Jul 13, 2021 - Economy

Younger employees fear being left behind by remote work

Illustration of a young woman looking hesitantly around a laptop with a zoom meeting on the screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The post-pandemic working world is rapidly normalizing remote work — but the next generation of workers is wary of the change.

What's happening: Transitioning to remote work is far easier for veteran employees who have already developed social capital in the workplace and know how a company operates. Freshly minted members of the workforce stand to miss out on those valuable skills and opportunities if they can't come back to the office.

Driving the news: A whopping 40% of college students and recent graduates prefer fully in-person work, according to a new poll by Generation Lab, a polling and research firm that tracks trends affecting youth.

  • Another 39% want a hybrid workplace, 19% want to work remotely and 3% say they have no preference.

Why it matters: That's starkly different from the numbers across the rest of the workforce. Just 12% of all office workers want to go back full time, per a recent Slack survey. The rest are looking for a remote or hybrid workplace.

When asked what they'll miss in a remote future, 74% of young people say the office community and 41% say mentoring.

  • 66% of respondents want in-person feedback from their managers, rather than receiving a written report or chatting over Zoom.
  • 33% of respondents don't want to miss out on office amenities. The perks at company headquarters — like snacks and gyms — may be disappearing as firms downsize.

Younger workers are likelier than their older colleagues to live in close quarters with roommates or with parents. 45% of respondents say they worry about having access to distraction-free workplaces in a remote or hybrid future.

  • And older workers have more established personal networks as well, which has made them more able to move away from their workplaces, either to suburbs with nasty commutes or to entirely new cities in anticipation of remote work.

"I like the extra motivation to go home at the end of the day and the ability to separate work life from home life based on place and location," says Jenny Conant, a rising senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. It's also easier to read colleagues' body language in-person than online, Conant says.

The stakes: "They're missing out on the socialization and the chance to make the contacts and relationships you make in the workplace that lead to other things," says Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University, who coined the term "emerging adults" for 18- to 29-year olds.

  • Younger workers may get more out of the social component of offices — nearly a quarter of Americans meet their spouses at work — than their older counterparts who may already have families and established networks.

"Anxiety and depression has gone up in the emerging adult age group," Arnett says. "It can be a lonely time of life already. ... For them especially, remote work may have been isolating."

The bottom line: The remote revolution is underway, with companies shutting down offices and people making cross-country moves — but younger workers could save physical workplaces.

  • Managers and CEOs will have to figure out how to give their new talent the sense of community and provide mentorship opportunities if they want to effectively recruit and retain.

Methodology: This study was conducted July 2–7 from a representative sample of 544 students and recent graduates nationwide. The margin of error is +/- 4.2 percentage points. The Generation Lab conducts polling using a demographically representative sample frame of college students at community colleges, technical colleges, trade schools and public and private four-year institutions.

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