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Here’s what would make returning to the office easier for younger workers

A professor polls some of her students to understand how they feel about working in close proximity with coworkers again.

Here’s what would make returning to the office easier for younger workers
[Photo: Alexander Suhorucov/Pexels]

A recent New York Times article described the concerns millennials have about returning to the office, such as psychological well-being, policies around flexibility, and the return of a long commute. Likewise, a 2020 report from Citrix found only 10% of young adults are interested in returning to the office full-time—with most preferring a hybrid model, in which they are given the opportunity to continue working remotely.

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In my discussions with young adults and students of mine at Rutgers University, many are cautiously optimistic about returning to the workplace. However, they have questions for organizations. Mainly, they want to understand what organizations are doing to protect workers. Further, they wonder if managers will give them time to adjust as they return to the office.

Where young adults prefer to work

After surveying my classes, which consisted of 80 early-career individuals, a few preferences were revealed. Consistent with other findings, about one in two young adults (48%) preferred a hybrid model. The second most popular choice was to work onsite full-time (39%). Taken together, 87% of the participants want to work, at least some days, in the office. The results were unexpected, taking into consideration my preliminary reading. And it contrasted with other studies that found millennials are less interested in returning to the workplace.

What accounts for the differences? My sense is young adults are looking to solve a challenge they’ve experienced for almost two years: social isolation.

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Concerns young adults have about returning to the office

  • Safety. Like most employees returning to the workplace, young adults are concerned about being exposed to the virus, including sharing workspaces. Here is one comment from my discussions: “My company recently adopted ‘hot desking,’ which means multiple people are working on a single desk on a rotational schedule. My fear is sharing a desk with someone [who] is sick [with COVID-19].”
  • Long commutes. Another concern includes long commutes and being exposed to the virus while riding on public transportation and rideshares. For instance, one young adult expressed concern over being trapped in a small space. “While riding on a bus, it broke down. Another bus came to get us, but we were packed in like sardines, and I worried about getting the virus, despite everyone wearing masks.”
  • Social interactions. Another concern young adults have is related to interacting with others. While practicing social distancing and wearing a mask is something young adults are used to, it’s difficult to know how to interact with others in the workplace. One survey respondent shared: “Interacting with people online versus interacting with people in person has different norms.”

Steps to transition back to a physical space

Therefore, what can managers do to ease the transition into the workplace?

  1. Leverage the time everyone is in the office. One of the main reasons young adults want to be in the office is for meeting and socializing with other people. Therefore, it will be helpful if managers organize activities that enable interaction. For example, managers should try having in-person meetings depending on the number of people on their team. Also, managers can organize outdoor team lunches. Managers can host project “brown bag” gatherings. Employees can give updates about their current work and ask for advice on areas where they’ve gotten stuck. Finally, managers can facilitate introductions between young adults and other people in the organization.
  2. However, avoid morning sessions. Young adults that have worked or gone to school remotely have gotten used to having the first couple of hours each morning to organize themselves. Therefore, while managers should leverage the time employees are in the office—it will help to give young adults the first couple of hours in the day to work on their own. Also, it will put less pressure on young adults as they figure out how to navigate traffic (if they drive) or commute on public transportation. For example, young adults can commute during off-peak times when it’s less crowded.
  3. Build awareness, and don’t forget safety protocols. Offices have taken various steps to make the workplaces safer (i.e., enforcing masks requirements, changing filters, sanitizing desks). Some offices have updated their ventilation and filtrations systems. However, what good are these steps if employees are not aware of the changes that have taken place? Therefore, managers can give young adults a cheat sheet that explains the organization’s steps to make the environment safer.

Managers can also give their employees the option of using Zoom, even if they are in the office. For example, employees could be comfortable working at their desks, but they may not want to be in a roomful of people during meetings. Finally, if your organization is leveraging “hoteling” work space or hot desks, ensure that employees follow cleaning protocols before and after using the space.

Overall, the key to making young adults feel safe in the workplace is to act with transparency (like, by communicating safety protocols), provide flexibility, and organize activities that enable them to build relationships with coworkers.

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Kyra Leigh Sutton, PhD, is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her research interests include the development and retention of early-career employees.

 

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