by Chris Dyer
The COVID pandemic refuses to be a predictable, easily managed challenge. Just when it seems to be abating, a new strain comes along and sends companies, schools, and other organizations scrambling. However, most companies are developing (and revising) return-to-work plans, whether in onsite, remote, or hybrid models. In this process, leaders need to be aware that different generations feel differently about coming back to the office.
The Conference Board (2021) recently conducted a survey of employees and found that:
55 percent of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) don’t see the need to return to the office.
45 percent of Generation Xers (1965 to 1980) want to continue working from home.
36 percent of Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964) prefer remote work.
At the risk of over-generalizing, what we’re seeing is a conflict that pits senior leaders (Boomers) against middle management (Millennials) and individual contributors (Gen-Xers). The solution, in my opinion, lies in the middle ground and flexibility. We’ll look at what is motivating the different generations and, more importantly, how you can leverage this information as you shape your own return-to-work policies.
What’s Behind the Number of Millennials Working From Home? In the early days of the pandemic, the main reason people preferred working at home was that onsite work carried the risk of contracting COVID or passing it on to family members (The Conference Board, 2021). More recently, however, the key reason is flexibility and freedom (Hall, 2021). Now that people have experienced remote work, and found that they can be just as productive, why would they want to go back?
Leadership professor James R. Bailey (2021) says that there are several reasons people prefer remote work, including work-life balance, lack of commute, fewer workplace distractions, less pressure to conform, comfortable and less expensive clothing, and others. In addition, note that Millennials are between the ages of 25 and 40, when many people invest significant time and energy in starting and growing families.
Gen-Xers tend to believe that career advancement requires direct contact with the right people. Performance is important, but relationships are even more important. For this generation, Bailey claims, it’s not what you know but who you know. So, while Gen-Xers see the benefits of remote work, they are not completely sold on the idea.
Bailey suggests that boomers, who are between 57 and 75 years, may have experienced working from home as a glimpse into retired life. Apparently, 64% of them didn’t care for what they saw. Of course, spending retirement on the golf course and spending it in a home office are two different things. But maybe Boomers see an advantage in the regimen of getting dressed, commuting, and being in a structured office environment.
Food for thought: Employees In Remote Work: Redesign Processes, Practices and Strategies to Engage a Remote Workforce, my coauthor Kim Shepherd and I are strong advocates of the remote model. However, we also recognize that it isn’t necessarily the best choice for everybody. Heather Schlitz (2021), for example, points out that younger workers may miss out on networking opportunities by working from home. Those opportunities can be especially important in the “formative months and years of their careers.”
That isn’t necessarily a reason to dismiss remote work altogether, but it does suggest that individuals need to be proactive about their own professional development. Remote and hybrid work is the new normal, so we all need to explore new ways to network effectively. After all, showing up at the office won’t be very helpful if most others are working from home.
Another factor to consider is mental health considerations. The Conference Board survey (2021) found that many of the same people who are in favor of working remotely also expressed concerns about stress and burnout when working from home. If you are among this group, find out if your employer provides wellness benefits, which may include counseling and support for these issues.
Food for thought: Employers Given the competitive nature of the talent market, companies that are flexible are likely to do a better job of attracting and retaining top talent. Melin and Egkolfopoulou (2021) cite a survey showing that 39% of adults would quit if their employer offered no remote options . . . and the number was higher among Millennials, at 49%. This is just one factor driving the Great Resignation, and some, such as Kathryn Minshew, co-founder and CEO of career website The Muse, think the workplace will continue to evolve (Sherr and Carson, 2021).
Leadership in business is about managing and facilitating change, and unprecedented change calls for unprecedented leadership. A first step in your own organization is to understand who wants to work in the office, who doesn’t and, in both cases, why — what is driving your people in this current environment? One way to do this is to conduct a survey. It’s difficult to gauge employee opinions just by asking around. Some people will be vocal, but others can be reticent when questioned directly by authority figures.
With this information you can begin to develop policies for a new workforce model that embraces remote or hybrid arrangements. That model should be inclusive and provide channels for productive interaction, such as brainstorming, collaboration and mentoring. It should include technologies that are as flexible as they are mobile. More than ever, it needs to incorporate emotional intelligence and resources to support the emotional and mental well-being of employees. Perhaps most importantly, it should provide training for managers and supervisors to adapt to and be effective in the new reality.
If you have ideas or questions on these topics, I invite you to join a community that Kim Shepherd and I have created on Slack: Remote Work Movement. Sign up at https://chrisdyer.com/remotework. Together we can all become unprecedented leaders.
References On Millennials Working From Home: Bailey, JR (2021) This is how each generation is feeling about returning to the office. Available from: https://www.fastcompany.com/90673558/this-is-how-each-generation-is-feeling-about-returning-to-the-office [Last accessed December 28, 2021]
Dyer, C and Shepherd, K (2021) Remote Work: Redesign processes, practices and strategies to engage a remote workforce. Kogan Page, London.
Hall, D (2021) The main reasons why so many people are choosing to work remotely. Available from: https://www.bbntimes.com/companies/the-main-reasons-why-so-many-people-are-choosing-to-work-remotely [Last accessed December 28, 2021]
Melin, A and Egkolfopoulou, M (2021) Employees are quitting instead of giving up working from home. Available from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-01/return-to-office-employees-are-quitting-instead-of-giving-up-work-from-home [Last accessed December 28, 2021]
Schlitz, H (2021) Millennials are ‘questioning the wisdom’ of returning to the office more than older generations, even though in-person work might benefit them the most. Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/millennials-more-likely-to-question-office-return-remote-work-survey-2021-7 [Last accessed December 27, 2021]
Schwartz, ND and Marcos, CM (2021) Return to office hits a snag: young resisters. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/26/business/economy/return-office-young-workers.html [Last accessed December 27, 2021]
Sherr, I and Carson E (2021) The great resignation is changing work in America, and it’s here to stay. Available from: https://www.cnet.com/news/the-great-resignation-is-changing-work-in-america-and-its-here-to-stay [Last accessed December 29, 2021]
The Conference Board (2021) Survey: Amid Higher Productivity, 43 Percent of US Workers Question Need to Return to Workplace. Available from: https://www.conference-board.org/press/Return-to-Work-Survey-June2021 [Last accessed December 27, 2021]
CHRIS DYER Chris Dyer is the founder and CEO of PeopleG2, where he manages 30 full-time remote employees and 3,000 independent contractors. PeopleG2 is routinely ranked as one of the best places to work and has been listed as one of Inc.’s 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies. Having made the transition to remote during the recession in 2009 with stunning success, Chris Dyer is now a world-renowned expert on remote leadership and productive company culture.