In the shapeless uncertainty of current life, the demands on our everyday existence can feel crushing. And nothing has felt more fraught with pressure than our work environment. Not only are we fretting about even having a job in the next year, there are endless adjustments continually being made to accommodate this morphed treadmill of home/work/personal living.
Recent research points out that younger members of the workforce (namely Millennials and Gen Z) are experiencing their own particular struggles. Under 25s are more likely to be furloughed than any other age group, they make up a third of new universal credit claims, apprenticeships are radically going on hold and graduate job vacancies fell by 60% in the first half of 2020.
Online organisation platform Smartsheet commissioned a survey focusing on this age demographic, and it revealed that three-fifths of participants felt video calls made it harder to get their work done, while up to 85% felt less connected to their teams. It seems that good, (now) old-fashioned face-to-face interaction with another human is missing. In short, many young workers are yearning for the more social side of the office.
‘At first I enjoyed working from home,’ says Mary, a social media co-ordinator for a design company. ‘It was a novelty not to travel on the train and walk downstairs to make my lunch, but after seven months, I am really craving certain things. They might sound silly but they mount up. Some days I am so lonely. I am sick of not wearing all the clothes hanging forlornly in my wardrobe. And I yearn for the chit chat around the coffee station, the spontaneity of a shared joke, the birthday celebrations. There’s not a lot of fun going on.’
It’s easy to forget that work can be enjoyable. And that many people (especially women and the young) go to work to get away from household responsibilities and the confines of their four walls. It’s often the place where friendships are made, love affairs begin, bonds with others are built, personalities are moulded.
I look back on my first job in publishing as my golden era. I loved being in that Soho office so much I never wanted to go on holiday. Many of the best friendships I enjoy today were started there and the stimulation I reaped from the creative minds of my colleagues have influenced the professional person I still aspire to be. Okay, so the rules then were poles apart from now – we’d play music at ear-splitting levels, we’d instigate immature (but hilarious) pranks on each other, we’d go missing for hours in search of a news story.
We even put one of the bosses in a dustbin once, just for the hell of it – honestly, he laughed till he could barely breathe. I am sure today’s HR department would be all over this now, but as I said, times were different back then. My point is, being in that office shaped me, and I’d be a lesser soul without it. And even though it might have appeared to be complete mayhem, we managed to produce a magazine every week which went on to win numerous awards.
Research conducted by recruitment site Total Jobs claims that two thirds of workers believe WFH (working from home) has negatively affected a variety of social interactions. There’s no denying, we need these crucial connections with others to build confidence, listening skills, empathy, even anger management. Above all, it makes us feel part of a wider community; a significant segment of a unified whole.
Sebastian manages a team of admin co-ordinators at a large solicitors’ practice. He says: ‘Most of them are under 30, and I have picked up on quite a few specific reactions to this current WFH situation. My team are telling me that they have felt disconnected and detached because they are so used to feeding off each other in the office. Most of them are based in small flats or stuck in a bedroom all day. They don’t relish the domesticity of WFH that an older employee might value.
I am extremely conscious that this group need to feel supported, but equally I can’t be constantly breathing down their neck. As their manager I am trying to build a two-way sense of trust – I trust them to get the work done in a way that is effective for them in isolation. Then they have to trust me to not monitor them with endless video calls and surveillance. It’s a hard balance but if they don’t feel respected and trusted, they won’t want to commit to the workload and consequently they will be less productive. Recently I introduced a regular Friday 6pm Social Zoom. At the end of the week we get together for an informal chat, have a glass of wine, celebrate birthdays, talk about what’s going on in our lives. It’s been a big success and we’re already planning our online Christmas party.’
When we eventually get to the other side of this strange situation, the world will look very different. An economic recovery is going to be a slow and difficult process, and will also disproportionately impact the young. It’s vital that we take their views and needs into account as we plan for the future of work.