Sarah Harte: Gen Z workers are not coddled, they simply have never known office culture

Many of us don't miss the 9-5 but are younger workers missing out on mentoring and bonding?
Sarah Harte: Gen Z workers are not coddled, they simply have never known office culture

Multiple studies have shown that Gen Z workers have reported not only a desire for mentorship but also reported a lack of confidence in their workplace skills.

The nine-to-five office workplace may be a thing of the past and many are happily dancing on its grave. 

The post-pandemic new normal incorporates remote working for countless employees who would resist being manacled to an office desk.

Last week, a British study on 2,000 ‘hybrid workers’ concluded that reduced commuting leads to a better work-life balance with improved sleep and more exercise for workers. 

The research was carried out by IWG, the world’s leading operator of flexible workspaces, so obviously an element of vested interest comes into play here.

However, figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) for last year’s third quarter indicated that some 850,000 of Ireland’s 2.55m workers worked remotely some of the time, with 574,000 ‘usually’ working away from the office.

A Work-Life Balance Bill 2022 currently being debated in the Dáil provides for a statutory right to request remote work in a bid to achieve a better life balance for parents and carers, which sounds civilised. But how does remote working affect younger Generation Z workers?

A rising trend is for companies to jettison expensive office spaces in a cost-cutting exercise. This is particularly true in the tech sector with some believing that there is an element of “copycat” behaviour at play here with companies emulating each other’s behaviour.

This leaves young employees in a working environment that is entirely remote, potentially without the multiple professional and personal benefits of mentoring.

Some believe that physical proximity is not necessary for developmental relationships and that mentoring can take place regardless of the medium.

One unconvincing theory from Harvard Business School is that virtual mentoring is more egalitarian because parties in a video-based conversation are reduced to a voice and screen of equal size. 

This comes across as self-serving corporate bunkum, or as a fig leaf for cost-cutting.

Being in situ with more senior colleagues means knowledge transfer happens more naturally. It also provides opportunities to network and to get known by bosses, which feeds into career development and promotional opportunities rather than simply being a faceless grunt.

Mentoring and bonding

Water cooler moments involve learning about the company culture and practice through mere chit-chat and are a form of subtle bonding.

You may want this bonding like a hole in the head when you’re further down the road but there is a social benefit for younger staff.

Multiple studies have shown that Gen Z has reported not only a desire for mentorship but also reported a lack of confidence in their workplace skills. This isn’t surprising. They belong to a generation that has been inordinately disadvantaged by the disruption of the last three years in terms of education, opportunity, and employment.

It is far easier to seek direction from a boss if you can stroll into his or her office.
It is far easier to seek direction from a boss if you can stroll into his or her office.

To some extent, you have to see it to be it. And the benefit of being able to casually stroll into somebody’s office and seek direction is inestimable. It’s a horse of a different colour to have to email or call a boss with a question without the benefit of judging body language risking interrupting them and raising their ire.

Anyone who has worked in an office environment on a team will know the satisfaction of collaboratively getting a job or a deal done and having something as simple as a snatched sandwich to celebrate. 

A lively office culture matters when you’re young, it provides opportunities to network, build relationships, and socialise after work.

However, it’s true that work-life balance matters more to Gen Z than, say, my generation who genuflected when they were told they were going down the salt mines for every working hour and gave thanks for the mere fact of having a job. These cultural differences play into generational expectations so that many Gen Z’ers are not as willing to sign their lives away for the lure of lucre.

And thanks to our disastrous housing crisis, remote working gives some young people an opportunity to flee the nest while pursuing careers. They can travel to other countries where housing is affordable so they don’t have to spend their 20s like overgrown kids in their childhood bedrooms doing battle with parents who never imagined that they’d be having the ‘this is not a hotel’ conversation at this point in their lives.

But whether you’re stuck in your childhood bedroom saying, ‘don’t come into my room Mum, I’m on a Zoom’, or living in another country away from family and friends, how healthy is it for youthful, inexperienced workers to be siloed at home, with no physical workplace to go to?

Isolation and loneliness

Many surveys show that isolation is a drawback to virtual work setups, with employees saying that it makes “them feel lonely” and hurts their mental health.

Social networks are often formed around the people we work with.

Speaking about the dangers of a new post-pandemic work culture Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said: “The mall is Amazon. The theatre is Netflix. The office is Zoom. There’s a future where you never leave your home ….and the most dangerous thing will be loneliness.”

Human beings thrive in communities, particularly young ones.

There may also be implications to the concept of remote working for employers, many of whom complain it is impossible to retain Gen Z employees whom they characterise as ‘childish’. 

Hardly a surprise that employees jump ship if companies don’t incorporate them into a company and its culture. 

Loyalty is unlikely to be built by leaving them to disconnectedly toil at home.

Last year, a scholar called Roberta Katz from the Stanford Center for Advance Study in Behavioral Sciences published research that found that Gen Z is not “coddled”, rather they are “highly collaborative, self-reliant, and pragmatic”. They simply have never known office culture.

It’s not a world-class tragedy to be able to rely on the bank of Mum and Dad by having a roof over your head while you work when reports are emerging of workers in Dublin being homeless and others sleeping in their cars. And Gen Z migrants leave with a better education in their back pocket than previous generations.

Maybe there’s a logic to letting expensive office buildings go when an industry is rationalising in the face of a downturn. Nevertheless, as a bare minimum, flexible conference rooms ought to be booked every week. 

This would force younger colleagues into clothes, and out of their bedrooms to interact with older colleagues for valuable mentoring and team-building opportunities in real time.

There’s a price to be paid for missing out on vital mentoring skills and having such atomised working lives. And unless companies provide Gen Z employees with opportunities to show the whites of their eyeballs in the office or some analogous setting, they will likely struggle to hang onto this resilient, ambitious bunch of go-getters.

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