Is WFH Robbing Fresh Employees of an 'Office Education?'
Think back to your first day at your first “real” job: nervous intros with new coworkers, settling into your desk, small talk in the break room or maybe lunch with the boss.
Now imagine this never happened. As the weeks stretch into months, you never meet any of your colleagues in person. In fact, a year later, you still don’t even know how tall they are — because you’ve only seen them from the waist up, on-screen.
That’s the reality for a cohort of young employees who graduated and started work during the pandemic. Remote work has brought many positive innovations, and Gen Z is uniquely equipped to thrive in a digital context. But I can’t help but wonder if our youngest workers — folks only now entering the workforce, who don’t have any other perspective — may somehow be missing out.
The hidden education of the office
I remember my own first weeks in the workforce as intimidating, and sometimes alienating. But those overwhelming early days are exactly when we’re discovering our work identities, and building the soft skills that we’ll need for the rest of our working lives. Beyond the ins-and-outs of our tasks and roles, we’re getting a crash-course in professionalism, responsibility, relationship-building, negotiating, time-management, empathy and communication.
Many companies have adapted their onboarding programs admirably for digital environments. But all the training materials in the world can’t really make up for the life materials Gen Z is missing out on.
In person, it’s far easier to pick up on the norms and hierarchies of the office. It’s side-by-side that we witness successful management techniques, or overhear good customer etiquette. As much as Zoom has kept us connected, you just can’t observe your co-workers crushing their sales calls when you’re all working out of individual living rooms.
Iterative adjustments and serendipitous learnings are lost when we’re not surrounded by more senior employees. I remember in one early software job, how grateful I was the day a co-worker casually informed me I’d been using the phrase “perpetual license” incorrectly for months — a micro-correction that saved me any further embarrassment down the line.
Working in an office also offers the opportunity to meet non-hierarchical mentors, or intuit surprising career paths — seeing someone from the product development team in action, for example, may inspire you to plot out an entirely new course.
The reassurance of ritual
There’s something powerful about a shared experience, even if it’s one that seems — on the surface — as mundane as heading to your desk each day. The collective rituals of the office are actually deeply important for individual well-being: R;esearch shows that consistency in the workplace both boosts productivity, and lowers stress.
Remote work has destroyed those old routines. Yes, new ones have been cobbled together, but without familiar, external signposts, it’s exceedingly easy right now to feel unmoored. Though younger employees may not know what they’re missing, that ritual of beginning your day, putting on your work clothes, or entering a physical space can actually trigger your brain that it’s time to get into work mode. It’s exactly those rhythms that help you get you “in the zone” and be at your most productive.
I believe the workplace helps us stay emotionally level, too, acting as a sort of “ballast” against shifting tides of energy and enthusiasm. Side-by-side, among people working towards the same goal, it’s far easier to judge what’s appropriate to get fired up about, and what isn’t worth shedding tears over.
A laboratory for compassion
OK. Office life is far from perfect. There’s always the person who listens to his headphones too loud, or the one who heats up fish in the microwave. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to office conflict.
But something important is also at work in these interactions: compassion.
Workplaces often bring us in contact with a more diverse group of people than elsewhere in our lives: our co-workers. At some point or another, we’ve all found ourselves working side-by-side with people who come from different backgrounds, who have different working styles, who communicate in surprising ways. Even if it’s not always pleasant, this exposure offers a crash course in empathy and patience, two life skills that always seem in short supply.
Unfortunately, getting to know new coworkers digitally doesn’t quite offer the same 360-degree experience. Sure, Zoom can offer a glimpse into home life, but it’s also much harder to get to know the real person behind the colleague, especially if you’ve never actually met them. Casual conversations, a chance to grab coffee, cues to help pick up on personality and passions — all those contextualizing opportunities are more difficult to come by.
Compassion isn’t just about building workplace friendships, or avoiding a blow-up with that person who’s always tapping a pen on their desk. Research shows that empathetic workers are more productive and engaged, and have higher chances of success in their jobs.
This is the next generation of leaders — and they’re going to need some help
I don’t mean to be sounding the alarm bells or suggesting that all hope is lost for a generation that, by and large, looks poised for great things. Gen Zers — who comprise a whopping 36 percent of the working population — want to make an impact (not just a salary!) with their work and are searching for employers whose values align with their own.
I also know firsthand from watching Gen Z members on my team that they’re a resilient bunch. But there are things that leaders can be doing to make sure their younger workers aren’t missing out on those critical early opportunities for professional development, both formal and informal.
I’m hoping eventually some in-person component will be possible in the future — even if just a few hours or days a week — but in the meantime, here are a few things that have worked for us:
Taking onboarding seriously. In a virtual work setting, this is really the only chance to impart mission, values and culture. For young employees, onboarding also acts as a sort of mini bootcamp on norms and expectations in the workplace. An upfront investment of time, energy and process here is worth it to develop a streamlined, consistent approach.
Championing informal networking. There’s so much to be learned beyond one’s own team or manager, but it’s hard to connect with others without those serendipitous moments in the lunchroom or after work. One way we jumpstart this process is by ensuring all new hires join me for a virtual breakfast, a chance to break down departmental silos and form work friendships right out of the gate. Our regular Zoom social events offer another chance for coworkers to connect informally.
Making a point of quarterly reviews. In the past, these may have been treated as formulaic or obligatory — another HR hoop to jump through. Now, they’re an ongoing conversation throughout the year, and mission-critical touch points. For managers, it’s vital to use this opportunity to listen, above all, and to offer coaching opportunities to employees new to the world of work.
Finding ways to replicate indirect learning. Apart from an always-open Zoom “cafe,” we’ve got department-specific channels so that salespeople or customer service reps can pop in and bounce ideas around in a more casual manner. None of this replicates the energy or insights of the sales floor, but it’s something.
Showing, not just telling. We all learn by example. Right now, modeling opportunities are largely limited to Zoom calls, emails and Slack exchanges — so make the most of them. These are moments where company values — respect, empathy, professionalism — can be lived, not just preached by senior leaders. Even something as simple as keeping your camera on sends a strong message about professionalism and expectations.
There are real upsides to remote work, of course. People from every generation are developing or strengthening critical new skills right now — from mastering digital tools to working autonomously. And really, who knows: maybe this anticipates an entirely new way of working, one with fewer offices and more autonomy, where those classic “first day in the office” rites of passage are a thing of the past (though I’d argue some form of in-person work will always be a piece of the puzzle).
Still, understanding career paths, cultivating compassion, and the other benefits of in-person coworking do seem timeless, whatever the future of work holds — so let’s be sure Gen Z gets every benefit they can, wherever they’re working from.