C-Suite Agenda

Is There a Generation Gap When it Comes to Returning to the Office?

In the pre-pandemic world, remote work had just begun to make inroads . Primarily, trusted senior level staff were allowed to work remotely as a benefit for a job well done. When COVID hit and companies were forced to require non-essential workers to work from home, the compulsory departure from the office changed the natural order of the work environment.

During the peak of the pandemic, two-thirds of professionals were working from home. Now, as employers call workers back to the office, it seems a generational divide has emerged in the willingness to return. A recent survey found that 55 percent of Millennials voiced reluctance to return to the office, opposed to 45 percent of Gen Xers and 36 percent of Baby Boomers.

Why the generational gap?

Generally speaking, older colleagues value going to the office over working from home. Many Boomers and a large percent of Gen Xers value the connections that are made in person. With these connections, they see an opportunity for bonding with fellow colleagues and also the chance to rub shoulders with bosses, which can lead to better assignments.

Millennials, though, see things differently. Having grown up with technology, they feel it can be used to make remote work flow more smoothly. Survey findings show that 81 percent of Millennials and Gen-Zers use platforms like Slack and WhatsApp for work, opposed to 21 percent of Boomers.

Besides the discrepancies in the digital learning curve, younger workers find the autonomy and freedom offered by remote work meshes well with their preferred lifestyle. For every upside to their arguments for working from home, however, they need to consider the downsides.

Millennials and Gen-Zers alike will want to weigh these pros and cons to working remotely:

Work-life balance

Pro: The improved flexibility in working remotely means logging-in from any location with access to Wi-Fi. If assignments are doled out in a way that only mandates meeting a deadline, no one is beholden to a 9 to 5 workday. Schedules can be arranged to better suit one’s social life, recreational activities, and other nonwork priorities.

Con: Working on projects remotely limits some opportunities for collaboration, learning, and community that comes from in-person group interaction. (This is better for lone wolves; not so great for extroverts.) Further, reaching a colleague for a critical piece of information while working nontraditional hours can be challenging, leading to lost time awaiting a response. If any on the team are working in a different time zone, coordination becomes even more difficult.

Productivity

Pro: Eliminating the daily commute saves substantial time that can be applied to work output. In addition, those everyday office distractions of loud conversations or untimely interruptions cease to exist, providing one with long stretches of concentrated focus.

Con: While office distractions can be annoyances, homelife interruptions are even more likely to require immediate attention. Kids with school projects, a dog getting sick on the carpet, a neighbor at the door needing to borrow a ladder can quash any momentum and erase one’s train of thought. (“What was I thinking again?” Hmmm.)

Onboarding or interning

Pro: Easing into a new work relationship with a new manager and team remotely can take some of the pressure off the scrutiny that comes with walking into the office on the first day with all eyes on the newbie. Zoom or Teams conference calls allow new employees to stay one step removed, allowing a glimpse of the team culture before being thrown fully into its midst.

Con: It’s difficult to replicate the training of new personnel virtually, particularly when the mode becomes more of telling, not showing. Also, new staff don’t have the same ability to watch and learn from colleagues or to feel part of a team when they have no in-person contact. Asking important questions becomes more challenging.

Professional advancement 

Pro: During the pandemic, some creative professionals, such as architects and designers, have found that they work more effectively away from the office. In many ways, working remotely accommodates different working styles where heads-down work and thinking time are called for in order for them to shine.

Con: Working remotely can more easily lead to the feeling of working in a vacuum, keeping everyone on staff from building the personal relationships needed for constructive feedback and potential advancement. Without in-person interaction, upper management is less able to assess personalities and work styles, and remote workers may miss out on a promotion. It’s also harder to volunteer for assignments or conveniently be the last person at the office each night (and thus the first one someone may ask to pitch on an exciting new project).

Organizational culture

Pro: The work-from-home mandates during the pandemic have helped push employers into rethinking how they can best inspire professionals and create teams remotely. Thanks to technology, some businesses saw higher meeting attendance, more attentive managers, and simplified communication. Also, in some regards, video conferencing becomes a great equalizer when all participants, regardless of rank, fill the same size square on the screen.

Con: Effective team building, communicating, and collaborating requires trust that comes from forming close relationships. It’s hard to create cohesion and collegiality without coming together in person on a regular basis.

 Employers and employees alike — across the span of generations — will continue weighing the pros and cons of returning to the office post-pandemic. It’s certain that younger employees will expect more flexibility, and their employers will show good will by providing it.    


Written by Vicky Oliver.

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Vicky Oliver
Based in New York, Vicky Oliver is a leading career development expert and the multi-bestselling author of five books, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks 2005), named in the top 10 list of “Best Books for HR Interview Prep,” 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions (Skyhorse 2010) and Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots (Sourcebooks 2008). She is a sought-after speaker and seminar presenter and a popular media source, having made over 901 appearances in broadcast, print and online outlets. Vicky Oliver is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on LinkedIn.