In this segment of “Office Optional with Larry English,” Larry looks at generational views and preferences about remote and hybrid work.
My son is what I like to call a remote native. He entered the workforce after the pandemic hit, and so he’s never known full-time office life. He’s always had the flexibility of the office optional life, and he doesn’t see a rational reason for why he should ever give it up.
My son is hardly alone in his desire for flexibility. A recent McKinsey survey found that when offered flexible work options, 87 percent of workers take advantage — a steady trend across all demographics.
That said, older generations have a different perspective when it comes to remote work compared with their younger colleagues. They have a certain set of expectations around the workplace and have had to adjust to a new way of operating. Their desire for flexibility tends to be driven by factors such as elder care, childcare and personal health and safety considerations.
To successfully lead the workforce through the transition into permanent remote or hybrid work, leaders must consider these different perspectives, needs and preferences, taking care to provide the tools and support everyone requires to have a great remote work experience.
My company, Centric Consulting, has run numerous focus groups with clients, digging into how workers feel about the transition to remote work, what challenges they face and what they like and don’t like about the remote or hybrid workplace experience.
While no generalized statements about any large group of people will be without plenty of outliers, here are some of the major generational trends we’ve noticed:
Gen Z and Millennials are the most resistant to returning to the office. They’re not afraid to seek out other opportunities should their employer not meet their demands for flexibility and self-determination. That said, these younger workers do see value in coming to the office for meeting people and forming work friendships — it’s mandatory attendance that’s the issue. When they do come into the office, they’re comfortable plugging in their laptop wherever there’s an open seat, and they have no need for private offices or personalized spaces. They’re on board with the trend toward hoteling.
Studies support these observations. Gen Z values flexibility above culture, health benefits and other job perks. The 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index found that 52 percent of Gen Z and Millennials are considering changing jobs in the next year. Among LinkedIn users, Gen Z is the most mobile; their rate of job change has increased about 25 percent since the pandemic.
- Gen X is the most open to resuming office life. Gen X workers have been climbing the ladder for some time now. For many, success has coincided with being visible through facetime with company leaders and clients, showing up to the office and being seen working hard and long. It’s difficult for them to translate these experiences to a mostly virtual work environment.
- There’s also a lot Gen X misses about the traditional office experience. In our focus groups, for instance, we regularly hear workers of this generation mourn the ease of in-person relationships at the office. They are not so keen on new office trends such as hoteling. They’d rather have a private office or designated space they can personalize with their photos, diplomas, awards and the like. Unlike younger workers, Gen X is not as comfortable living out of a backpack as they balance office workdays with remote workdays.
- Baby Boomers are willing to go with the flow. Employees toward the end of their career are not interested in rocking the boat — they’re focused on job security. As such, they’re willing to go along with whatever arrangement leadership deems best. They often comment on the preferences of younger workers who have more runway and therefore more flexibility to choose the work environment that serves them best.
A Call for Intentional Leadership
Anytime a workplace is in transition, leaders must bring everyone through the changes. The switch to remote or hybrid work is no different. While the generational trends detailed above are good to keep in mind, the bottom line is that no two workers are the same, and an individualized approach is necessary.
The following steps can help ensure everyone feels positive about remote work:
1. Have a solid listening strategy.
The only way to provide intentional leadership individualized to your employees is to have a listening strategy. Regularly poll people on how they feel about remote work, what challenges they’re struggling with and gaps between their desired and lived work experience. Accommodate preferences where possible within the confines of workplace norms.
Feedback mechanisms are essential, as research has revealed a common disconnect between employees and leadership. This year’s Microsoft Work Trend Index, for instance, found that over half of managers believe leadership is out of touch with employees.
2. Set clearly defined working agreements.
The term ‘hybrid workplace’ is nebulous. Does it mean workers come to the office on designated days? Or whenever they feel like it? Are there rules around when they need to be available online? (Side note: The fewer rules, the better.) Create a working agreement with clearly defined parameters around what is expected of employees. This should be a collaborative effort—ask for employee input about their preferences and work together to come to an agreement that balances those preferences with business imperatives.
3. Invest in training on remote work tools.
Quality collaboration tools not only make remote work possible, but they also make it enjoyable. That said, not everyone is going to be enthusiastic about incorporating a new tool into their day. Leaders must communicate the necessity for collaboration tools and provide training to ensure everyone knows how to use them. The key is providing scheduled, formal training — don’t expect employees to take time to independently dig in on their own.
4. Plan strategic in-person gatherings.
Occasionally bring people together for meetings, cultural events or just for fun. My company hosts a few annual meetings and encourages business units to plan some local events, as well. We’ve always seen a huge ROI with this strategy. Getting together gives people an opportunity to strengthen their bonds with one another and helps connect them with the company mission and values. It also helps people see their coworkers as human beings, not just workers, adding to the overall humanity of the organization.
As the remote work experiment unfolds in real time, it’s important for leaders to understand that everyone is going to come with unique expectations and preferences around work. There are broad themes among generations, but you must look more closely at your own teams. You can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to designing a hybrid or remote workplace.