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Is There a Generational Divide When it Comes to the Return-to-Office Debate?

Many surveys show most white-collar employees, regardless of age, love remote and hybrid work. Employees talk in survey after survey about the benefits of work/life balance, the lack of a commute, and better overall mental health. But as companies try to lure people back to their desks, executives ask what damaging effects remote and hybrid work has on the youngest generation in the workplace. How do you begin your career when you’re not being mentored in person every day? Are younger workers missing out on the social opportunities of close co-worker friendships? Many executives are also eager to return to the office full-time, and the era of hybrid and remote work may not last as long as some employees think it will.

Is there a generational divide when it comes to the subject of returning to the office? If you believe in generational stereotypes, you’d expect the youngest workers to enjoy sitting at home in their pajamas and working remotely while older generations clamor to be back at their desks. But like all generalizations, it may not necessarily be true. Just as many employees in their 70s seem to enjoy remote work as people straight out of college. And perhaps surprisingly, the workforce’s youngest generation includes some of the most eager employees to want to get back into the office.

More than half of workers between the ages of 21 and 30 across Europe say it’s crucial to meet and work with colleagues in person again, according to a 6,000-person survey done by Sharp Corp., a global technology company. Most of the workers surveyed said remote arrangements have made them more productive. Still, over half of the survey’s respondents between 18 and 45 say that they’re anxious about a lack of training and career opportunities when thinking long-term.

However, that doesn’t mean that younger workers are souring on remote and flexible work options. In a separate survey of 2,000 white-collar workers, more than 60 percent of workers between the ages of 18 and 40 favored a hybrid arrangement, according to workplace technology provider Citrix. Numerous surveys also show some workers will even consider quitting before going back to the pre-pandemic normal of 9-5 in the office five days a week. No company has figured out the right formula for returning to the office yet, and if they say they have, they’re probably lying. Returning to the office is different for every company and not one-size-fits-all. But for the time being, hybrid work models dominate the office workplace.

Voting with their feet

The enduring popularity of remote and hybrid work has presented an almost-existential threat for office landlords. The office will continue to exist, but the billion-dollar question is what form it will take. Tenants and landlords are hoping the appeal of socializing and collaborating with co-workers will eventually lure workers back as pandemic concerns fade. “Everyone is missing something by not being in the office full-time,” said Sheila Botting, Principal & President Americas, Professional Services Consulting & Advisory at commercial real estate firm Avison Young. “Those not in the office could miss out on promotions, and relationships with co-workers have eroded,” Botting said it’s true for every generation and that executives and managers have had to work hard to maintain a corporate culture within a remote work environment.

“All the research shows people want hybrid work, but studies show that with the better office environments, people will want to return more,” Botting added. The link between better office environments and the employee’s willingness to return explains why larger companies are pushing for highly amenitized Class A office spaces with features like bistros in lobbies and the latest, greatest technology. Botting said the onus is on property owners and tenants to transform their traditional offices into an “experiential workplace.” Or, in other words, the type of place that offers a better experience than they can get at home. It can be done, but it is expensive, as many firms spend big dollars on renovations and moving into newer, spiffier spaces.

Offering hybrid work seems to be a requirement for companies who want to win the war for talent, something more traditional companies have had to figure out the hard way. “Employees will vote with their feet if hybrid isn’t offered and find a job where it is offered,” Botting said. “Still, hybrid has to be balanced with clear rules. None of this is easy, so there’s a need to experiment and innovate.”

Employees will vote with their feet if hybrid isn’t offered and find a job where it is offered. Still, hybrid has to be balanced with clear rules. None of this is easy, so there’s a need to experiment and innovate.

Let’s get social

Workers of all ages have expressed their love for hybrid work, so talk of a generational divide in return to the office may be unfounded. Differences in the return to the office were primarily based on personal preference and the industry they worked in. I talked to about a dozen white-collar workers aged from their early 20s to mid-40s, and there didn’t seem to be much difference in work preferences based on age. It’s a small sample size, and the results were anecdotal, of course, but it added some personal depth to what the experts and surveys say. 

But one trend I did recognize was that many of the younger workers I spoke with seemed to enjoy the office, which made sense. Employees over 30 years old may be more established in their careers with their own families and more social support. On the other hand, workers in their early 20s are more likely to crave the social function that office culture provides, and they may need more mentorship and in-person training.

Emma Milano, a marketing professional in her mid-20s working for a precious metal refinery in the Philadelphia area, has been working hybrid since the pandemic began. She said she wouldn’t want to be entirely remote, but she’s glad she doesn’t have to go into the office every day. She also believes workers her age who are fully remote could be missing out. “I made great friendships at my job before the pandemic when I was full-time in-person,” Milano said. “Those people became some of my best friends because I was with them so much.”

Other employees in their 20s echoed Milano’s sentiments. They enjoy the flexibility of hybrid work but want to be in the office at least part-time. Christian Lessard is CEO and Co-Founder of Steelbasis, a vendor management platform provider based in the Washington, D.C., area. He’s currently living with the company’s other co-founders, and they all work together remotely, but they plan to look for office space soon. Lessard, 25, said he loved working in the office before co-founding Steelbasis. “When COVID first started, I did get back to the office eventually, and I was one of the only junior staff members there,” he said. “Everyone else there was executives and higher-ups, so there was an advantage to being there, being seen, and getting to know those people.” Lessard said many friends his age love remote work but don’t realize its negatives, such as a possible increase in depression and loneliness.

Workers in their mid-30s and mid-40s who are parents talked about how much they loved the flexibility of hybrid work because it allowed them to get more done, spend more time with family, and cut out the wasted time of a commute. Other workers also noted how hybrid and remote work was more difficult depending on your industry. 

Will Donahue, an accounting manager in his mid-30s in the Washington, D.C., area, said his company has had to adjust auditing processes because of remote work, making things more difficult. Donahue also said some managers struggle to figure out how to mentor and manage projects when everything’s remote, and you never meet some employees in person. In Donahue’s industry, he said relationships and human connection are critical. “You have to differentiate yourself with that in-person communication,” he said. “Without that, there’s no real tangible value to the relationships formed in the business world.”

Waiting for the right moment?

Flexibility is probably the keyword for what employees prefer, regardless of age. Most everyone I talked to is spending some time working remotely, but most said they also enjoy periodic office visits. But while this is the golden age of flexible arrangements for employees, not everyone thinks the future of work is remote and hybrid. Laszlo Bock, Google’s ex-HR chief from 2006 to 2016, predicts hybrid work will last maybe another 3 to 5 years at Google, but employees will eventually go back to the office five times a week like in the old days. Bock said the older generation of executives aren’t accustomed to managing workers remotely, saying, “Leaders find it really hard to lead virtually.”

Bock currently runs Humu Inc., an HR software company, and he’s constantly talking to big companies on return to office strategies. For now, he says the hybrid strategy works best, but there are complications. Employee evaluations will favor in-office employees, as remote workers will miss out on promotions, better pay, and better assignments. Bock says executives at Google and other big companies are eager for a full-time return to the office, and they’re getting tired of demands from employees. An unnamed executive told Bock, “We’ll eventually get everyone back into the office. I just don’t want to pick that fight right now.”

“We’ll eventually get everyone back into the office.
I just don’t want to pick that fight right now.”

Some tech companies, like Airbnb, have fully embraced the remote and hybrid model, offering remote work permanently. But as Bock has indicated, even the most prominent tech firms like Google, Microsoft, and Meta may be hedging their bets. Firms like Google and Meta continue to rapidly expand their office footprints nationwide, so they still believe in in-person work, but they might just be waiting for the right moment to get employees back in the office. 

The importance of the current labor market for employers can’t be downplayed. With the job market so tilted in employees’ favor, companies are bending over backward to win the war for talent, often offering flexible schedules. But the job market won’t stay this way forever, and once companies gain the upper hand again, the pandemic experiment of widescale remote and hybrid work may not last.

Fear of missing out

Most data shows that between 25 to 35 percent of employees work from home full-time. But the number of remote workers continues to shrink with each passing month, as 61 percent of people surveyed in May 2020 were working from home full-time. Employers are ramping up efforts to get workers back in the office, with over half of employees (50.9 percent) required to return full-time, according to one survey of 1,000 full-time U.S. workers by Workhuman’s April Human Workplace Index.

The data on return to the office varies based on many different factors, such as geography and industry. For example, only 8 percent of Manhattan office workers are back in the office full-time, and 28 percent are still fully remote, according to recent data by the Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy group. The survey also found that 78 percent of Manhattan companies use a hybrid model. Meanwhile, offices in the Sun Belt in places like Austin, Texas, have seen much more robust return to office rates. Austin offices are 59 percent occupied, according to recent data from Kastle Systems. Part of the reason for Austin’s success is that it has added thousands of jobs recently in industries like finance, professional services, and advanced manufacturing, which all tend to require more in-person work than industries like technology.

Some cities haven’t been nearly as successful as Austin, including San Jose, California. Though San Jose is a hub for tech workers, it’s ranked by Kastle Systems with the lowest office attendance rate at 31 percent. But no matter how much employees love hybrid and remote work, executives have a point that they’re missing something from not being in the office. Studies have shown remote teams have been productive, but managing hybrid work has proven difficult for some companies. All employees, regardless of age, could be missing something from not being in the office. But this could especially be the case for the youngest generation, who, surprisingly, may want to be in the office more than their older counterparts.

Former AOL CEO Tim Armstrong recently argued workers under 30 could be missing out on the most crucial career-learning cycle of their lives by not being in the office full-time. “If I had one piece of advice for younger people: Go back to work,” Armstrong said in a recent interview. “Even if your company doesn’t let you come back, create your own working environment and invite some people over.” 

The future of work and the office isn’t set in stone by any means. Full-time office work could return once the pandemic winds down and the labor market shifts. As a return to the office continues to ramp up, tenants and landlords may be surprised that some of the most prominent advocates for getting back to in-person work are the youngest generation of workers.

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