When the pandemic arrived in 2020, everyone’s definition of work changed in a heartbeat. Most people headed home, leaving their offices, cubicles, water coolers, and daily commutes behind. After making it through that massive disruption, employers found an even tougher challenge on the other side. They’ve had to figure out how to sustain a positive, productive work culture outside of a shared space. Even now — more than 3 years later — many HR and business leaders still haven’t filled in the blanks. But the delay isn’t helping anyone, especially Generation Z.
What exactly is happening here? And what are the implications? Let’s take an in-depth look at what employers should consider…
Why Generation Z Matters
It’s not surprising to learn that what we know about Gen Z on the youngest members of our workforce.
Imagine starting your first adult job at home. You have no peer relationships or experience in how to navigate organizational life. Think about how overwhelming it would be to move through each day without knowing how to find context, where to look for the right resources, or who can most easily steer you in the right direction. But this has become a norm for all too many younger workers.
No one recruits people to fail. And despite a shaky economy, talent is increasingly hard to recruit and retain. So employers are understandably concerned about onboarding and upskilling Generation Z staff more effectively in today’s remote work environment.
What’s the Next Step for Employers?
Some organizations already had a head start on this new world order. For example, virtual teams have long been what we know about Gen Z. This company continues to improve remote work processes and systems. And recently, Buffer has focused on preventing issues that keep recent graduates from succeeding as new hires.
Buffer is the exception rather than the rule. Most companies had not considered challenges like these before the pandemic, so they were totally unprepared to support young hires in a remote climate. Now, organizations everywhere are actively seeking insights so they can make it work.
Unfortunately, useful data about key issues and best practices is still limited. But smart employers are thinking ahead, so they can minimize negative consequences. For instance, it’s especially important to consider how remote work potentially limits access to equitable opportunities for career growth and development among younger workers.
Here’s a central question to address: “Compared with recent generations, do our Gen Z employees have what we know about Gen Z and develop in their careers?”
Defining Generation Z
When talking about how young people are affected by remote work, we want to be clear. This group includes working-age people born after 1996. This aligns with Pew Research, which selected 1997 as the starting point. Before then, Gen Z was too young to be affected by political and cultural changes that notably influenced Millennials.
Currently, Gen Z and Millennials are experiencing very different life stages. Therefore, when researching these groups, it’s important to apply different measures of security, financial stability, and so forth.
For example, many Millennials are starting a family, buying a home, and settling down. Meanwhile, Gen Zs are finishing high school or college, moving out of their parent’s home, getting their first job, and becoming more independent.
Gen Zs are the definitive internet generation. All members of this cohort were born after the internet became widely available, and they came of age surrounded by the abundance and complexities of social media. Theoretically, Gen Zs are ready to thrive in a highly connected business world. But are they ready to thrive in a remote-first world?
Remote Work Benefits for Generation Z
Remote work has created an unprecedented opportunity for people who want more autonomy because they can more directly manage their work schedule, location, office set-up, family time, and more. So understandably, remote work is popular among older workers who want to improve their work-life balance. But what about Gen Z?
Here are some reasons younger workers value remote work:
- Lower commuting expenses
- Less commute time (and more time for other priorities)
- More professional opportunities for people with accessibility needs (when commuting is difficult or impossible)
- More time/flexibility to pursue further education while earning an income
- Potential to work for multiple employers at once (increase income and expand skills faster)
- Likely exposure to a more diverse spectrum of people across roles and geographies (compared with onsite jobs)
- Reduce the risk of toxic management (because behavior is captured in communication channels such as email, slack, and Zoom calls)
- Freedom to reduce stress by taking breaks for self-care, or spending time with family/friends
- Potential to start a family at a younger age (if desired) by leveraging flexible scheduling
- Ability to take time for caregiving, if older or younger family members are at home
Remote Work Risks for Generation Z
Although Gen Z can benefit from remote work, there are downsides, as well:
- More obstacles to informal learning. Fewer chances to overhear and join relevant conversations, discuss questions in the hall and on breaks, or be invited to meetings and activities on-the-fly
- Fewer 1-on-1 relationship-building opportunities
- Lack of face-to-face community connections
- Risk of isolation
- Missed opportunities for on-the-job learning (skills and institutional knowledge)
- More difficulty finding support networks and career networks
- Threats to personal time (Digital days at home may start earlier and end later than normal)
- Potential for increased stress if micromanaged from a distance
- Zoom and screen fatigue
- Pressure to create a proper workspace, even if it’s not affordable for a young person
- Higher out-of-pocket expenses (equipment/workspace, internet, phones, hardware)
- Regular remote office distractions that affect focus and concentration (for example, neighborhood construction, power outages, housemates)
- Greater burnout risk (from a persistent lack of boundaries, unclear scheduling, or unrealistic expectations)
Long-Term Equity Implications
Some of the problems noted above could have a serious, lasting impact on young workers’ professional and personal lives. For example, without in-office experience, Gen Z staff are more likely to suffer from a lack of mentorship, advancement opportunities, informal learning, and professional community.
In addition, remote and hybrid work models often blur the lines between home and work. If you’re home, you could be working. And if you’re working, you could be doing something else. Distractions are all around. Is this decision fatigue or a lack of discipline? When remote workers don’t separate these roles at the start of their careers, boundary issues can potentially follow them all the way to retirement.
That’s why it’s especially important for business leaders, managers, and older team members to understand why remote Gen Z workers need extra support to establish a foundation for success.
Remote Work FAQs
Why Do Employers Oppose Remote Work?
Some employers don’t support virtual teams because they have multiple business concerns. They may expect the worst: weaker productivity, collaboration, informal learning, and a loss of tribal knowledge. Or they may be concerned about employee wellbeing: increased isolation, stress, and disengagement.
Has Remote Work Decreased Productivity?
Depending on an organization’s workload and scheduling, remote work can lead to a decrease in productivity. Employees may be more distracted when working remotely, or if their workspace is chaotic they struggle to focus.
Many other factors can reduce productivity in a remote or hybrid work setting, so this is an important consideration to discuss openly on an ongoing basis.
Why Is Remote Work So Exhausting?
Remote work can feel exhausting, especially if you haven’t established a clear separation between work space and home space. Juggling these blurred lines can add a psychological load that increases stress and eventually leads to exhaustion.
Setting People Up for Success
Given what what we know about Gen Z and remote work, how can employers create a culture that helps young workers feel comfortable working at your organization? It may seem like in-office work is the best answer for anyone at the start of their career. However, some digital solutions can make remote-first teams feel more connected, supported, and included. For example:
- Establish consistent office hours
- Encourage everyone to rely on collaborative communication tools
- Practice knowledge sharing as a way of working
- Build and promote remote-first mentorship programs
- Regularly ask Gen Z workers and managers open-ended questions about what is working (and what is not)
- Schedule periodic digital water cooler chats and invite everyone to suggest agenda ideas
It’s important for leaders to build on what many of us have learned about remote and hybrid work over the past few years. Challenge yourselves and others to think outside the box. Put yourselves in the shoes of each employee — not just younger people — and think of ways to help everyone feel more connected and included. Experiment. Hold on to what works, and integrate it into your culture.