Why a future of remote work will fail the next generation


Long-term remote working could mean younger employees miss out on vital office experiences

With Jeremy Hunt declaring that workers need the “fizz and excitement” of working together in an office environment, David Spencer-Percival argues that more permanent move to remote working could mean a lonely future for younger employees.

Boris Johnson is yet again rolling up his sleeves in preparation for a fight this week as he puts pressure on employers to bring their teams back to the office.

Like many battles he’s taken on in recent months, it’s likely to be hard won, but I for one, am backing him this time – because there is far too much at stake. And I’m not talking about the high street or the City of London.

According to Morgan Stanley, in London, nearly half of office staff are working from home five days a week. And a survey from PwC showed that 86% of UK bosses see a long-term shift towards remote work enduring.

This year’s lockdown turned out to be a dress rehearsal for a future nobody asked for, and it has forced us to learn and adapt in ways we never imagined possible. Now we must decide which bits will stick, making decisions against the backdrop of an aggressive virus, a devastating recession and irreversible changes to the fabric of our society.

We’re at loggerheads. Many business leaders are backing the government and urging workers to return to the office. Yet within the last week, JPMorgan Chase and Schroeders – the most corporate of employers – have committed to remote working on a permanent basis. And many tech companies are now advocating never coming back to “the office”.

New generations

The most passionate argument for our return is to save the already buckling British high-street – which has been left decimated as millions of flat whites and lunchtime sandwiches go unconsumed.

The threat to the shape of our high-street must be taken seriously, but I am a firm believer that those businesses will adapt to survive or fail. To resist the shift to online shopping would be like King Canute trying to hold back the waves.

But the more pressing and devastating impact of moving to remote-first will be on the human potential of our workforce today, and in the future.

Because it is not the responsibility of all employers to save the high-street. It is, however, their responsibility to protect and support their people. And this is most true of the youngest in our economy.

Ask anyone over 40 about work from home and they will probably advocate it. They have become jaded by office politics and worn down by the commute. But remember the excitement and adventure of going into a new job, starting a career, meeting people?

That’s why you ask anyone under 30 the same question, and they are desperate to get back to a group environment.

Many young people form lifelong friendships in those early years – friendships that are not only emotionally necessary and stabilising, but later become powerful professional networks.

Of course, there are practical problems young workers face working from home, especially true in big cities – where many Gen Z-ers will be stuck in a shared house, balancing laptops on their knees instead of having the technological benefits or peace of a home office.

And we have to take very seriously the negative impact this way of working can have on their mental health.

Making connections

The experience anyone has in the early days of learning on the job is a foundation for how they perform throughout the rest of their career.

Many young people form lifelong friendships in those early years – friendships that are not only emotionally necessary and stabilising, but later become powerful professional networks.

They miss that coffee shop trip, but not because they feel a philanthropic urge to save the high-street.

They want a chat with their workmates, a bit of gossip and yes, probably even to flirt! We have seen a number of relationships start at work and end up life partners, with marriages and families to follow. It’s a right of passage and it’s being taken away.

I have founded three businesses, and I am about to launch my fourth. The success of each of these companies has been driven in part by the energy of graduates and young professionals. I have hired thousands of first jobbers and I feel a deep sense of responsibility to this generation – so should every employer.

This is a generation starting their careers in the middle of the worst recession in living memory. And without having access to the professional tools and personal development that are gained from being in an office, they don’t stand a chance.

Of course each industry is different, but certainly in recruitment or in a startup environment, the energy and motivation within a team comes from being sat side by side (albeit socially distant).

Guiding a generation

Office etiquette, team bonding, face-to-face engagement and learning simply cannot be replicated through Zoom or virtual meetings alone.

And this learning environment requires input from every level, as the greenest team members absorb the cultural and professional tools they need from senior people in the company. So management should not be squirrelled away in their suburban family homes – they need to be hands on, in the trenches, guiding the next generation.

With all this in mind, I am not opposed to flexibility or some element of remote working. It is absolutely right that staff should be offered some element of choice – especially given the current environment, employers must be sensitive to an individual’s needs.

But we cannot and should not sound the death knell for the office, because we will also be wreaking devastating damage on all of our futures. The employees who will need the tools and professional acumen garnered from office life to navigate this mess in decades to come, are the ones who need our support most today.

The alternative is a dark lonely future for a whole generation of young workers; one of isolation and staring into screens and not being able to learn how to communicate or interact. And that will be a huge loss to the world.

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