In-office or remote work: which do Gen Zers really prefer for career progression?
The hybrid working headache is not shifting but intensifying. It is a straightforward calculation to work out that by the end of the decade, members of Generation Z — born between 1997 and 2012 — will make up around 30% of the workforce. Yet where they want to work, and thrive, is much harder to determine right now.
A flurry of recent reports analyzing whether Gen Zers would prefer to be in the office or work remotely are wildly contradictory. For instance, a global report published in mid-October by workforce solutions company Aquent found that 77% of 18- to 24-year-olds are worried that remote work restricts their career progression.
Over 3,480 people were quizzed for the research, and Gen Zers were the most concerned of all age groups. Indeed, 39% of 25- to 40-year-olds answered remote work would not limit opportunities, whereas 44% of those aged 41 to 55 years old and 46% of those aged over 56 years old thought the same.
Elsewhere, 72% of Gen Zers in the U.K. said they wanted to be in the office between three and five days a week, according to a study published in September by Bright Network, a graduate careers and employment firm.
However, another report published in November by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and King’s Business School found that Gen Zers in London believed remote working had benefits that could help their career progression. Additionally, many people in this generation have just entered the workforce and have never worked in an office.
Considering the mixed picture, what could — and should — employers be doing today to better prepare for tomorrow, when this cohort will lead?
Open communication and individual accountability
The quiet quitting trend gave rise to a lot of negative speculation about Gen Z’s appetite to work as hard as previous generations. Naturally, such sweeping generalizations are riddled with falsehoods. Young people do in fact want to work hard, despite many never having worked in an office before.
The tricky part for employers, is there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but nevertheless they must improve engagement with their youngest workers, stressed Aliza Sweiry, Aquent’s U.K.managing director. “Gen Zers, many of whom have never set foot in an office, want an environment that fosters open communication and individual accountability along with training and learning opportunities, whether they work in the office or from home,” she added.
Interestingly, the Policy Institute at King’s Colleague London and King’s Business School report suggested 40% of London workers aged between 16 and 24 years old said it is easier to put themselves forward for important tasks when working with colleagues remotely. And 45% said remote working made it easier to ask questions — almost double the proportion of 25- to 49-year-olds (24%) and three times the percentage of those aged 50 years old and above (14%).
“Development often comes from observing others and opportunities from chance connections made when people get together,” said Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London. “But our study shows that younger workers don’t share these concerns to the same extent as older workers.”
He said this was partly due to younger workers not realizing “what they are missing” but also because “older workers are stuck with an outdated view of how development can happen.” Moreover, younger workers who have grown up with digital skills are more likely to “see the positive potential in how the use of technology can flatten hierarchies” to enable them to ask questions, put themselves forward, and build connections, added Prof. Duffy.
Beware office nostalgia
Gen Zer Aqua Zumaraite, operations and partnerships lead at flexible work specialists Flexa Careers, lives in Liverpool, U.K., and has worked both in-office and remotely in the last seven years. “I’ve grown quicker in my career when working remotely. I am much more productive, motivated, and happy,” she said. “The amount of possibilities that remote work opens up for young people is incredible.”
At Flexa Careers, Zumaraite works entirely remotely, apart from having one monthly meeting in the London headquarters. She said that presenteeism should not be essential for career progression.
But ultimately, the onus is on employers to provide each employee with the flexibility, tools, and skills to flourish wherever suits them. “You have to work in a way that is best for you,” added Zumaraite. “For some people, that is being in a busy office environment, whereas for others, it is working at home, and for some, it’s a mixture of both.”
Zumaraite challenged the Aquent statistic that 77% of Gen Zers think that not being in the office restricted career progression and blamed social media for rose-tinting the experience. “For those who have not been to the office, they might be keen to go as all they see on TikTok is fun and games, teasing and pranking and playing pool,” she said. “In reality, that’s not the case.”
This point chimed with Ludmila Milla, co-founder at CEO of e-learning provider UJJI. “As you are not in the office every day, this generation doesn’t see the struggles and the bad days the other people have, in any role or level in the organization,” she said. “It ends up misleading how they see the other people’s careers and achievements.”
Social media is damaging to career ambitions in other ways, added Milla. “Before, we used to compare ourselves with our classmates, colleagues, and neighbors. Today we can compare ourselves with anyone, and this can be damaging to someone’s confidence.”
One of the common refrains in various surveys about work preferences and fears around a lack of career progression for those starting out and working remotely is “face time” opportunities are limited. However, Zumaraite argued that it depends on the company culture.
“At Flexa Careers, we make sure we have weekly calls with our senior leaders, as well as a Thursday ‘slacking off’ call where we chat about all kinds of random topics for half an hour and get some more personal ‘face time,’” she added. “I also know that if I need anything, I can easily message them on Slack, and they will always make time for us.”
Liz Sebag-Montefiore, director and co‑founder of 10Eighty, an employee engagement company in London, applauded this approach. “Problems around career progression derive not from remote working or Gen Z workers, but from poor management,” she said. “It’s not where or when we work but why we work — and to a certain extent how we work — that managers need to be aware of.”
According to Sebag-Montefiore, managers can no longer rely on in-office interactions and “water-cooler moments” if an organization has a hybrid working policy. “It’s different: they have to build the connection with each worker via phone and video calls.”
Washington D.C.-based Benjamin Loring, senior principal in the Gartner HR practice, said many organizations were not moving with the times. “Our research shows that businesses are failing to adapt to the changing needs of employees, with 75% of those looking to develop their careers seeking opportunities externally,” he said.
Most worryingly, just 25% of employees feel confident about their career at their current organizations, Loring added. “Business leaders must urgently address this to avoid talent gaps and retain the best talent.”
Tips to progress: willing and able
What, though, should Gen Zers do to get ahead at work? Sebag-Montefiore said they must “make yourself visible and useful.” She continued: “Speak up, contribute, volunteer opinion but most of all be a problem solver. Become a ‘go to’ person, get known for reliability and creativity, make sure ‘they’ notice you.”
This advice was echoed by Aquent’s Sweiry. “Engage with your manager frequently and make an effort to be seen,” she said. “Let them know what you’re working on, share some humble brags about your accomplishments, volunteer for projects that interest you, and ask for help when needed.”
A willingness to learn and lead on crucial tasks will be soon be recognized.
Being open and encouraging greater communication, as well as flagging when there are issues or training needs, is a win-win for the employer and Gen Z worker. “Allow yourself time to learn, and don’t be afraid to discuss challenges honestly with your manager and colleagues to find solutions to work more effectively as a team,” added Sweiry.