To Gen Zers Working From Home, the Office Is a Remote Concept
Many who started careers during the pandemic have never worked in the same space as colleagues. But there are ways bosses can ensure they don’t miss out on mentoring.
PHOTO: ILLUSTRATION BY LISA DILILLO/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
More than a year into the great remote-work experiment, a new breed of young professionals has emerged: those who have never worked in an office.
Workers like 20-year-old Matt Franchi are joining their ranks every day as the Delta variant delays many office-reopening plans. Mr. Franchi secured a software-engineering job in July after graduating from Clemson University and was all set to move to Washington, where his new employer has an office. But with Covid-19 cases climbing again, the company told him a few weeks ago that his position would be remote for the foreseeable future.
“I was looking forward to the move, because D.C. seems more diverse and there’s a lot more going on,” says Mr. Franchi, who started work this month—from his childhood bedroom in Summerville, S.C. “Now, I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it to D.C.”
Some young workers are disappointed they have yet to experience working side-by-side with colleagues and the spontaneous collaboration and coaching that can come from being in the same space. Others say they have gotten accustomed to the virtual world and don’t feel they are missing much. Regardless, some workplace and management experts say that missing out on an office experience so early in a career may hurt mentorship prospects and the development of interpersonal office skills, and that managers should make an extra effort to offset those risks.
“Young workers need those close relationships, people to vent to, and mentor figures more than older ones,” says Eddy Ng, a management professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who conducted a survey last summer of 424 people working remotely after the pandemic’s outbreak. Of those over 40, 45% said they preferred to continue working remotely after the pandemic, compared with 30% of those under 40. Among the younger set, he says, “there’s an element of FOMO,” or fear of missing out.
For many young people in the classes of 2020 and 2021, months of virtual college prepared them for remote work from the get-go. Abbey Phaneuf, a marketing associate at alarm-clock startup Loftie, had fully remote coursework at Brown University from March 2020 until her graduation this May. Last summer, she joined Loftie as a remote intern. She came back for a full-time role, also remote, last month.
“I think remote school definitely helped with remote work, and they also kind of fed off each other,” the 22-year-old says. She learned how to be comfortable talking to people over Zoom during her internship, transferred that skill to her senior-year classes, and says she has hit the ground running as a full-time marketing employee while living with her parents in Boston.
Abbey Phaneuf is remote in her first post-grad job, but hopes to move to New York soon so she can meet more colleagues.
PHOTO: ANNA ROSENFELD
Yet she senses that in-person interactions would make her job even better. Though Loftie has made coming into its New York office voluntary for now, she wants to move there as soon as this winter so she has the option to see colleagues in person more often. She has met them only once so far, on a trip last month to New York.
“I’m in a weird limbo stage right now, and am ready to begin the next phase of my life,” she says.
Young workers who don’t find their way to an office may miss out on important workplace milestones, says Adam Galinsky, a professor of organizational behavior at Columbia Business School.
“The thing that most concerns me is mentoring,” he says. “A lot of lessons are absorbed casually in an office, but you can’t take any of that for granted in a virtual workplace.” He also thinks workers who start a new job remotely may miss the “burst of socialization and organizational energy” that happens during traditional, in-person orientations.
Felix Malamud, 21, who started his first full-time job this month as an analyst at Scotia Capital in New York, has enjoyed doing the job remotely so far. But, having worked as an in-office intern at several firms before the pandemic, he says going back to the office once his company calls people back in will help him feel more grounded.
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“The communication and networking opportunities, meeting people face-to-face, and seeing how different divisions fit together: I think that’s all essential to professional development,” he says.
For those who are managing young remote workers, Dr. Galinsky recommends going the extra mile to create mentorship and teaching opportunities.
For instance, he says, he used to allow doctoral students to sit next to him while he edited papers, so they could see how he worked. “Today, you can still share your screen while you’re doing a task and have people essentially look over your Zoom shoulder,” he says.
Another tactic he recommends is to build in 10-to-15 minute debriefing sessions after conference calls to chat with younger workers and explain dynamics they may have missed. Occasional off-site meetings can also be extremely valuable to cultivate social ties in offices, he says.
Hannah Packman, 22, says that her manager at her fully-remote internship this summer at The Spruce Eats, a food and drink website, has done a great job making herself available for 1-on-1 chats and explaining the editorial process. Ms. Packman graduated from Colby College earlier this year.
Hannah Packman says her manager at her remote internship went out of her way to have one-on-one chats with her.
PHOTO: RACHEL WEST
“Sometimes she’ll stick around after a meeting, or will Slack me privately, and I’ve always felt like I could ask her questions about anything,” she says. She says her whole team of seven people has gone out of their way to help her understand how to write, research and edit content.
Today, she is searching for a full-time role and thinks it may still be a while before she gets to return to the office. “Job postings are still more remote and hybrid than I was hoping for at this point,” she says. But she appreciates having control over her schedule as a remote worker for now, and says most of her college friends are in the same boat.
“You sort of just have to adapt and be flexible,” she says.