Back to Office Troubled: Young Insurgents

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David Gross, an executive at a New York-based advertising agency, recruited soldiers this month via Zoom to deliver a message he and his other partners were eager to share: It was time to consider returning to the office.

Mr. Gross, 40, wasn’t sure how employees, many in their 20s and early 30s, would take it. The initial reaction—death silence—was not encouraging. Then a young man gestured that he had a question. “Is the policy mandatory?” he wanted to know.

Yes, mandatory, said three days a week.

So began a difficult conversation at Mr. Gross’s company, Anchor Worldwide, that has been repeated this summer in businesses large and small across the country. While workers of all ages have become accustomed to making phone calls and skipping grueling journeys, younger ones have become particularly attached to the new way of doing business.

And in many cases, the decision to go back pits older executives who see working in the office as natural, with younger employees who see remote work as perfectly normal in the 16 months since the pandemic began. Some new hires have never been to their employer’s workplace.

“Obviously they don’t know what they’re missing because we have a strong culture,” said Mr Gross. “Creative development and production requires face-to-face collaboration. It’s hard to brainstorm in a Zoom meeting.”

some industries such as Banking and finance, taking a harder line and insisting on the return of workers young and old. Senior executives of Wall Street giants such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase have signaled that they expect their employees to return to their cabins and offices in the coming months.

other companies, especially technology and the media is becoming more flexible. While Mr. Gross wants to get people back to the ad agency, he’s concerned about retaining young talent at a time of increasing loss, so he makes it clear that there is room for accommodation.

“We’re in a really progressive industry and some companies have walked away completely,” he said. “You have to frame it in terms of flexibility.”

soon Survey by the Conference Board55 percent of millennials, defined as those born between 1981 and 1996, questioned the accuracy of going back to the office. While 45 percent of Generation X members born between 1965 and 1980 had doubts about returning, only 36 percent of baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 felt this way.

And if anything, the rise of the Delta variant of the coronavirus in recent days could increase resistance among reluctant office workers of all ages.

“Between generations, millennials, most worried “Companies do well to be as flexible as possible,” said Rebecca L. Ray, vice president of human capital at the Conference Board, about their health and psychological well-being.

Matthew Yeager, 33, quit his job as a web developer at an insurance company in May after he said he needed to return to office as vaccination rates soared in his city of Columbus, Ohio. He limited his job search entirely to remote work opportunities and took a job at a New York-based recruiting and human resources firm in June.

“It was difficult because I really loved my job and the people I worked with, but I didn’t want to lose the flexibility to work remotely,” Mr. Yeager said. “The office has all those distractions that are eliminated when working from home.”

Mr. Yeager said he would also like to have the option of working remotely in any position he is considering in the future. “More companies should give people the opportunity to work their best and be productive,” he said.

While the age distribution has managers looking for ways to persuade younger employees to return, there are other divisions. Many parents and caregivers are concerned about leaving home while school plans are still in the air during the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected women.

At the same time, while some in their 20s yearn for office companionship or the dynamism of an urban setting, a few older employees welcome the flexibility of working from home in a cell years later.

Still, so many young people working from home is a reversal of long-held habits, said Julia Pollak, labor economist at online job market ZipRecruiter.

“The norm for a long time has been that remote work in office jobs is reserved for the oldest, most senior and most trusted people,” he said. “It is interesting that young workers have embraced this so quickly.”

Senior managers say that when they work apart, junior employees lose their chance to network, develop mentors, and gain valuable experience by watching colleagues closely.

In some cases, older millennials, such as Jonathan Singer, 37, a real estate attorney in Portland, Ore., find themselves filing a return-to-office lawsuit against skeptical younger colleagues who are used to working from home.

“As a manager, it’s really hard to achieve cohesion and peer solidarity without being together on a regular basis, and it’s hard to mentor without being in the same place,” Mr. Singer said. But convincing the young workers to see things their own way was not easy.

“With the leverage that employees have and the proof they can work from home, it’s hard to put toothpaste back in the tube,” he said.

Fearful of losing another young employee in a job market that has become a tight job market, Mr. Singer realized that a young colleague would revisit the issue in the future, allowing him to work from home one day a week.

“It is not possible to say no to remote work,” Mr Singer said. “It’s not worth risking losing a good employee because of a problem. doctrinal view people need to be in the office.”

Amanda Diaz, 28, feels relieved that she doesn’t have to go back to the office, at least for now. PR works for health insurance company Humana in San Juan, but does the job at his home in Trujillo Alto, about 40 minutes’ drive from the office.

Humana offers its employees the option to work from the office or from their home, and Ms. Diaz said she will continue to work remotely as long as she has the option.

“Think about all the time you spend getting ready and commuting,” she said. “Instead, I use those two hours to prepare a healthy lunch, exercise or relax.”

Alexander Fleiss, 38, CEO of investment management firm Rebellion Research, said some employees were resisting going back to the office. He hopes that peer pressure and the fear of missing a promotion due to the lack of face-to-face interaction will pull people back.

“These people could lose their jobs by natural selection,” said Mr. Fleiss. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if workers start suing companies because they think they’ve been fired for refusing to go back to the office.

Mr. Fleiss is also focusing on the benefits of face-to-face collaborations, trying to persuade staff working on projects to return, but many employees still choose to stick with Zoom calls.

“If that’s what they want, that’s what they want,” he said. “You can’t force anyone to do anything these days. You can only insist.”

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