My Twitter timeline has been overrun with people arguing about whether they are for or against a return to the office.
The ones shouting the loudest is normally to be the anti-office group. They are typically older, more well-established in their careers and keen to share how pleased they are to have finally ditched the commute, how much more free time they have and how they have moved to the West Country or the Lake District. Good for them.
Those we’ve heard less from are younger workers, just starting out in their professional lives. For them, trying to build their career during the pandemic has often meant working, eating, sleeping and socialising in their bedroom.
In the short term, there’s the oft-cited sacrifice they’ve made. They have been robbed of the chance to mix with colleagues and forge the friendships and networks that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their careers.
There is also a bigger problem slowly working its way to the surface: working from home will likely stunt their professional development, which will, obviously, be detrimental to them, but also for firms who will end up with a less impressive cohort of workers as a result. While the executive class is breathing in the country air, the long term stability of their staff is under threat.
Pre-pandemic nearly everyone learned how to do their job by observing their more experienced colleagues in action. It was a form of osmosis – something that could only be done in the room, by listening to their conversations, picking up on their cues and watching them work day in and day out. It’s not something that people can pick up through a 20-minute Zoom call, or on a Teams quiz, or by reading an employee handbook. These mediums are too stilted and too artificial.
The softer skills young workers need to learn, such as handling clients, difficult meetings or junior staff, can only be learnt through real face to face interaction. These are also the skills that higher paying firms such as consultancies, investment banks, creative studios, and other more lucrative, client-facing sectors pay a premium for.
Many businesses know this. Despite the pandemic, Goldman Sachs has pressed ahead with its plans for a major new hub in Birmingham and Apple is keen to get staff mixing again as soon as they can.
The current messy hybrid working compromise risks creating a generational divide. Many older workers will continue to stay at home while younger workers, keen to escape their flat-share or their parents’ kitchen, will come back into the office.
It is in the long-term interest of both younger workers and businesses for older, more experienced professionals to drag themselves away from their home comforts and join their colleagues in the office. The office, in many ways, is a collective sacrifice. We all ship off in the morning and work together because of the mutual benefit from it. If older workers resist this, they are putting at risk the development of a generation of workers.
So, once the Government’s social distancing guidelines change, firms committed to the development of young colleagues should be strongly encouraging older workers back into the office for the majority of the week.
This will be unpopular. It will likely also be a slog. But in the longer term, it will help secure the future competitiveness of many of the UK’s most strategically important global industries that rely on interpersonal skills, innovation and strategic thinking.