Most commentary on the rise of remote work focuses on the transfer of established office culture and collaboration to a new virtual setting. But in anticipating what the future of work might look like, we often forget that not everyone has actually experienced the office norm. So how does remote work impact people who are brand new to the job market? Is working from home still rosy when you don’t have any pre-existing colleague relationships, work politics know-how, or office tech experience to draw on? And what can companies do to make virtual working easy and positive for people at the start of their careers?
Remote work has been the new norm for the better part of this year. For many people it’s been the only perk of the pandemic – a chance to spend more time at home, a respite from noisy offices and a lucky escape from dreary commutes. But millions of other people have struggled to adapt to remote working – and it’s important to note that when it comes to our attitudes about remote work, and how happy we are to do it, age and experience are undeniable influencing factors.
A recent UK study found that 28% of millennials have struggled to transition to remote work during COVID-19 lockdown, compared to just 11% of people aged 55 and over. This imbalance is seen through multiple sections of the remote work experience:
30% of millennials feel they need more training and support to work efficiently from home, compared to just 9% of over 55-year-olds
30% of millennials experience regular tech problems from home compared to 12% of people aged over 55
One third of millennials experience aches and pains due to not having a suitable WFH set-up.
A US survey found that Generation Z struggled even more. In July, MetLife’s annual US Employee Benefits Trends Study showed that Gen Z employees were three times more likely to have asked for help for stress and burnout at work than more established employees. Another survey found that the youngest employees participating struggled the most to adapt to remote work, with 82% of Gen Z workers feeling less connected working remotely, and around half dealing with communication issues, or not having the necessary resources to prosper from home.
So why is the remote work experience so enormously different for early career employees compared to established ones? Well, first there are the practical problems: young people often live in cramped shared houses and don’t have a private study or spare room to retreat to; they often don’t even have a quiet corner. With more limited finances, the comfort and convenience of things like ergonomically sound chairs, lightning-fast Wi-Fi or noise-cancelling headphones may not be an option.
But, unsurprisingly, the associated psychological problems run much deeper. One of the key reasons why established employees adapt better to remote work is simply because they’re ready for it. They’re worn down by the commute, tired of office politics. They’ve already made work friends, had the training, got the support. They don’t have the same things to prove. But for early career employees, things look quite different.
Just starting your career is an adventure. You’re meeting new people, learning on the job, growing and developing – not just professionally, but as a person too. If you have a question or need some help, you can just wander over to a coworker’s desk and pick their brain. But at home, early career employees can feel invisible and isolated, stuck in a bubble.
These new employees – many of whom have never even set foot in an office – aren’t only missing out on the training and mentorship they would have received from more established colleagues; they’re also missing out on vital human connection. “The anchor of having an office, a place where they can work comfortably, where they can socialize, where they can talk to people not via a screen, and can have coffee and lunch, is absolutely crucial for mental wellbeing and development,” says Richard Kauntze, the chief executive of the British Council for Offices.
This sentiment is echoed by Dan Schawbel, managing partner of HR advisory firm Workplace Intelligence. “Part of the employee experience is [shared] space,” he explains: “There’s a certain energy and presence people have in person. Once you start to remove that, it becomes harder to connect.” Working with colleagues in person, sharing a workspace, networking, sharing insights on your personal lives... these are all significant employee experiences, particularly at the start of a career. But now, for many, this is gone, and new employees are starting to feel cast adrift.
It’s important to remember that one of the most common complaints from remote workers is isolation. Unfortunately, feelings of loneliness among young people were already widespread pre-lockdown, to the point where a 2019 Forbes article examined the millennial loneliness epidemic. A YouGov survey from the same year found that 30% of UK millennials say they always or often feel lonely. A further 25% reported that they had no acquaintances, and 22% stated they had no friends at all. But this isn’t a UK- or US-specific issue. Just like the pandemic itself, it's a global problem. With normal life and interactions still restricted, and working relationships existing only in the virtual realm, we can only imagine how these sad statistics will escalate among millennials and Gen Z.
It’s also concerning that the way a person starts their working life tends to shape and affect their entire career, finances and quality of life for years to come. Following the 2008 financial crash and ensuing recession, many of the incoming workforce found their prospects (and fortunes) slashed – and many have never properly bounced back. For today’s incoming workforce, beginning their careers sitting at the kitchen table, experiencing the twin crisis of a global pandemic and a recession, the ramifications could be even more enduring.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Because of the flexibility of remote work, new doors are opening to young people, and a recent graduate still living at home way out in the sticks can now work for massive organizations like Google, Twitter and Facebook, who now offer exclusively remote positions. Many leaders and companies feel a deep sense of responsibility to their young employees, and are doing all they can to help them through this challenging time by offering remote work stipends so employees can set up a comfortable home office, building a strong remote team culture, reexamining their corporate social responsibility, or placing employee wellbeing at the core of their organization.
It’s also important to recognize the fact that there are many younger people who enjoy working remotely, who want to continue doing so post-pandemic and who feel adequately supported by their workplace. Only time will tell whether returning to the office will once again become the norm, but at least we’re addressing the harm that remote work can exact on some new employees, and trying to find ways to counter it. But for many younger people, reimagining what their career will look like and trying to adapt is all they can do for now.