team leaders are running regular sessions to ensure everyone is on top of their work and knows what’s required from them. But let’s be honest, you learn so much from questions asked during team training sessions or simply by sitting in meetings with your teams – and the post-meeting conversation at the coffee machine is possibly the most valuable learning space ever. These things are missing for young people now who will not learn as fast as their predecessors who were immersed in day-to-day office life.
Kristen Ruttgaizer, Director of human resources at Igloo Software wrote in Quartz during lockdown that their internal research of 2,000 employees indicated that 56% of remote workers had missed out on important information and that 43% of employees have neglected to share a document with a colleague because they couldn’t find it, or thought it would take too long to find. While she doesn’t break down who these employees were, you can imagine that the juniors, potentially considered the least important in the workplace pecking order, constituted a significant proportion of these numbers.
And if they’re not being included in information sharing, it’s not easy to respond with impressive insights or solutions to the discussions at hand.
Both employer and employee are going to have to find a solution to this growth challenge. Younger employees have to be consciously included in meetings and conversations, and not just invited to log-in, but encouraged to actively participate. And the juniors are going to have to speak up; participating in meetings, team chats, logging in for those cooking classes and consistently reporting to their managers on the status of work, with particular focus on their successes.
If employers don’t actively consider the career growth of their younger employees, they will face a succession crisis that I suspect no one has thought about yet. But think about it now, urgently.
Andrew Robinson is co-founder and executive director at SiSebenza.