I like to call my son a remote native. He entered the workforce after the epidemic hit and so he never knew full-time office life. They always have the flexibility of an office optional life and they don’t see a rational reason why they should give it up.
My son is hardly alone in his desire for flexibility. When a recent McKinsey survey offered flexible work options, 87% of workers benefit, which is a consistent trend across all demographics.
That said, older generations have a different perspective when it comes to remote work compared to their younger colleagues. They have a certain set of expectations in the workplace and have to adapt to the new mode of operation. Their desire for flexibility is driven by factors such as elder care, child care and personal health and safety considerations.
To successfully lead the workforce through the transition to permanent remote or hybrid work, leaders need to consider these different perspectives, needs and priorities, care to provide tools, and everyone needs to have a good remote work experience.
My company, Centric Consulting, runs several focus groups with clients, how workers feel about the transition to remote work, what challenges they face and what they like and dislike about the remote or hybrid work experience.
While there are plenty of generalized statements about no large group of people, here are some of the key generation trends we have noticed:
Gen Z and Millennials are more resistant to returning to office. They are not afraid to look for other opportunities if their employers do not meet their demands for flexibility and self-determination. These younger workers see the value in coming to the office to meet people and form work-friendships — which is a compulsory attendance problem. When they come to the office, they are comfortable plugging in their laptop wherever there is open space and they do not need private offices or personalized spaces. They favor hotels.
Studies support these observations. Gen Z values flexibility in culture, health benefits and other employment opportunities. The 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index found that 52% of Gen Z and Millennials are considering switching jobs over the next year. Among LinkedIn users, Gen Z is more mobile; Their employment change rate has increased by about 25% since the epidemic.
Gen X is extremely open to resume office life. Gen X workers have been climbing the ladder for some time. For many, success is seen by working with company leaders and customers through face-to-face, being shown to the office, and working hard and long. They find it difficult to translate these experiences into an almost virtual work environment.
Gen X misses a lot about the traditional office experience. In our focus groups, for example, we regularly hear this generation of workers mourn the ease of interpersonal relationships in the office. They don’t care about new office trends like hotels. They have a private office or designated space to personalize with their photos, diplomas, awards and the like. Unlike younger workers, Gen X is not as comfortable living outside a backpack as he is balancing office work days with remote work days.
Baby boomers are willing to go with the flow. Employees at the end of their careers are not interested in rocking the boat – they are focused on job security. Likewise, they are willing to go with whatever system the leadership deems best. They often comment on the preferences of younger workers who have a higher runway and therefore have more flexibility to choose a work environment that works best for them.
A call for purposeful leadership
When the workplace is in transition, leaders must bring everyone through the changes. Switching to remote or hybrid work is no different. While it is best to keep in mind the generational trends described above, the bottom line is that no two workers are the same and need a personal approach.
The following steps can help everyone to have positive feelings about remote work:
1. Have a solid listening technique. The only way to provide personalized purposeful leadership to your employees is to have a listening strategy. Regularly survey how people feel about remote work, what challenges they face and the distance between their desired and living work experience. Make room for priorities where possible within the limits of workplace rules.
Feedback mechanisms are essential, because research has revealed a common disconnect between employees and leadership. This year’s Microsoft Work Trend Index, for example, shows that half of managers believe that leadership is not in touch with employees.
2. Set up clearly defined work contracts. The term ‘hybrid workplace’ is nebulous. Does that mean workers come to the office on designated days? Or whenever they feel like it? Are there rules when it is available online? (Side note: shorter terms are better.) Create a work contract with clearly defined parameters of what to expect from employees. It should be a collaborative effort — ask employee input about their priorities and work together to come to an agreement that balances those priorities with the needs of the business.
3. Invest in Remote Work Tools training. Quality collaborative tools make remote work possible, but they also make it enjoyable. That said, not everyone seems enthusiastic about adopting a new device in their day. Leaders must communicate the need for collaborative tools and provide training to ensure that everyone knows how to use them. Provide predominantly scheduled, formal training — don’t expect employees to take the time to dig in on their own independently.
4. Plan strategic individual meetings. Occasionally bring people together for meetings, cultural events or fun. My company hosts some annual meetings and encourages business units to plan some local events. We have always seen great ROI with this strategy. Joining together gives people the opportunity to strengthen their bonds with each other and help them connect with the company’s mission and values. It helps people see their colleagues as human beings, not just workers, but adds to the overall humanity of the organization.
As the remote work experiment unfolds in real time, it is important for leaders to understand that everyone is coming up with unique expectations and priorities around the work. There are broad themes across generations, but you need to look at your own teams more closely. You can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to designing a hybrid or remote workplace.