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18 August 2021

Young people and the post-lockdown workplace

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Young people collaborating at work

It’s been widely suggested that hybrid working or working from home is the way of the future. But what are the implications, particularly for younger workers?

“The workplace of the future” has been a perennial topic of speculation since someone first sat at a desk in an office.

The speed of technological change since the 1990s has, in probably equal measures, excited and scared people. From monitors the size of an old television to whether you’re an early or late adopter to storing everything “in the cloud”, it’s technological developments – not logistical or cultural – that have dominated thoughts around workplace change.

The pandemic changed that.

Despite initial concerns, the overnight (literally) transition to millions of people working from home seemingly went well. We heard that people worked longer hours, had a better work-life balance, became more engaged with their employers and worries about where their Amazon parcels were left disappeared.

Back to normal?

Eighteen months or so later and “going back to work” and “getting back to normal” are phrases that, if not on everyone’s lips, are certainly dominating many people’s thoughts.

Prior to the lockdown extension, bankers Goldman Sachs told staff to “get ready” to return to work. Other organisations indicated they’d take a more flexible approach. But there are other potential ramifications. According to People Management, more than two thirds of businesses are considering pay cuts for remote workers.

In the media, and throughout the HR industry, the talk was about extending hybrid working. Numerous surveys delivered similar data about preferred future work habits. The data presented largely focused on the advantages of hybrid working and what employees wanted.

All of a sudden, after enforced experimentation lasting a bit more than a year, hybrid working became one of the answers to what “the workplace of the future” was going to look like.

As simple as that?

Millions of people have worked from home these past 18 months. Many like it – increased flexibility, no commuting, more productive, fewer distractions, Zoom and Teams meeting while wearing shorts or pyjama bottoms…

What isn’t as apparent, or as talked about, are the disadvantages of home working, particularly for younger people.

The drawbacks in working from home

There are quite a few, potentially. A lot depends on age, life position and work experience. Isolation, home office set-up, interruptions, availability, spontaneous discussions, informal mentoring and networking spring to mind. For young people, some are particularly pertinent:

  • Home office. Most young people live with parents or in shared flats and houses – space (and quiet) often at a premium. Perching on a bed, laptop on lap isn’t conducive to either productivity or comfort. Working at a dining table is better, but still far from ideal.
  • Informal mentoring, taking cues and getting to learn workplace protocols from more experienced co-workers by just being around them is lost to young people working at home. Not everything is learned in structured meetings, training or in check-ins with a manager or supervisor.
  • Networking. We build networks the moment we start working and continue to cultivate them as we change jobs. This doesn’t happen so easily remotely. Professional networks are important for young people as they look to build a career.

It’s not just young people who will be disadvantaged by extended spells working at home. A sense of isolation can hit all but the most battle-weary work at home veteran. Poor quality workspace at home isn’t exclusive to younger workers. Unless you have a designated room (with door!) as a home office then at some point there will be interruptions. It could be tricky if that interruption comes during an online meeting. There’s also the issue of being available at short notice – awkward for someone taking in a well-earned bit of fresh air and lunchtime walk around the block.

What then for the future?

Where do businesses go from here? Do they “do a Goldman Sachs” and see what happens? Decide it at executive level? Or allow more flexibility depending on role and duties?

Whatever happens, two things at least are apparent.

Organisations need to adopt a consultative process. By the time things do “get back to normal” there may have been eighteen months of newly developed, and possibly entrenched, work habits to readjust from. The ramifications of a one-size-fits-all approach could be significant.

HR managers will, to varying degrees, have their work cut out. Consultation and negotiation between management and employees, policy development, a possible flurry of departures and arrivals, onboarding and training will be just some of the tasks facing HR managers and their teams. They’ll need support.

HR is now more than just a system of record. Having flexible, robust HR systems in place will go some way to alleviating increased workloads, as well as acting as a glue of sorts, holding together the social and collaborative elements of a workforce. Not only will an HR system – with self-service and increased levels of automation – ease short-to-medium term pressure, but it will position the organisation more securely for what happens next. 

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Simon Wooldridge, Content Writer, MHR

Simon Wooldridge

Simon is a content writer at MHR.

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