Gen Z have been lumped with the blame for empty offices, but it is a generation overburdened with housing worries and childcare concerns who have given up the commute, writes Eliza Filby
If you are a parent, you can perhaps relate or reminisce on the challenge of regulating a child’s screen time, particularly in the first few years. This period of tense negotiation though is eerily reminiscent of how companies have approached the “back to the office” conundrum over the last few years.
In the beginning, it was all about safety, with firms playing the panicked parent: “Go on, watch as much TV as you like, it’s safer for you over there!” Then, as lockdowns eased in 2021, the gentle coaxing began. “How about we switch off the TV in 30 minutes? We expect you back – oh look, we’re serving your favourite, Pizza!” Gradually, companies turned into understanding parents, negotiating days in the office and days at home. “You need to come back, but can we compromise, right?” Still the TV stayed on. Fast forward to now, and their patience is wearing thin. The stick is replacing the carrot. Companies are now the screaming parent, switching off the screen and yelling: “Do as we say, or you won’t get any Christmas presents”. You thought this issue was settled? Think again.
Navigating through the sea of corporate reactions, it is the messiness in approach that is most evident in companies I’ve conversed with. There are of course notable exceptions; the stern parents of the corporate world, such as Goldman Sachs, which offer no flexibility but a clarity that will attract the right employees who don’t define it as a priority. But for most companies, it is the lack of boundaries and confusion that is causing resentment on both sides. Employees are the self-empowered toddlers, employers the weary parents.
Experts say it is up to each company to find their own hybrid path, but this offers little help to those with a mix of blue-collar and white-collar workers which have the additional problem of incorporating conflicting realities. One leading retail company in Germany I spoke to is finding it almost impossible to grapple with diverse expectations; firstly, a tech team that aspires to be digital nomads, secondly, shop assistants complaining of unfair inflexibility and finally, white-collar workers seeking bespoke arrangements.
Nor should the blame for this lay solely with Gen Z; an accusation I hear a lot. The major puzzle piece in this jigsaw is not Gen Z’s desire for work-life balance but in fact your millennial managers who are juggling young kids, the mortgage rate crisis, have done the ten-year slog and don’t want to commute. If your Gen Z’ers aren’t flocking to the office, it’s not out of sheer rebellion. It’s because they do not fancy coming in just to sit on Zoom while their beleaguered millennial managers WFH.
This has been the evolving dynamic for nearly three years or more and if anything, it is only becoming more complex and fractious. During the pandemic, companies and workers drew from the well of existing relationships, learning and experience.
But that well, which facilitated the overnight switch to home working is starting to run dry, revealing long-term consequences and unmet needs. This depletion is especially apparent among Gen Z employees, who are exhibiting a lack of development in areas once taken for granted. No wonder that many companies are resorting to re-onboarding their Gen Z employees, acknowledging the missing links in their professional development. Companies need to acknowledge that this transition is not, as many originally presumed, a work revolution but is in fact a more complicated and drawn out evolution which, like parenting, probably won’t ever reach a point of “job done”.