Organizations have begun crafting their remote work policies for the post-COVID-19 era, but concerns over the productivity and preferences of newer and younger employees are leading some to consider instituting different rules for junior staff.
According to a recent survey conducted by Nintex, a process management and workflow automation company, 80% of C-suite executives and 83% of VP-level employees say working remotely has been better and more productive than expected, compared with only 53% of junior employees.
Younger employees have indicated a preference for in-person work. According to a recent study conducted by PwC, 34% of workers aged 18-24 would prefer working remotely one day a week or less, compared with only 20% of all other respondents.
Concerns that younger staff could miss out on valuable networking and mentorship opportunities have led some employers, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, to suggest they may prefer working at the company’s offices moving forward. “Millennial and Gen Z folks, you’d think they’re used to working on apps and using mobile devices, but they still need a lot of support in their job function and role, and that’s where they’ve been a little more challenged,” explains Dustin Grosse, the chief marketing and strategy officer at Nintex. “They’ve felt frustrated because they haven’t gotten the hands-on coaching that they would ideally get if they were working in an office.”
Grosse believes that the need for in-person resources among less senior employees has the potential to result in a workplace that’s primarily populated by junior staffers. “Younger workers are the ones that would benefit most from being in the office, because they need the coaching, they would benefit from the support, and frankly the social interactions a lot of the times are more valued by them as well,” he says.
While he believes younger and newer employees should be provided some degree of flexibility, Grosse suggests both employers and employees would benefit from an initial, in-person onboarding phase.
“Our recommendation would be to treat junior employees and new employees a little differently,” he says. “You have to set the expectation that it can’t be all remote work all the time; there’s going to be some need for training, physical interaction, and onboarding that will require some hands-on, face-to-face time.”
Marking Career and Project Milestones In Person
While age and tenure are important factors to consider in developing a remote work policy, Deniz Caglar, the principal of organization and workforce strategy for PwC U.S., believes there are other career and project milestones that might benefit from in-person collaboration as well.
“For example, your tenure in your role: You might be promoted into a new role, and suddenly you have additional responsibilities with little experience in that area, or you might be on a project with key milestones, maybe kickoff, midpoint, and end,” he says. “What we’re recommending is for employers to be clear about those things that matter for when employees are in the office or not, and organize your flexible work policies around it, so it’s not a blanket, ‘you can work from home for three days a week.'”
Another potential scenario Caglar says could emerge once offices fully reopen is a physical workspace that primarily exists to host large gatherings, such as meetings and social events, as well as occasional in-person collaboration when necessary.
“A lot of individual work is going to move out of the office, a lot of the basic information sharing and updates will likely move away from the office, coaching will in part move out . . . but a significant portion will stay in the office,” he says. As a result, Caglar believes senior staff who administer that in-person coaching and the junior staff that are the recipients of it could be the primary users of physical office space on a day-to-day basis in the future.
“I can see more seasoned folks being in the office, because they want to coach, guide, direct, they see their value being engaging in person, but perhaps middle managers, more tenured staff may say, ‘I know what I need to know, and I don’t need to be in the office—I’ve earned my right to be away,'” he says. “It might be like an hourglass; more seasoned people in the office, the middle layer might be missing, and then the frontline [junior staff], which would be an interesting makeup.”
Junior Employees Can Be Productive Working Remotely
Despite the differences in preferences and productivity between generations noted in these studies, however, Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, believes policies that discriminate based on age or seniority will split the office into two uneven parts.
“There’s tons of research which has shown how, when you create nonuniform policies, it leads to professional and social isolation for the remote workers, because the in-office workers will horde information, social interactions, and access to resources and senior managers,” he says.
Having studied remote work before the pandemic, Choudhury believes much of the research pertaining to productivity conducted over the past year offers little value for remote policy decisions in the future. “There’s a lot of other confounding factors that I as an economist would say, ‘This is not the right time to conduct productivity studies.’ The proof has to be established by looking at what happened prior to the pandemic,'” he says. “If you look at my studies of the U.S. Patent Office [in 2017] or GitLab [in 2019], there was no evidence that younger employees were less productive.”
Choudhury says there are a number of key differences between those organizations that began experimenting with remote work before the pandemic and those that began working remotely out of necessity during the crisis. Most significantly, those that voluntarily transitioned to remote work had the necessary time to consider and implement processes that would improve the onboarding experience and facilitate remote networking opportunities.
GitLab, for example, assembled a 5,000-page, open-source handbook so that new and existing employees could easily find answers to basic questions without having to ask a colleague. The U.S. Patent Office created a virtual watercooler program that scheduled informal conversation time between staff members across departments, job functions, and levels of experience. “You cannot expect new employees to be productive if you don’t change some organizational processes,” says Choudhury. “You need to replace the old way of mentoring and onboarding with a new way of mentoring and onboarding, and absent that of course the new employees won’t be productive, but that’s not their fault.”