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Four good reasons to get Zoomers back in the office

Dr Peggie Rothe, Chief Insights & Research Officer - Leesman

The pandemic has been a surreal experience for all of us, but none more so than young workers. Many have had to promptly move out of an office they had barely gotten to know, and set up a makeshift home office, often in small rooms or shared living spaces. Then there are those who have joined the workforce since the start of the pandemic. For these individuals, at the beginning of their careers, remote work is all they’ve ever known. The idea of “water-cooler conversations” or work outings are just things they’ve seen on The Office – a show which increasingly looks like a depiction of a workplace from a time-gone-by.

Perhaps this is why young people are the demographic that want to work from the office the most moving forward. Earlier this year, when businesses were faced with when, or even whether, to return to the office, Rishi Sunak claimed that, for young people, working from home is simply no substitute. Several months on, this view has been supported by our data: out of more than 80,000 employees who have responded to a question on future workplace preferences, 71% of office employees under the age of 25 stated they would like to go into the office at least two days a week.

In comparison, the same can only be said of 63% of 25-35s, and 61% of 35 plus. The younger the age group, the more likely they are to want to be in the office more frequently. You might think this sounds counter-intuitive. After all, this is the demographic that are the most experienced in working from a laptop in their bedrooms, through school and university, and are naturally the most technologically-capable group, often described as “born-digital”. So why do young workers want to see a return, at least part-time, to the office?

Making room for everyone
Despite popular belief, our data continues to show that younger employees have the best experience of the office workplace, mainly because their work profiles tend to have lower complexity. In other words, they have the lowest requirements from their workplace. The opposite applies to home working, according to our data, younger demographics had the worst experience working from home, mainly driven by a lack of dedicated workspace at home. However due to the lack of complexity in their tasks, the home environment needs to support fewer activities. Therefore, we need to be looking to the workstyle of employees to understand how they fit into the future workplace.

Younger employees want exposure to their colleagues and teams. Only 30% of those under 25 wants to be extensively remote (only 0-1 day in office) compared to 39% of everyone aged 35 and older. But just like their older colleagues, a large proportion of younger employees also seek flexibility; half (51%) of those under 25 would prefer to work in the office 2-3 days per week while one in five (20%) would like to go to the office 4-5 days per week.

Many organisations adopted new solutions to this for working from home such as: virtual buddying, regular team calls and the use of breakout rooms to mimic the random chats that occur in a workspace. Still, as far as these measures go, there’s no equivalent to tapping on your neighbour’s shoulder when you need help, and them simply pointing out the answer on your screen. Similarly, when recruiting new employees, it can be hard to change previous working habits when a new hire is working from the same desk, in the same room, that they were in their previous job.

The invisible ways in which an office space influences the outlook and behaviour of employees is something that is hard to quantify, but no less important than other factors. Which means that workplaces must be designed based on the needs of all age groups, supporting more and less complex roles.

Imposter syndrome
Then there’s the often talked about problem of imposter syndrome – which is where employees feel that they are not as competent as their peers perceive them to be due to a lack of confidence in their ability in a new role. This effect can be exacerbated by being physically removed from your colleagues, particularly if they have had more shared experiences with each other, which are impossible to replicate remotely.

Imposter syndrome can be damaging to mental health as well as productivity, and HR managers should try and eliminate it wherever possible, to keep young employees feeling engaged and confident in their work. This doesn’t necessarily mean a return to full time office work, a flexible or hybrid form of work could allow new hires to frequently meet their colleagues and be present in the office to avoid imposter syndrome becoming a problem.

Company culture
More than simply improving the morale of employees, a company culture can also improve productivity, and instil an attachment to the business as a young employee becomes immersed in the shared culture of their work environment. We’ve all enjoyed the countless games, virtual drinks, and the dreaded quizzes, but can these alternatives really compare to the simple act of offering to make someone a cup of tea? Or passing the chocolate biscuits?

A workplace culture is cultivated within the workplace through these serendipitous touch points. However, we need to create a balance of open environments and social spaces as well as more private focus areas where employees can complete individual tasks. Leesman’s data of more than 860,000 responses on workplace experience found noise levels are important to two thirds (71%) of employees, yet only a third (33%) find them satisfactory in their workplace. Private offices assigned to a single occupant make up the largest share of employees satisfied with noise levels (56%), while designated workstations in open plan areas, the lowest (28%), and non-allocated workstations, the second lowest (29%).

However, we’re not suggesting that your new workplace design should take you back to designated offices for your employees. We know that a private office solution does not necessarily foster a sense of community nor support knowledge sharing in the way successfully designed open concepts can do. And with employees now asking for more flexibility to work remotely, providing assigned rooms become even less attractive from a financial perspective than before, as the rooms are likely to be empty most of the week while employees are working elsewhere.

It is important to know that, despite the low satisfaction with noise levels in the average open workplace, the best workplaces in our database are predominantly some sort of open concepts, either with dedicated workstations, or not. What these workplaces typically do well is provide a variety of settings, which can include quiet rooms for flexible use, phone booths, quiet areas, more buzzy open environments, etc. Combine this with good acoustic design and you’re on to something.

We must also remember that our data has demonstrated, the office outperforms the home most starkly in the areas of ‘informal unplanned meetings’ and ‘informal social interactions’ to support wider company culture.

Professional development
Lastly, there’s the opportunity for mentoring and career development. The young employees you hire are likely to be talented and ambitious. Perhaps they’re more comfortable at home, but they know that to move up they will have to learn new skills and take on more responsibilities from those above them in the company structure. Aspiring professionals want to learn from their more experienced colleagues, and, in turn, get recognition for their achievements. Many might feel that it’s harder to be noticed when they’re not physically in the office. A “well done” in person feels more momentous than one sent via Slack or Teams.

In a job market that is increasingly in need of new talent, employee attraction and retention is more important than ever. Skilled individuals entering the job market have more power than ever to dictate their terms, and they will inevitably choose a workplace that best suits them. Post-pandemic, the demands of employees have changed. HR managers will have to radically rethink their working arrangements, keeping their employer brand competitive to secure and retain top talent.

Employees don’t just want a chance at career progression and a decent salary anymore, they want to be able to work how and where they want, because the shift to remote working over lockdown has demonstrated that anything is possible. For young people, this looks like a hybrid working arrangement, with access to an office space. While older and more senior colleagues may be slightly more happy to ditch the commute and work more comfortably from home, young people want to feel part of a company culture, learn from their elders, and feel rewarded for their work. It’s the job of HR and business leaders to create an arrangement that suits both.

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