Thursday 20 August 2020 4:30 am

Won’t somebody think of the graduates? Hard-hit young people need to go back to the office

Back to work
Richard Kauntze is chief executive of the British Council for Offices

Recessions always hurt. Tragically, the one we face now looks particularly severe, its speed and scale staggering.  

With the furlough scheme being rolled back (its own cost to the economy astronomical), UK businesses are now having to stand in the way of an economic tsunami with little or no protection.

There is no hiding from the fact that the coming months will be exceptionally tough — just look at Rishi Sunak’s face in his recent appearances. New jobs are drying up, old ones disappearing, pay stagnating and promotions now a dream from a gentler, less virulent age. 

Read more: For young Londoners, working from home is a cramped and dismal experience

This economic hardship will affect us all. However, one group will be hit especially hard: the young. 

This September, a new generation of graduates will enter a threadbare employment market, one where the few advertised entry-level jobs may not only attract the new and inexperienced, but also established professionals who have suffered from this economic maelstrom. Competition even for junior roles will be fierce. Many young people will lose out.

Worse, this scarring will last. Numerous studies have shown how those who graduate during a recession tend to have their income suppressed many years later — potentially for their entire working lives.

Amid all these challenges, we must do whatever we can to help those young people who do manage to get a corporate job — and that means a return to the office. 

Such sentiment does not fit the mainstream narrative that working from home should become the new normal. But those who are calling loudest for an end to the office tend to fit a certain type.

Not only are they generally senior and able to work from a comfortable home (typically with a garden — so valuable during the lockdown heat waves), but crucially they already have professional experience and a strong career network. For them, the calculation is easy. Why endure a tedious commute when you can be at home? 

Yet for all we have heard from this group, only a lucky few occupy this position of privilege — and the young people just starting out in their careers are furthest away from it. 

For younger workers, the office is invaluable. Most learning happens informally, through seeing how experienced colleagues operate and asking them questions. Most networks are also formed casually, enhanced by chance conversations, rather than forced, awkward Zoom calls.

Without an office, these opportunities are hugely diminished. At home, often reduced to a cramped bedroom in a flat share, the world of work for the young amounts to little more than a screen. Their opportunity to learn, to progress, to enjoy the world of work is being blunted.

Out of hours, office life also provides the young with the chance to enjoy all that being young has to offer. What do you see outside a city centre office? Pubs, bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, and so much more (“cat cafes” are a rising attraction, I have been told). Without offices, city centres have no life. They become ghost towns, and young people’s life chances are constrained.

Some now argue that the cost of an office represents an unjustifiable luxury given that so much business can easily be done from home. This is flawed thinking. Compared to a payroll, an office is a small expense — and it represents an investment. A good office will help motivate a workforce and attract the brightest and the best (of whatever age). It will also nurture a culture of professional development, investing in the skills of the future workforce.

So as we brace ourselves for some seriously tough times ahead, spare a thought for the next generation. Would those who have so successfully climbed the greasy corporate pole be at the top without chance encounters and face to face meetings? Would the climb have been such fun if they never met colleagues in person and were kept away from the city, locked in their bedrooms?  

Something for the seniors to ponder in the garden. 

Read more: Why City PR firm Cicero is getting back to the office

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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