The Covid-19 pandemic has forced radical changes in societies, institutions and industries at a staggering pace in the past year.
It also has shattered many misperceptions about the workplace and workers.
Many businesses that had previously considered remote work to be impractical before the pandemic now have found that it has largely been a positive experience, with higher productivity and lower real-estate costs among some of the benefits.
According to a PwC study published in January 2021, 83 percent of U.S. companies polled said the switch to remote work has been successful for them.
And if you thought that older adults in the Baby Boomer (born from 1946 to 1964) or Gen X (1965-1979-80) generations would have difficulty adapting to the technology necessary to successfully work remotely — or that technically proficient millennials and digital native Gen-Zers (born after 1996) would be happy as clams — think again. The opposite appears to be true.
The PwC study found that “respondents with the least amount of professional experience (0-5 years) are more likely to want to be in the office more often.” They also were more likely to feel less productive while working remotely than more experienced employees, it said.
Numerous studies show age gaps
A Pew Research study also highlights the difficulty of younger workers. Those under 50 are much more likely than older workers to find it difficult to get work done without interruptions and to feel motivated.
There is also a significant age gap regarding having adequate workspaces and being able to complete projects on time, with younger workers having a harder time, the study noted.
Chicago-based health and wellness firm Vitality Group found in a survey that a higher proportion of millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) than their older colleagues were suffering from mental and physical stresses during Covid-19-mandated remote work. The group polled on subjects such as anxiety, connectedness to their employer, sleep, diet and exercise.
An international survey of 4,000 respondents across 20 industries by digital intelligence company ABYY found that a larger proportion of younger workers were feeling isolated working from home compared with their counterparts who were 55 or older.
While older employees, having faced past challenges, may have the experience and resources to adapt to changes, newer workers may struggle, experts say.
Priorities according to generations
Nintex, a workflow-automation platform, said in a survey posted on its website that “employees across every job role and generation are looking for workplaces that are flexible and offer automation tools that make work faster, easier and more enjoyable.”
Nintex surveyed four generations of employees from 1,000 U.S.-based full-time workers at companies with 501 to 50,000 employees.
Still, when respondents were asked last year what would make work more productive and enjoyable, top answers varied markedly according to generation.
The highest priorities for boomers were compensation for more work, and retirement planning, while Gen-Xers favored a more flexible schedule to care for dependents. Millennials wanted better hardware and equipment for their home offices, and Gen Z asked for software to more easily automate work, the poll found.
How to help younger generations
Considering the more pronounced difficulties of younger generations, employers may want to pay particular attention to support for newer and younger workers, experts say.
First of all, new hires should be paired with a (remote) mentor in their early weeks, Julie Schweber, senior HR knowledge adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management, told Fortune.
“We all like connection at work,” she said. Still, the mentor should not be the employee’s supervisor since new workers may be wary asking questions of their boss.
She also advises that managers stay connected to their team with one-on-one videoconferencing or through regular phone calls to ensure a feeling of belonging and to address any problems.
“It sends the message, ‘We are here to support you and want you to succeed,’” Schweber said.
Communication with new employees can also be more nuts and bolts. For example, some workplace advisers suggest creating written guidelines that could spell out 30-, 60- and 90-day goals for employees.
Employers may also consider taking a more creative approach to remote onboarding and training, using new tech tools, according to experts.
A virtual reality or augmented reality headset could allow an experienced Gen X worker to train a Gen Z new hire virtually. The technology offers a more visceral experience than a simple explanation by phone or videoconference, walking trainees through procedures step by step.
To be sure, organizations shouldn’t get too hung up on generational issues, Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, an HR research and advisory firm, points out in a post on LinkedIn. More important may be an employee’s life stage, he says.
“A millennial with kids may want to work for a company that provides a longer maternal and paternal leave or have flexible hours, whereas a single millennial would have different priorities,” he wrote. “Different subsets of a generation are at different stages of life and those stages alter what their needs, preferences and attitudes are like.”