February 2, 2021
Lockdown meant that the choice to work from home was made for us. However, for many the decision to continue to do so post-lockdown will be a personal choice. The question we should all ask ourselves is, whether when we are outside of any lockdown restrictions, is working from home really a workplace revolution or simply an act of selfishness? For thousands of workers who’ve spent years of their lives commuting to offices that feel more like soul-less factories than inspiring and engaging workplaces, it’s no wonder that enforced work from home has proven popular.
According to YouGov, the majority of workers want to stick with home working post-pandemic, and given what we know about the strain of long commutes and the impact of poorly designed offices on productivity and interaction, it’s not hard to see why.
However, as office doors remain closed, what happens to the scores of young people, fresh to worklife, languishing in home offices, unequipped, ill-experienced and alone? They’re suffering, and will continue to suffer – that’s what happening.
The IFS has warned that the pandemic has “severely dented the career prospects of young people and threatens to have a prolonged negative economic impact on them as a result”. The BBC reports that over 80 percent of Gen Z workers feel “less connected” working remotely; half reported having communication issues and trouble getting necessary resources.
This generation, full of untapped talent and potential, are starting out on a career ladder that has been stripped of the basic steps they need to advance. New research from The Health Foundation suggests that the lack of social contact due to lockdown may be impacting on young people’s ability to develop important social and emotional skills. How can they really learn the ways of the world when their workplace is their own four walls?
Research from Deloitte has shown that remote working during the pandemic has led to a huge drop in the number of contacts employees interact with throughout the day; new and casual relationships have all but disappeared. Some of these skills can be taught, but not all.
This has huge implications for those new to work; the BBC’s research found that young workers’ soft skills such as communication are already being weakened as human contact lessens. As Amanda Mull wrote recently for The Atlantic, “Young people who work remotely risk remaining unknown quantities. And unknown quantities don’t become beloved colleagues, or get promoted. How you begin your working life tends to shape your professional and financial prospects for decades to come.”
Personal development isn’t about online courses, or Zoom hangouts, it’s the immersion in an organisation, the off-agenda conversations, the overheard calls and the chance encounters that make the mettle. It is working alongside experienced colleagues, seeing the nuances of interactions, being part of the unscheduled conversations that make up the decision making process. How can this possibly be replicated when working at home? The current working from home setup is starving young people of the opportunity to see and be seen. It is setting them up for career stagnation, not to mention increasing the risk of isolation and associated mental health problems.
This isn’t just about individual career paths, it is about the continued health of our businesses
For those of us with experience under our belt, confident in our roles and sure of our place on the career ladder, working from home is undoubtedly attractive. For employers it ticks a box of flexible working and is a fashionable (and yes, cheaper) option that many companies are suggesting will continue post-pandemic. Scores of expensive offices have closed, doubtlessly saving employers millions. According to the BBC, 67 percent of companies expect work from home to be permanent or long-lasting.
However, post-pandemic the perceived benefits for individuals wanting to ride the current wave of working from home is storing up a tidal wave of problems for future generations. In short, hoarding an employee’s experience at home is a sign of selfishness, not progress.
Our young people are being ill-served by an older, experienced generation who seem more keen to enjoy home comforts than to pass on their valuable knowledge.
Let’s not forget, this isn’t just about individual career paths, it is about the continued health of our businesses. Today’s leaders’ focus on dealing with the corona-crisis is storing up major issues, not least succession planning and talent management. Over the life of the pandemic (one year and counting…) succession planning – building a pipeline of young talent to take the place of those retiring or moving on – has gone out of the window.
In my experience, speaking with employers of all shapes and sizes over the last year, they’ve given very little thought to the pipeline of talent that will ensure they weather the post-pandemic recession in store.
Pre-pandemic, succession planning was often the focus of the more prominent leadership roles and certainly not an urgent item on the organisation-wide to-do list. However, the impact of coronavirus has challenged the succession status-quo. People planning in a pandemic is a difficult task, but I would argue that as soon as it is possible leaders should be encouraging a return to team working, together physically.
Of course, there is always room for flexibility. Working from home is perfectly acceptable, but flexibility must work for everyone and a compromise perhaps in part time, rather than full time, home working, would ensure we support our younger colleagues and build resilient lines of succession.
While there are today’s very real challenges to be met, eyes need to be forward on post-crisis recovery. Getting through the crisis in the short term is vital, but so is ensuring the workforce is sufficiently engaged, skilled and motivated for the inevitable period of recovery that will be just as challenging and have long-term implications. Our young people are already bearing the brunt of the pandemic hardest, it’s up to us to ensure that suffering isn’t perpetuated through our lack of thought and consideration…for some, that might be called ‘selfishness’.
Image by Simon