*Originally published by Fast Company
You’d think that most of us wouldn’t swap the convenience of working from home for the days of Monday-Friday commutes. But the newest working generation, Gen Z [b. 1997-2012], wants the option to go back into the office for a work/life we older workers might’ve had. The one that involved social connection, the sounds and smells [sans the microwaved fish from last night’s leftovers], and hands-on collaboration found in working face-to-face.
By trying to balance older generations with Gen Z, are we thrusting people into working environments without any consideration of the long-term consequences? Here’s why we have to meet in the middle.
The oldest Gen Zer is only 26 and, at most, has a couple of years of pre-pandemic work experience under their belt. They hope to see the future of work differently than their older colleagues. In an Axios survey, when asked what they’ll miss out on if continuing to work remotely, 74% of young people say the office community and 41% say mentoring.
Though I work from home and have for more than a couple of decades, the need for social connection and feedback is real [that hermit life just ain’t it for me, and as studies indicate, it can be worse than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day].
Over the years, I’ve been curious about how best to nurture what’s needed as a worker, leader, daughter, sister, godmother, and all-around decent human being. I’ve concluded that other people are a big part of that equation—whether virtually or in person.
During that time, Harvard’s 84-year longitudinal study on what extends health and happiness showed us that good relationships are an important factor, too. If you’re a believer, like Barbra Streisand, that people need people, that makes us the luckiest damn people in the world . . . until we realize people can be the hardest thing about work/life, too.
Separating emotion from work might make life more simple, but as we all learned from the Apple TV series Severance, we have to ask if that’s realistic. In the end, we’re all humans seeking meaning and meaningful connections. Just because one of our objectives is to make money from a job doesn’t mean we can easily separate the intentions to be happy, fulfilled, and feel alive from the same environment.
We have a lot of Gen Z desiring the social and networking benefits of working in person, but on the other hand, there are many who don’t want to commute or need a flexible work option to balance life at home. In an Accenture survey of 9,326 workers, 83% of workers said they prefer a hybrid model that can be the best of both worlds of balancing life responsibilities while fulfilling the need for community.
Yet as we’ve seen with some companies like Apple [or more recently, Amazon], which has tried to mandate just three days in the office, there’s been significant pushback. At Apple, over half of its employees have said they desire to quit as a direct result of the mandate. So if people say they want a hybrid model, why don’t they really want it? It might be because mandates like Apple’s ignore the option of leaving 100% remote work on the table.
Companies like 3M, Spotify, and Hubspot have met in the middle and implemented a hybrid + remote work model, which gives employees the choice between going into the office some/all of the time or working remotely some/all of the time. The keyword among these companies is choice. Instead of revoking the autonomy given to employees through the global pandemic, they’re maintaining it and respecting that the individual employee knows, by now, how they work best.
This hybrid + remote model gives Gen Zers the choice to escape cramped housing quarters and feel what it’s like to thrive in the office and read actual body language, not just what’s being emitted through a screen. The model also gives other age groups the ability to integrate home and work in a way that supports one another, like more flexibility to pick up the kiddos [or grandkiddos].
It’s important not to give too much choice either. Free-for-all scheduling is a recipe for inefficient asynchronous work and dysfunctional teams. A Gen Zer at ABC Studios in NYC told me how excited she was to return to the office until she showed up the first week . . .only to find no one on her team was there.
Provide choices only after some attentive listening [to what people want], design options for connectedness and productivity, then test to see what works and what doesn’t. Be clear that you can’t please everyone, and though concessions need to be made, at least they’re being made together.
It’s easy to make a sweeping mandate to revoke work-from-home privileges or, on the other side of the coin—maintain remote work forever—but the resulting effects aren’t worth it. In a 2022 survey on remote work, Gallup researchers found that employees who don’t work in their preferred location have significantly lower employee engagement, alongside higher burnout and desire to quit.
Your employees’ “preferred location” can be at home with their pets or in the office away from their noisy roommates—but you won’t know until you listen and then provide a path for them to choose, allowing experimentation along the way.
This push-and-pull over where to work boils down to compromising on freedom of choice. Autonomy is a condition that contributes to our feelings of happiness and well-being. There is no dream work scenario where someone sacrifices freedom for career and money, but rather, freedom and true success in life usually go hand-in-hand. Having autonomy is not about doing whatever you want when you want. It’s about being able to nurture what you need to live your best, most fulfilling life in whatever life stage you’re at.
In this battle over where generations want to work, companies can meet in the middle by extending autonomy and letting employees make choices that align with who they are and want to be as individuals and together as communities. Maybe with more options in place, virtually or face-to-face, we can sing along with Streisand and actually feel like the luckiest people in the world.