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How will remote work impact the careers of younger workers?

Most Brits think working from home will harm career starters in the long run.

As backing for strict Covid restrictions fades in countries like the UK, the question of whether mass working from home should be phased out is being hotly debated. Most polls suggest that a majority of employees who can do so want to spend less time in offices than they did pre-pandemic, and most commentators think they’ll get their wish. So economists, sociologists and other experts have been keeping themselves busy predicting how such a pivotal shift in working norms will impact different groups, and whether these impacts will be mostly positive or mostly negative.

One group that is getting a lot of attention are career-starters working in white-collar industries; younger people who have never been part of the pre-pandemic working world and who are in roles that could be done remotely indefinitely. Lots of people are concerned that this group would lose out from a new WFH status quo. 7 in 10 senior business decision-makers and 62 percent of the general British public think that younger workers who do not go into an office will struggle with career progression. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has voiced similar sentiments, as have some trade unions.

But what do younger workers themselves think? The Office of National Statistics (ONS) asked 16-29 year-olds what they felt the advantages and disadvantages of remote working were. Respondents said that while they could complete work quicker when WFH, they felt remote work had more distractions, made it harder to think of new ideas, came with fewer work opportunities and made it harder for them to work with others.

Part of the problem may be that certain career-boosting things require a degree of human connection that is just much easier to achieve IRL. Casually running into senior execs in the corridor can build a relationship in a way that might not happen in structured online meetings. Small talk with colleagues over the coffee machine can unexpectedly spark ideas for collaboration or better ways of working. Being able to passively observe how more seasoned workers do things can help newbies build skills and develop professional norms.

Research also suggests that when it comes to things like promotions, pay rises and general opportunities, humans are hardwired to prioritise personal connection over more objective measures of success. One 2015 study found that remote workers who were 15 percent more productive than their on-site colleagues were still less likely to be promoted than the people their bosses saw every day.

Of course, studies like this were conducted pre-pandemic. It’s possible that the last few years - where working from home being the norm rather than the exception in many professions - has changed how managers and employees feel about it and might make them much less likely to undervalue remote workers' contributions.  Plus, career progression isn’t the only important factor when it comes to job satisfaction. The ONS respondents also said that being remote improved their work-life balance and their overall wellbeing; both pretty crucial things.

Then again, if remote working makes it harder for career starters to build strong relationships in the workplace that will have repercussions beyond promotions and pay rises. Ultimately, most of us spend a great many number of our waking hours working. It therefore often becomes an important social outlet, especially for people who have just moved to a new place or haven’t started their own family or are looking to expand their social circle – all things that are more likely to be true of younger workers than older ones. Before Covid, 80 percent of employees said they had co-workers they considered to be friends, and one in five people met their romantic partner at work. According to Gallup, one of the best ways to be happy and engaged at our job is to have strong friendships with at least some of our coworkers.

Read our explainer on: what motivates us to work.

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