Is there a generation gap when it comes to hybrid working?

Are young people for or against hybrid or remote working? Well, it depends on which survey you read and on the individual. But frightening them about promotion prospects seems a very negative way of getting them back to the office and motivating them.

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Young serious woman on her graduation day in university, standing with group of students. Education, qualification and gown concept.

Once again if you read the news you would end up completely baffled about what is going on. On the one hand, we are told relentlessly that young people are keen to get back to the office, have hated being at home and don’t have space to work.

On the other, the New York Times is warning of a generation gap because older managers are in favour of on-site working while their younger employees views operating remotely as the ‘new normal’. It cites David Gross, an executive at a New York-based advertising agency, and an advocate of the office, saying: “Frankly, [younger employees] don’t know what they’re missing, because we have a strong culture . . . Creative development and production requires face-to-face collaboration. It’s hard to have a brainstorm on a Zoom call.”

Indeed, the head of PwC warns younger workers that their careers will slump if they don’t come back to the office at least three days a week. Kevin Ellis, senior partner and chairman of PwC in the UK, told the Daily Mail that he believes staff need to be in the office or at a client’s premises around three days a week, saying younger staff can learn from their seniors, make useful contacts and fraternise with colleagues. He added that PwC is “offering the flexibility of home working but with guardrails or you will blight your career.”

So which is it – are younger workers more or less keen to work remotely? Of course, the answer is it depends on the young person and their circumstances, personality and a myriad of other things just as it does for the older person.

Ellis also warned that remote working can widen a divide between people at different levels of the company, saying that while working from home no junior people have spoken to him whereas they do at the office.

This is interesting because the last few decades have seen a flattening of business hierarchies running in tandem with different ways of working and increased engagement so is this more about the culture of a particular organisation and does it suggest a need to rethink those structural issues a bit more rather than simply moving the main things you did in the office – ie meetings – online?

Of course, there are the so-called ‘water cooler’ moments that people say they have missed out on. I cannot recall a water cooler moment in my career or engaged with a senior manager in the corridor and I feel these have been overplayed a little, but being all in one place does increase the chance for serendipitous encounters, general social chat and certainly that sense of mutual support if someone is not feeling so great or has been the victim of office politics. It also, of course, increases the chances of being the victim of office politics, which is not to say that bullying and the like don’t also take place online – as we see every day on Twitter.

The issue is how do we make our working lives better and more inclusive and can this be done as effectively online – or better, given the likelihood of further turbulence and shocks in the future?

Rob Hopkin of Axis has been looking at how technology can enable more diversity of opinion within companies – not just by putting more people in a room, but by actively engaging with everyone and encouraging different voices to be heard.

Definitely there are benefits to both remote and office working and younger people can benefit from proximity to others while they are learning the ropes. Moreover, it can be great to see colleagues face to face – I went in this week to see some and we mainly talked about everything but work, which was refreshing and much needed. But dire warnings about promotion prospects and visibility if you are not in the office ‘enough’ seem defeatist and to reflect a lack of willingness to think outside the box about promotion prospects for all.

There need to be ways to make remote workers more visible and if more people work remotely or in a hybrid way that must make a stronger case for action on this issue. Otherwise you are basically sidelining a considerable section of your workforce, which makes no sense at all, and setting the whole move to hybrid up to fail before you’ve even begun.

There is a tangible sense of anxiety about future ways of working, which is completely understandable, but the new ways of working are not that new for some in the workforce – international teams, for instance, have been working remotely for years. The thing is to move what has been happening in pockets within an organisation into the mainstream and, by doing so, to make it easier for everyone.

Maybe it would be a good idea to gather together all the people who have worked remotely or in a hybrid way before Covid and listen to what they are saying. I’m pretty sure they have some ideas on how the ‘new normal’ can function better for everyone – after all, many have made remote and hybrid working work for years without much support.



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