Work from home isn’t flexible work if it’s the only choice you have – and it’s failing young people

When a group of teenagers are told to dress smartly for a first event at a city firm, what they wear tends to vary hugely. Some go for a full suit and tie; some for their school shirt or blouse with trousers. There are shoes and trainers, long skirts and short ones and coats and earphones that sometimes stay on the whole time. At one event, a boy wore an Armani tracksuit, which he thought was the smartest thing he owned. The traditions governing how to dress and how to behave are often surrounded in mystery until you experience them – and the earlier you do so, the better. 

In a post-pandemic work, which employers are helping young people navigate the professional landscape? Bosses at organisations in the public, private and third sectors have decided the pandemic experience means everyone would like to work from home forever. Some are selling their offices, confident that they won’t need them again.

But the decisions on remote working are generally being taken by middle-aged homeowners with nice gardens to help other middle-aged homeowners with nice gardens – they rarely take into consideration what it means for their younger workers. Even less do they consider what it means for their younger workers from disadvantaged backgrounds, who frequently don’t just lack space at home but also lack connections to help them develop the employability skills and social capital they need for the workplace. The companies that seem most keen to shed their office space are those same sectors that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds already struggle to get into, such as finance, law and the media.

It is estimated that 3.5 million single young adults live with their parents. The average age for getting your foot on the property ladder is now 32 outside London and 34 inside the capital. Joining a Zoom call for young people is generally not done from the garden or dining room but from the bedroom.

But joining a Zoom call is also not the way to learn the skills you need in the workplace. As we get older it’s easy to pretend we were born knowing all the right things to do at work – like how to dress, how to interact, how to deliver presentations and close deals.

The reality is none of us were born knowing these things – we either learnt what we know at home, at school or, in most cases, by observing older colleagues and asking for advice in the office. 

Very little of what makes people effective comes through formal training courses – studies say we only remember 5-10 per cent of what is delivered through those – and even less through Zoom. What great insight can you remember coming while you were staring at your computer screen?

Young people are being deprived of the informal learning that comes from watching senior colleagues do their jobs; from being given helpful tips and advice or receiving a quiet word about why they should change something they’ve been doing. Forced to sit through endless PowerPoint presentations, no one is showing them the things that really matter to get on.

It shouldn’t be surprising that during this period 74 per cent of those aged 18-34 years old feel working from home has hindered their progression in the workplace and 48 per cent have felt isolated or undervalued. What should perhaps worry employers even more is that 55 per cent of them are looking to change roles in the next 6-12 months.

Don’t get us wrong – flexible working is a good thing. Historically it has been shown to help firms retain staff with children or caring responsibilities, particularly women, and too many of us have wasted too much of each day commuting, including younger workers. But being forced to work at home for most or all of your week is no more flexible than being forced to work at the office. And for people who lack space, it doesn’t liberate them, it confines them, while depriving them of a vital way to learn the ropes.

Employers frequently complain that young people don’t have the skills they want, but forcing them to work from home will only make this worse. 

Bosses must ensure they have concrete plans to help young people gain the skills and experience that they themselves had when climbing the ladder, that means bringing them in for the majority of the week, and ensuring there are senior staff around they can learn from. Anything less will mean that young people are once again the forgotten group – and they’ll vote with their feet.