Encouraging employees to stay home could help curb the spread of Covid-19 — but some leaders are warning that remote work is failing young employees.
According to the most recent research from Gallup, about 45% of full-time employees were working partly or fully remotely as of September. And as Covid's highly contagious omicron variant sweeps through the United States, many companies — including Google, Goldman Sachs and Chevron — have once again delayed or changed their return-to-office plans.
In a recent interview with The Information, former AOL CEO Tim Armstrong argued that workers under 30 could be missing out on "the largest career-learning cycle" of their lives and building their network by not going into the office.
"If I had one piece of advice for younger people in their 30s: Go back to work," he said. "Even if your company doesn't let you come back, create your own working environment and invite some people over."
Similarly, during the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council Summit in May, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said that working remotely "does not work" for young people or "those who want to hustle."
But for Armstrong, the concern isn't any employer's bottom line. It's being able to meet and build connections with your colleagues in person — which, he said, just isn't the same on Zoom calls.
Research shows that many younger employees are feeling increasingly disconnected and committed to their jobs while working from home.
Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, argues that young professionals have less engagement, less commitment to their organization and more social isolation while working remotely, putting them at disadvantage for promotions and other career development opportunities.
There's hidden value, he adds, in in-office interactions that can't be replicated over Zoom. "You get to watch how your co-workers interact with each other, listen to office gossip, and get a stronger sense of what skills the organization values as well as the direction they're heading," Cappelli says.
Working from home could also be damaging young employees' productivity, according to recent research. At the start of 2021, PwC surveyed 1,200 U.S. workers and found that 34% of respondents with less than five years of work experience were "more likely to feel less productive while working remotely" compared to 23% of all survey respondents.
It's difficult to master communication skills and build the relationships with co-workers that help you feel connected to your organization and better understand your job in a remote environment, Bryan Hancock, the global head of talent work at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., tells CNBC Make It.
"Having lunch with co-workers or dropping into your boss's office are valuable interactions that help you have more fun and make a bigger impact because you're more connected to all the folks that are there," he says.
A different poll of more than 500 college students and recent graduates in July from Generation Lab, a research firm that tracks youth trends found that 40% of college students and recent graduates prefer completely in-person work.
In the same poll, 74% of respondents said they miss having an office community while working remotely, while others listed mentoring and in-person manager feedback as unique benefits of going into the office.
Young employees can use a few strategies to maximize the networking and learning opportunities in a remote environment.
Cappelli recommends finding time outside of work to connect with colleagues — a virtual book club, a socially distanced gathering near the office — instead of adding another video call to people's calendars. "We all have Zoom fatigue after the past year," he says.
You should also ask experienced colleagues or a manager for feedback and advice on a project is also a smart move, even if it's in an email or over a five minute phone call. "People are always flattered to be asked for their opinion," he says.
For example: Once you've accomplished a couple tasks, Cappelli suggests, call your boss or send them an email saying, "This is what I've done this week — is this what you're looking for? What are your thoughts?"
It might feel less natural in a remote environment, but it's important to be proactive about building relationships with managers and co-workers as a young professional. Hancock encourages younger employees to organize interactive virtual gatherings with other co-workers, such as happy hours or trivia nights, to get to know people better.
"Even if they're not perfect, those introductions can help you build invaluable connections that will help you be considered for opportunities down the line," he says.