Generation Z is entering the workforce. But even though today’s young adults have never known a day without the internet, social media, tele-conferencing, and virtual everything, the reality of the remote office presents challenges to these new employees.
Generation Z—nicknamed Gen Z or Zoomers—is defined loosely as those born after about 1996 and before about 2012. It can be difficult to pin down exact years that define a generation. Those start-and-end points often become more clear over time, as a group begins to unite around common experiences, trends, technological and informational advancements, and so on.
Rebekah Ingram is a young adult starting out in a high-tech world. The 22-year-old has a remote internship with a global tech and entrepreneurship organization based in London, England. Like many seasoned workers in the last year and half, Ingram’s office is in her home. But unlike those who brought their jobs home due to pandemic restrictions, Ingram hasn’t had the office-immersion experience of the more mature in the workforce. She’s never spent any time in a traditional office.
Working from home has some perks. Casual wardrobe. No distracting office chit-chat. Savings on transportation, parking, and food costs. But starting out on site with one’s coworkers has many benefits too. As the Bible says about believers in relationship, “iron sharpens iron.” (Proverbs 27:17) Working in person alongside others can help a newbie grasp the corporate mission, culture, and work ethic more rapidly than laboring at a distance. Mentoring relationships tend to develop and flourish better in person than via cyberspace. And those relationships can lead to recommendations for advancement or genuine referral letters when the time comes to move on.
Much of that cultural community is getting bypassed for many 2020 college graduates. They left school and entered a world in turmoil, with limited job prospects. Some lost work opportunities at first as companies canceled internships or froze hiring. As restrictions have eased, jobs have become easier to find, but work remains far from normal.
Most of all, many young workers say, they know they’re missing out when their offices are their own bedrooms. They wish they had more chances for everyday interactions with their colleagues, both to build camaraderie and to find those valuable mentors. Plus, setting good work boundaries can be difficult in the casual setting of home.
Ingram and others say their parents think nothing of interrupting their workdays with questions, friendly check-ins, and offers of snacks or outings. For some, the family dog barking or younger siblings quarreling regularly gets picked up in conference calls. They’ve learned to hit the “mute” button almost as a reflex.
Maya Goldman is a 23-year-old health reporter based in Washington, D.C. It’s difficult for her to be disciplined about setting work-life boundaries while operating from her home. She had hoped that her boss would have modeled that process for her if she had been in the office. Instead, she says it was hard to know when “to tell my bosses that I was done for the night, or when I should take lunch, and how long I should take lunch for.”
Employers are recognizing that their young, new employees may feel disconnected and adrift. In an attempt to make the remote workers feel united, employees at Trevelino/Keller—an Atlanta marketing firm—participate together in “Spotify at 9.” They all play the same song at the same time and talk about it on Slack, a corporate messaging app that works like an intranet for businesses. The firm also started a buddy program, pairing new hires with senior employees they can turn to for work advice.
Despite the negatives of missed opportunities, most business leaders say they’re optimistic about Zoomers in the workforce. They see resilience and adaptability in these young workers who readily grasp the technological advances that make remote work possible. Equipped with the tech to do the job, Gen Z is largely willing to get to work, take advantage of relational opportunities as they’re available, and make the best of the challenging circumstances.
(Remote intern Rebekah Ingram has no office to go to. To take a break from her home office, she sometimes sets up at co-operative shared spaces like this one in London, on September 2, 2021. AP/Urooba Jamal)