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Sonata Notes: Is Remote Work Hurting Gen Z?

Most of us remember dressing up and walking into the office for the first time at our first “real” job.  But what if you are a young person joining the workforce today, and your first “real” job is virtual?

A recent poll found 60% of senior executives are worried about how Gen Z will fare after joining the workforce remotely during the pandemic.

“It’s very important to get the younger employees in the office,” says Christopher Merril, CEO of investment firm Harrison Street.  “That is where they learn. That is where they grow.  My learning was sitting in my boss’s office and listening to a call, or sitting in on a meeting, or bumping into someone in the lunchroom.”

Tiina Lee, CEO of Deutsche Bank U.K. and Ireland voiced these concerns even as her company switched to a hybrid work model: “Grads and interns [should] spend as much time in the office as they possibly can.  I would like to see our grads in the office five days a week.”

Clearly, leaders are worried about their new hires and the impact virtual work will have one their professional development. But how do actual members of Gen Z feel about this?

  • A survey by Citrix found 90% of workers born after 1997 are not interested in fully on-site positions.  And while 74% want the option of coming to an office, 82% want to spend the majority of their time working from home. 

  • A survey of U.S. college students found 86% said they could be just as productive working virtually as on-site.  

  • However, 45% of Gen Z workers were concerned that the lack of in-person interaction with their bosses and colleagues might hinder their career advancement.

So, are we creating a “lost generation” of workers stuck in dead-end remote jobs –  or is this just another case of elders fretting over “kids these days”? 

The research suggests the truth lies in between.  On one hand, well-managed virtual teams have been outperforming on-site teams by as much as 43% for decades.  However, despite their performance virtual workers are 50% less likely to be promoted, and many burn out over the long term.

Is there a future for Gen Z working remotely?  That’s largely up to their employers.  Companies that want to become an employer of choice for Gen Z need to act intentionally to ensure new remote hires are welcomed into the culture and can grow careers.  Specifically :

  • Making sure everyone receives a proper onboarding (including the social aspect).  Traditionally, a new hire’s first day at the office is a time for making connections.  Their manager will typically introduce them around to the immediate team, and then give a tour of the larger office, pointing out people worth knowing.  However, it’s rare for virtual workers to receive such an in-depth initiation.  

    Convening a web conference to introduce new virtual team members around is a good first step in helping them navigate the workplace.  Having team members take turns training the new team member on different aspects of the job is another way to increase exposure.   

  • Creating a safe space to ask “stupid” questions.  While new workers in an office will rarely hesitate to whisper a question to a friendly colleague, in our research, we found that remote workers – especially those in highly competitive organizational cultures – are often afraid to post questions via chat, fearing public embarrassment.  Putting what you don’t know in writing feels risky for most people, but this is especially the case for young new hires.  Establishing a channel specifically for team members to ask basic questions and creating a sense of psychological safety can destigmatize reaching out for help, virtually. 

  • Organizing formal mentoring programs for virtual workers. Workers with mentors are 5x more likely to be promoted and 23% more likely to stay with their current employer.  However the vast majority of workplace mentorships develop informally, and virtual work skeptics are right that young remote workers are less likely to form them spontaneously.  This is a case where establishing a thoughtfully-designed, formal mentoring program can help, and create opportunities for virtual workers to network beyond their immediate team.

  • Mapping out long-term career paths for virtual workers.  Many members of Gen Z are already making long-term plans around virtual work, with 46% saying they plan to move while continuing to work for their current employer remotely.  And forward-thinking employers would be wise to make long-term plans around their remote workers, investing in their professional development and finding opportunities to promote them. 

In the end, leaders’ concern for Gen Z may be the product of their own biases.  Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the French business school insead points out, “People advising youngsters to go into the office are those who made their way in that environment.” As we look towards a virtual/hybrid future, colleagues from different generations will need to chart new types of career development paths, together.   

If your organization is interested in strategic advice and training on remote/hybrid work, contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.