Photo Credit: Charlotte Hampson, Nubelson Fernandes
Has the reality of working from home destroyed the appeal of hybrid working?
Outside of the gaze of the media, of government policy and of company Covid-benefits, there are a group of adults largely without kids, who have not been made redundant, are not facing significant personal health risks and who have now been working from home for over a year. Despite this being a privileged position in the grand scale of things, it has taken its toll – and with millennials now making up over 50% of the UK workforce, it’s time to start talking about it.
As the number of millennials in the workplace has continued to grow, with many now shifting into management roles, our generation is being credited with initiating a big transition in workplace culture. Even before the pandemic, studies showed that the priorities of millennials in the workplace differed to that of generations before, with 84% of workers wanting a greater work-life balance and 53% stating that they work because fundamentally they enjoy working (1). It became clear that we were a generation that wanted more control over our careers, and that companies would need to adapt to fulfil these needs and retain strong talent. We began to see flexible schedules, days of remote working, part-time and freelance contracts becoming the norm, rather than the exception, and leadership teams everywhere started to recognize that many of these changes were helping companies prepare for more permanent changes in the future.
When I started my career, I admit that I saw this level of flexibility as standard practice. I had already worked in offices where flexi-hours in the summer and taking Fridays from home was encouraged by most managers – those that were younger who equally prioritised these perks, and usually looked to take more where possible. However, the past fifteen months of working from home has made me question whether a permanent transition to a more remote working set-up is what we as a generation really need to be successful and happy at work.
This year has highlighted the challenges of being apart from colleagues and the workplace, as well as, ironically, the lack of separation from our working lives. Equally, it has shown in a global proof-of-concept that employing hybrid working can still be as successful and productive for companies, and that many can find the balance and discipline that millennials have been talking about for years. As companies move to establish more permanent foundations for hybrid working, I feel it’s imperative to reflect on what we’ve really experienced and learnt, to ensure that both companies and their employees are set up for success moving forward. Because if poorly executed, hybrid working could generate the most overworked, anxious and lonely generation we have seen for decades.
When it was announced at the end of March 2020 that anyone who could be working from home in the UK should start to do so permanently, while some people may have been celebrating the opportunity not to come to work for a while, I remember feeling a sense of anticipation verging on dread for what was to come. So many factors compounded to make me feel this way, but the most immediate stress for me (and most others) was that I did not have an actual place to work at home productively.
Over time, I’ve noticed older colleagues transitioning to a permanent set-up in a spare room or a renovated shed in the garden, whilst most younger colleagues are still on sofas or crouched on beds, in their bedrooms or rooms shared with partners or housemates. My housemates and I are considered to have a somewhat “gold standard” of home working situation with three desks in one half of our living room and some wireless voice isolating Jabra headsets for taking calls, but it is by no means a particularly sustainable or easy work set-up. Friends of ours have turned their front-room into the comically named “bull-pen” with six desks all facing one another, whilst others have been living and working alone for months and having to deal with a level of isolation I don’t think many of us would find funny at all. And while companies have mostly been very proactive about organising furniture and equipment for their employees, this does not entirely solve the problem if you have nowhere to put it.
My housemates and I are still dreaming of the day when our living room will no longer be our office, and when Friday night will mean leaving work at work, and not just turning the lights at one side of the room off and the other side of the room on.
At the start of the pandemic, the whole world went into emergency mode, and it was well-documented in the media that individuals in industries critical to the Covid-response (i.e., healthcare, pharmaceuticals and resource supply chains), were working all-hours to see things through. But at the end of 2020, research showed that a boost in productivity had been seen not only in these essential response industries but was also evident in all non-essential industries (2). There are many reasons cited for why this happened, but I have little doubt that it was the move to working from home that facilitated this culture shift.
Between friends and colleagues, we have discussed the green ‘Available’ bubble on Slack or Teams as the invisible handcuff to your laptop, as well as the sheer volumes of meetings that means the actual working day only starts after 5pm. Gone are the days where everyone sees you leaving the office as a signal that your workday is finished, or where managers prompt teams to go home and not stay late. An overworked team, particularly of more junior employees, can now be invisible to leadership, and progress is used as a substitute measure of productivity and stability, without the nuances that personal interactions shine a light on. In the UK and North America, it is, therefore, no surprise to then see that working hours have increased on overage by 2 hours per day, and that 44% of employees in the UK, particularly in mid-size firms, have reported an increased workload since the start of the pandemic (3).
This problem is then exacerbated by a millennial workforce. Not only are the physical separations harder to come by in the home working environments experienced by many, but the culture of work within our generation is so different. The concept of “hustle culture”, the belief that success only comes from working harder and for longer, has been well-documented for several years following glamorisation in social media and therefore increasing prevalence in millennial groups (4). Working from home for many is an enabler of hustle culture, allowing individuals to “hide” at home with limited accountability to their managers to recognise when the balance is shifting to more unhealthy practices.
During lockdown, for a generation that is largely without families and with lifestyles typically most impacted by the social restrictions that were enforced, the role that working life played in providing validation and purpose started to become borderline-toxic. The meeting or email that previously you may have rolled your eyes about, became far more central to your happiness or motivation that week, and in turn this makes you push harder – because hustle culture decrees that the more work you do, the more productive your working life will become, and the more fulfilled you will be. No longer are we working from home, but we’re sleeping in the office.
Coming out of a five-month lockdown here in the UK, I was surprised to see how much of a toll all of this had taken on many of my close friends. Regardless of sector –consultants, civil servants, lawyers, those in media – there was a general malaise from what had already been a very long year. In fact, only recently has research began to emerge showing that all remote workers have higher engagement but poorer emotional states than those that work on-site, and that this trend is most strongly seen in millennial age groups (5). As many moved into management roles during the year, the challenge had become not only navigating this period individually, but also coaching a team of similarly minded employees through this emotional anxiety. It is only recently in returning to the office for an occasional day, that I’ve realised how much reassurance comes from being in the same environment as others. The quick chat in a coffee queue about an upcoming meeting or the debrief as you walk back to your desk provides a level of security and motivation that is hard to replicate remotely and made me realise that many of the problems I and others were experiencing for months, could probably have been solved with a day or two in-person.
I believe we have only just started to understand the effects to companies of this prolonged remote working period.
With the job market beginning to re-open and the easing of restrictions globally, it has prompted many people to really think about their priorities when it comes to work, and the type of company that will support those. Anecdotally, in recruitment for roles primarily aimed at millennial ages, we have noticed that a large proportion of applicants are re-applying from a role that they started remotely, and vice versa our highest turnover is seen in those team members who joined remotely, some of whom I never even met in person. Statistically, it has been shown that employees are 131% more likely to look for other jobs if they struggle to separate their work and personal lives, or 45% more likely if they feel like they don’t get the support they need from their manager (6), of which studies show manager burnout has increased by 78% in 2020 alone (7) – do these themes sound familiar?
Fundamentally, I believe there is a single aspect of work that detrimentally suffers during remote working, negatively impacting both day-to-day behaviours and employee retention – and that is the lack of community.
Millennials have emerged as the most empathetic and emotionally mature generation to date (8), where not only are “social” workplaces preferred by 88% of millennials, but 70% also said they want their colleagues to act as a “second family” given that the boundaries between a professional life and a personal life are also being blurred (9). Having a connected workplace beneficially impacts business, as it has been shown that having a “work best friend” leads to greater feelings of happiness at work, and therefore increasing productivity (10).
It is no surprise that the question we have been asked the most by potential candidates is whether we are going into the office, noting how their current job has no plans to return. I empathise with those that have entered the workforce for the first time during the pandemic and are yet to experience the fun of spontaneous pub trips, team dinners that turn into unplanned nights out or even just an extended tea break with a close colleague. Personally, I now live with an old colleague and the friends I’ve made at my current job will keep me there for a long time. It is these elements of office culture that have been forgotten amongst discussions of productivity but that have an extremely positive effect on any workforce, and without which I feel will leave millennials more disconnected and unfulfilled not just professionally, but with effects extending into personal lives as well.
Now, many may have read this far and might still be thinking that the benefits of remote working, particularly now that we all have a more settled routine, need to be acknowledged. I do admit that despite challenges, the flexibility of not being committed to come to an office every day has opened opportunities for us collectively and as individuals. For businesses, within global teams everyone now has an equal seat in the virtual room, the opportunities for expansion into new geographies or verticals has increased and recruitment is no longer bound by a commute time. Personally, it is easier to save money, make significant lifestyle changes, spend more time with friends and family and juggle this without feeling exhausted all the time. Working from home has been credited with improved mental health, reducing pollution, increasing productivity, removing barriers to achieving equality, which is why more than 80% of company leaders have said they will continue some form of hybrid working permanently going forward (11).
So where do we go from here? Whilst it is clear that the principle of hybrid working appeals to many, there is no “one size fits all” approach for employees, and even personally I feel conflicted about the way I want to return to the workplace despite being an ongoing advocate for the office environment. Across all generations, some of the points raised here will resonate more strongly than others – because like every aspect of this pandemic, the situations that individuals are in are extremely personal, and their response to these topics will always be nuanced.
There are ways that companies can help and support employees through this transition. From the response to JP Morgan’s initial memo calling bankers back to work, to Apple’s recent announcement that all employees would be expected back in the office three days per week by September – it’s clear that there is difficult balance to tread, and there is a way to get it wrong. From speaking to friends and colleagues across different industries, here are the actions that have made the biggest positive impact:
- Support employees in getting set-up for work from home properly. If hybrid working is here to stay, there should be no more taking calls from bed via a broken pair of computer headphones. Employees need an equal opportunity to be successful, so start thinking about paying for office furniture, investing in personal and enterprise technology, or even providing salary enhancements so that employees can afford properties with additional space.
- Be flexible. Some people will think that two days per week in the office is perfect, some will think that is nowhere near enough. Some will think Friday is their favourite day to come in, whilst others are sure that Friday is the day they want to be at home. Set a minimum across the team and allow flexibility.
- Offices are not just for collaboration and FaceTime. Setting a culture where office time is prioritised based on interactions with other teams disproportionately favours more senior roles, when it is those that are younger and likely more junior that will intrinsically benefit from being in the office environment more. This means keeping desks for individual work or promoting a working structure that is disassociated from meeting culture.
- Provide additional support to the new managers of remote or hybrid workers. Moving to management is a difficult transition for any individual, but even more so when teams are not together. Provide advice and support to keep teams engaged, motivated and happy, and in turn you are setting both the team and the individual leading it up for success.
- Advocate for your millennial workforce. Most importantly, those that feel most at ease are the ones that have been consulted individually or in small groups on the decisions being made by leadership. Nothing leaves more of a sour taste than companies that treat individual needs differently based solely on hierarchy or age. Remember that millennials likely make up the largest proportion of your workforce and are attributable for most of your company’s outputs, even if they are not the ones shouting the loudest.
- How and Why Millennials are shaping the future of remote working (2016)
- What 150 Top CHROs are saying about productivity after 2020
- Home workers putting in more hours since Covid, research shows
- How Gen Z and millennials are pressured to praise toxic hustle culture
- The emotional state of remote workers: It’s complicated
- Stressed employees browse new jobs, unsupported employees actually apply
- 2021 State of the Manager
- Generation Nice
- Millennials are happiest when they feel connected to their co-workers
- Work friends make us more productive (except when they stress us out)
- Gartner: Over 80% of company leaders plan to permit remote work after pandemic
Charlotte Hampson is a Senior Manager, Strategy, Partnerships & Engagement at Sky, one of Europe’s leading media and entertainment companies and part of the Comcast group.
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