Amy Hall never thought her first job would involve working out of her basement.
Ms. Hall, 24, is among a generation of young people who launched her career remotely. And like many of her peers, she’s eager to work in an office full of people. After more than a year of doing her job from home, she’s ready for a new routine.
For many young people, remote work means sitting alone in their bedrooms and staring at faces on Zoom calls before being plunged into hours of alienating solitude. Ms. Hall, who’s a human resources co-ordinator at potash giant Nutrien Ltd. in Saskatoon, feels she is missing out on water cooler conversations and wants to meet people outside her team face to face.
“I can confidently say that all my friends and peers are really excited to go back in the office,” she said.
As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout progresses and restrictions lift, companies are beginning to welcome their employees back to the office. But they have also discovered the work force is increasingly divided. Experts say young people are more eager to return to the office than their older colleagues.
Hemmed in by small downtown apartments and the desire to connect and learn from their peers, young employees crave the human interaction the office provides. But for older employees who have to juggle children, commutes and elder care, working from home is a welcome reprieve and a chance for balance.
“We thought for sure that young people were going to be the most eager to embrace a new hybrid model to not have to commute,” said Sean Lyons, professor of leadership and management of the University of Guelph, who recently surveyed Canadians about returning to the office. “That wasn’t the case.”
As offices reopen, employers face a fundamental challenge: How can they reconcile the desires of several generations of employees, while ensuring their businesses remain successful?
One way, experts say, is to set clear expectations about how often staff must come into the office.
Many employers are adopting a hybrid approach, which involves a combination of remote and in-person work. Some expect their staff to return to near-prepandemic arrangements – plus a little more flexibility. Others are offering fully remote options.
Lightspeed HQ, a point-of-sale and e-commerce software provider based in Montreal, is taking a regimented approach to ensure new and experienced employees get the necessary face time with one another.
“Instead of saying, ‘Come whenever you want,’ we’re going to say, ‘Come in Wednesday and Thursday,’ said JP Chauvet, president of Lightspeed. “This means that when you show up at the office, you will have enough colleagues for meaningful interactions to take place.”
Nutrien is being more flexible: encouraging employees to return to the office, but allowing them to work from home when needed. Mike Webb, chief HR officer at Nutrien, said a clear and frank conversation with young employees is the best way to help them succeed and set themselves up for eventual promotions.
“If we recruited 10 individuals into our management and training program, and we had five of those individuals working in the office and five working remotely or at home, who would ultimately become the future CEO? It’s probably more likely that it would be the individuals who had those collaborative experiences,” Mr. Webb said.
But other companies feel that encouraging employees to commit to set workdays – or even come in at all – is too limiting. Ceridian HCM, an HR software provider, is happy for employees to work entirely remotely if that is best for them.
“We shouldn’t be slipping back into thinking that you’ve got to be in the office to get promoted. That is very short-sighted,” said Susan Tohyama, chief human resources officer at Ceridian. “Employees are saying, ‘No, actually, that’s not what I want.’ What will happen is you will get more attrition, you’ll get turnover, and you’ll lose those really important employees.”
For other companies, it’s not about when or how often employees come into the office, it’s about the arrangements when they get there.
Consulting multinational Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu is rearranging its offices in Canada to maximize collaboration, allowing for more of what the company calls “collisions” between its new and experienced employees.
“Our CEO does not have an office – no one does,” said Linda Blair, chief experience officer at Deloitte Canada. “We come in and we move around. It fosters collaboration, and there’s lots of opportunity for those spontaneous interactions.”
Nonetheless, with many workers opting to work from home at least part of the time, creating intergenerational connections will require planning, said Katherine Faichnie, HR leader at IBM Canada.
Usually, after hiring a new employee, she said, she would bring them around the office and introduce them to their colleagues to help them develop a network and feel at home right away. Now, she works harder to help set up virtual introductions.
“We’re going to have to be very intentional that we don’t lose that knowledge transfer to our newer employees,” Ms. Faichnie said.
Alberta Investment Management Corp. is experimenting with a new way of bringing generations together: The pension management firm’s coming mentorship program provides for “reverse mentorship,” which encourages long-tenured employees to seek counsel from younger generations about how to approach things differently.
“Generational diversity is key. If you have multigenerational perspectives around the table, you develop a much better-informed decision or outcome,” said Angela Fong, AIMCo’s chief corporate officer. This sort of opportunity is pivotal for young people to expand their careers by building strong relationships and gaining leadership skills.
“From a career progression standpoint, the employer has a responsibility to set the framework and environment for an individual to have career advancement opportunity, but the ultimate accountability to make it happen rests with the individual,” Ms. Fong said.
Ashley Vogeli, managing director of strategic communications and corporate affairs at CPP Investments, who’s in her early 30s, took action to maintain her career growth as COVID-19 emptied offices.
“I’m very fortunate to have had many informal mentors throughout my career, but I did notice that throughout the pandemic, it was harder to connect with people from my professional life,” Ms. Vogeli said.
Not wanting her progression to stall, Ms. Vogeli applied for the company’s mentorship program, which matched her with an experienced colleague based in Britain.
“That was a terrific aid to make sure that I was still learning and growing,” she said. “It was a great way to keep plugged in and take advantage of the formal programs available.”
But it’s not just young employees who will have to adapt. Managers will also have to adjust the way they evaluate and make promotion decisions when considering new staff who may have decided to work from home.
“If you’re working from home and your manager is not familiar with how to work with people in a hybrid environment, there will be problems,” warns Av Maharaj, chief administrative officer at Kraft Heinz in Toronto.
Mr. Maharaj said his company is teaching managers to evaluate employees based on work outcomes instead of personal relationships, regardless of whether staff are working remotely or in the office. Managers are also spending more time communicating with young employees.
Overcoming bias will be especially important, experts say, as not all employees will have the same opportunities to develop personal relationships.
Young women are more likely to work from home due to child-care responsibilities, which could put them at a disadvantage, said Winny Shen, associate professor of organization studies at the Schulich School of Business at York University.
“Employers might assume that women might be less committed to the job – that’s a dangerous assumption,” Prof. Shen said. “I think all of that can creep in and lead to different career trajectories for different groups of people.”
As with almost any disruption, optimists see a new hybrid work future as an opportunity.
“The world has changed. The pandemic caused everybody to stop at the same time, then pivot and do things very differently,” said Sheila O’Brien, executive vice-president of people, culture and community at Toronto’s University Health Network.
UHN is now taking advantage of remote work and hiring candidates from farther away, which could open up possibilities for a new generation of employees outside of the expensive city centre. UHN is also experimenting with hiring young employees in “cohorts” to provide them with a built-in support circle as they navigate their new jobs.
“We’re all going to learn and grow together,” Ms. O’Brien said. “I think it’s going to be fun.”
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