While some organizations have embraced remote work since the pandemic, research suggests it may be hindering younger professionals through loss of networking, social interplay, and mentoring opportunities. However, there are some steps associations and employees can take to mitigate these impacts.

The global COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed how and where most Americans work. This crisis has forced many organizations to close—or severely limit access to—their brick-and-mortar offices and offer 100 percent telework to all eligible employees. This dramatic change has been lauded by many as a long overdue rethinking of how we work.

However, others have noted telework created additional stressors with home-life balance, feelings of isolation from team members and office culture, and a lack of comprehensive networking and collaboration with others. This article addresses research which suggests that the latter outcomes affect younger workers in disproportionate measures and provides examples of some things these workers and employers can do to mitigate the problems.

Telework’s Toll on Younger Workers

A December 2020 Washington Post article noted that younger workers struggle the most with this new way of working. Forty-two percent of workers aged 18 to 49 indicated that the 100 percent telework model has been difficult. One 27-year-old female employee said in the office she drew “energy from other people being energized,” while at home her motivation could run out quickly.

Similarly, The Atlantic article, “Generation Work-From-Home May Never Recover,” pointed out that although telework was thought to attract younger workers, in reality it is not an advantage. The structure, routine, focus, socialization, networking, and stress relief offered in a physical workplace are more advantageous for those newer in their careers. The article also noted that most studies finding positive benefits of teleworking rely on people who self-selected remote work.

While younger generations tend to be a bit better at navigating technology to help them work more flexibly, there is still evidence to support the need for in-person socialization early in their careers.

In July 2020, MetLife’s 18th Annual US Employee Benefits Trends Study showed that Gen Z employees (aged 24 and younger) were three times more likely to have sought help for mental health issues like stress and burnout than their more seasoned counterparts. Further, 82 percent of Gen Z workers studied said they feel less connected working remotely, while roughly half reported having communication issues at work and trouble getting the resources necessary to thrive.

Best Practices for Telework

Workers who value day-to-day flexibility in their schedules are better telework candidates, while those who prefer more strict boundaries in their professional and personal lives are less-ideal candidates. Career stage matters as well. More experienced workers who have built strong social and professional networks may not suffer as much from the lack of face-to-face contact at the office. Younger workers, who are still trying to make such ties, may find remote working can be alienating.

Since younger workers represent the future of associations, what can employers and workers do to meet the telework challenges?

First, employers need to recognize the problem. Then, they can provide opportunities to younger workers. Networking events, mentorships, and manager one-on-one coaching are a few techniques. In addition, training programs in successful structuring and participation in virtual meetings that address topics like how to set up workspaces and how to plan for work and time off can help. Equally important is offering training in using remote technology and how managers can supervise remotely.

Younger employees need to communicate their needs to employers. For example, asking their managers for connections to mentors inside and outside the organization is a good first step. They can also join and participate in professional groups outside the workplace to build other networks. Virtual volunteering is another way for young professionals to grow their networks, have social interactions, and help others at the same time. Finally, younger workers can identify how the remote experience and 2020 in general has helped them acquire and build competencies, like adaptability.

As entire workforces have migrated online, it has become clear that organizations can keep their businesses running well without a centralized physical hub. While younger generations tend to be a bit better at navigating technology to help them work more flexibly, there is still evidence to support the need for in-person socialization early in their careers. If employers want the best future workers, they must recognize this need.

In this time of great disruption, it is incumbent upon employers and employees to create new models that serve their people and the bottom line in the most productive and constructive ways.

Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP, president of PGHR Consulting, Inc., contributed to this article.

Valerie Keels

Valerie Keels, SPHR, is head of office services at GAVI Alliance in Washington, DC, and a member of ASAE’s Finance and Business Operations Professionals Advisory Council.