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The home-working revolution is harming younger workers

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I know this sounds heretical. But if I had a kid working at EY or Bank of America who was being told to show up more often, I’d side with the bosses. While the younger generation is the most likely to demand homeworking, I fear they are also the most disadvantaged by it.

Over the past two years I’ve been hearing stories from 20-somethings about the boredom, loneliness and frustration of internships and jobs that are exclusively or primarily online. One bloke was thrilled to get into the civil service. He’d been the first in his family to go to university, and his proud but poor parents bought him a suit. But on day one, his manager told him to dress down — and come in only two days a week. His excitement has dwindled.

Flexibility can be a godsend if you’re a parent. But if you’re just starting out its benefits are less clear. I’m not urging a return to presenteeism. But I do worry that staggering numbers of 20- and 30- somethings have never worked full-time in an office environment. A survey in the US in October 2022 found that 82 per cent of Gen Z were in that situation — with many fearing they lacked skills as a result. They were probably right.

A new study bears out the old-fashioned idea that sitting with colleagues in a building can improve skills and job satisfaction. Junior tech engineers wrote more code at home but got far less feedback, especially if they were female. In the office, they had mentoring and advice, which made them less likely to quit.

Humans are social beings; we want to feel we belong somewhere. We interact partly through the non-verbal cues that computer screens obscure. Those of us who Zoomed successfully in the pandemic already knew and trusted our colleagues and had a pretty good idea of how our organisations functioned. New starters don’t have that foundation — and a Microsoft study found that staff working remotely are less likely to get in touch with new team members.

The gurus who assert that working from home is better for mental health may be underestimating how fragile people can feel if they can’t bounce ideas off others informally, share worries in a low-key way or overhear colleagues discussing the normal ups and downs of working life.

There is still a gulf in opinion between staff who claim they are more productive at home, partly because they’ve cut the commute, and bosses who fear that work ethic and culture are being degraded. It’s easy to accuse business leaders of knee-jerk presenteeism. But they might just be the best judges of how people are performing.

In India, a fascinating trial found that workers who were randomly assigned to work from home were 18 per cent less productive than their peers, either taking longer to finish tasks or getting less done. While workplaces can be distracting — Professor Nicholas Bloom of Stanford has memorably described a worker being driven mad by a colleague loudly cutting their toenails in an adjoining cubicle — many “homes” are cramped flat-shares with ringing doorbells and pinging washing machines.

Senior executives with luxurious houses are partly to blame. While EY is taking flak for monitoring how often its staff go through office turnstiles, and Bank of America for writing its employees “letters of education”, plenty of other organisations have senior managers who can’t be bothered to travel in on Mondays and Fridays. They are failing to be role models to a younger generation that in the past would have benefited from a quick conversation in the lift, or watching experienced colleagues with clients. In most sectors, a good deal of senior work is about face-to-face relationships. Yet some Gen Zers report feeling reluctant to even pick up the phone or talk to people directly.

Many academic studies find that hybrid work hasa zero or slightly positive impact on performance. And some employers are happy with their own rigorously managed hybrid structures. But productivity studies tend to assess short-term output rather than the development of long-term attributes such as work stamina, creativity or communication skills.

Sadly, those who are the most in favour of remote work are youngsters. Yet they are also the most likely to be overlooked — and miss out on promotion — if they are not physically present. It’s hard enough to make your voice heard in a hybrid meeting if you’re on the screen and others are in the room; and juniors can find this especially difficult. It’s harder to find a mentor if you’re not in the building. And after an online session has ended, the others in the office are likely to be continuing the conversation.

Careers advice sites mention none of this. They encourage people to insist on flexible schedules, “advocate for yourself” and prioritise wellbeing — with the assumption that wellbeing is enhanced by walking your lockdown dog, not taking a call. They don’t mention what would scare me to death if I were in my twenties: the less your boss sees of you, the more likely he or she is to replace you with someone cheaper from a totally different country. Remote working is, after all, a global market.

The idea that WFH is liberating is a privileged position to take. It’s not always true for young people stuck in lonely bedsits, wondering where they fit in. Many students coming out of university in the past few years had already been left far too much to their own devices even after lockdowns, with lecturer strikes and teaching and exams continuing online.

As the labour market cools, leaders who insist on staff coming in more often — and who show up themselves — may be doing many of them a favour

camilla.cavendish@ft.com

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