How generations will affect the post-COVID-19 workplace
In meetings, I often get asked for my perspective on the “millennial,” this massive generation that has been characterized as lazy, selfish and entitled but also has taken over more than 50% of the workforce. A generation generally is defined as experiencing events as a group. Born from 1981 to 1996, the millennial generation has now seen two economic downturns, once while the earlier millennials were entering the workforce in 2008 and now again as the last of the generation starts their careers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The shift in the economic landscape has left more questions than there are answers. One of the questions that remains to be seen is how this will affect not only the largest generation in the workforce but also the other three working generations – Gen Z, Gen X and the boomers. One way of looking at what defines a generation is the concept of “shared experience” around significant events. Extending that concept to our current situation, there effectively will be only two generations in the workforce: those who experienced working during COVID-19 and those who did not. While some of the ideals pushed into the public consciousness by millennials have been publicly derided, some may become more widely accepted in a post-COVID world.
As workplace has been a culture creator, recruiting tool and a way to promote productivity, it’s important to understand how the role of the physical space will evolve in the social distancing era. For example, in the past, working remotely (not even necessarily from home) was viewed as a luxury, and a privilege, not a right. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has become the “new normal” with most desk jobs being converted to somewhere other than the office. Another norm was that flexible work arrangements often were viewed as just that, “arrangements.” However, now companies may look to staggered shifts or codify that people can come in at various times. What is notable about this environment is that the workplace still serves its same role as a recruiting and retention tool as employers make sure their employees have somewhere safe to go when it is time to return.
Another long-held millennial idiosyncrasy is the fact that they have a propensity toward digital connectivity. This immediate shift to working in a different place highlights that paper is not needed, reference materials can be found on the screen in front of you and high-speed internet is really the key tool that office workers need. Many professional firms have resisted the pressure and the time that it takes to go paperless but if people no longer are in an office to access the physical paper, then will it be worth it for companies to continue to pay for the excess space to store out-of-date items? As some of the older generations also begin to age out of the workforce, companies will continue to adapt to more digital and minimalistic ways of working. In the event companies do shift to having more space between workers, this digital transformation becomes more important in limiting the amount of space each worker needs. Desks and layouts change dramatically if people no longer need file cabinets or extra tables for papers.
Aside from the tangible shifts in the work environment, companies are all asking themselves now, do I still need an office if people are as productive at home? In a post-COVID world, where everyone has been forced to be apart, the real question is, will people want to come together? Do virtual meetings, phone calls and text messages create the same environment of collaboration, comradery and cohesiveness that in-person interactions do? As the millennial generation has brought more diversity to the workforce, they also have seen the rise of co-working, collaborative spaces and an interconnected world. Regardless of the need for social distancing, the office still very much will have a role as place for people to come together. Even if the ratio is flipped, where more time is spent working remotely instead of in the office, there always is going to be the desire for people to stay connected to their companies and their colleagues.
Featured in CREJ’s May 20-June 2, 2020 issue