Young workers are leading the way out of the office

The open line of communication afforded by smartphones makes it possible to work remotely – and workplace flexibility has become a must for many jobseekers

Saturday 28 September 2019 13:18 BST
Millennials and Gen Z in flexible jobs are finding time to meditate, exercise and see their family
Millennials and Gen Z in flexible jobs are finding time to meditate, exercise and see their family

When Ariel Coleman, 28, quit her last job, as a project manager in the corporate office of a bank, it wasn’t because her new employer offered her a raise, a different role or more seniority. “The work-life balance is just much better,” she said.

At her new company, Omfgco, a branding and design firm in Portland, Oregon, everyone works from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays at whichever hours they choose. Coleman can go for a run or walk her dog.

At the bank, she says, people judged her for taking all her paid time off. At Omfgco, it’s encouraged, which is why she didn’t mind answering work emails while sitting by the fire on a recent camping trip. “It’s: Get your work done, but don’t worry about when those hours are,” Coleman says. “A client calls me at 8 o’clock at night, and I’m happy to talk to them, because that means the next day at 10am, I can take my dog to the vet. It enables me to make my career more seamless with my life. It makes it feel more like people are human.”

Many of her friends have chosen their jobs for similar reasons, she says. “That’s how millennials and Gen Z-ers are playing the game – it’s not about jumping up titles, but moving into better work environments,” she says.

“They’re like silent fighters, rewriting policy under the nose of the boomers.” For many Americans, work has become an obsession, and long hours and endless striving are something to aspire to. It has caused burnout, unhappiness and gender inequity, as people struggle to find time for children or passions or pets or any sort of life besides what they do for a paycheck.

But increasingly, younger workers are pushing back. More of them expect and demand flexibility – paid leave for a new baby, say, and generous vacation time, along with daily things, like the ability to work remotely, come in late or leave early, or make time for exercise or meditation. The rest of their lives happens on their phones, not tied to a certain place or time – why should work be any different?

Today’s young workers have been called lazy and entitled. Could they, instead, be among the first to understand the proper role of work in life – and end up remaking work for everyone else? It’s still rare for companies to operate this way, and the obstacles are bigger than any one company’s HR policies.

They have proven the model that you don’t need to be in the office 9 to 5 to be effective

Ana Recio, executive vice president of Salesforce

Some older employees may think new hires should suffer the way they did, and employers benefit from having always-on workers. Even those that are offering more flexibility might be doing it because unemployment is so low and they’re competing for workers, which could change if there is an economic downturn.

Also, it’s a luxury to be able to demand flexibility in the first place. Those who can tend to have college degrees and white-collar careers, and can afford to take a pay cut in exchange or be highly selective about their jobs. “They have proven the model that you don’t need to be in the office 9 to 5 to be effective,” says Ana Recio, executive vice president of global recruiting at Salesforce, a tech company. “This generation is single-handedly paving the way for the entire workforce to do their jobs remotely and flexibly.”

When your office is a sun lounger

A survey by PwC, an accounting and consulting firm, found that for millennials, work is a thing, not a place. Flexibility no longer means what it did to older generations – the ability to work from home when a plumber is coming or a child is sick. But it’s also not about 21st-century perks such as free meals, on-site dry cleaning and wifi-equipped shuttles that help keep people at work longer.

Instead, it’s about employees shaping their jobs in ways that fit with their daily lives. That could mean working remotely or moving hours when needed. More companies are offering sabbaticals; free plane tickets for vacations; meditation rooms; exercise or therapy breaks; paid time off to volunteer; and extended paid family leave. And it’s no longer just mothers of young children who are using flexible schedules. Women get penalised when that happens – social scientists call it the flexibility stigma – and their careers often never recover in terms of pay or promotions. But if more fathers and non-parents ask for flexibility, the stigma could lessen.

For many workers, a laptop and internet is all they need to do their jobs well

Jonathan Wong, 36, worked 80-hour weeks in management consulting when he became a father. His son would cry every time he saw his roller bag packed for another work trip, he says, and it was hard to take a break even to FaceTime his son before bedtime.

When younger workers talk about balance, what they are saying is, ‘I will work hard for you, but I also need a life’

Cali Williams Yost, founder of Flex Strategy Group

So he moved to a job at Rand Corp, the nonprofit policy research group – and took a 30 per cent pay cut. “I can bring my kid to preschool every morning,” he says. “If the overwork problem will ever be solved, guys need to be part of the solution.”

Some employers aren’t comfortable giving people autonomy over where and when they work. “When younger workers talk about balance, what they are saying is, ‘I will work hard for you, but I also need a life’,” says Cali Williams Yost, chief executive and founder of Flex Strategy Group, which helps organisations build flexible work cultures. “Unfortunately, what leaders hear is, ‘I want to work less’.”

But employees say that when they’re not forced to cleave life from work, they work more and more efficiently. Melanie Neiman, 28, is a project manager at Breather, a workspace rental company. Unlike at her former, more traditional job, she comes in later in the morning because she is more productive that way and visits her family more often because she can work from where they live. “When I’m on vacation, if my Slack pings on my phone, I’ll probably answer it, so maybe I work more,” she says. She’s happy to do this because it’s on her terms. “I would never answer emails at my old job on vacation,” she adds.

Taking care of employees, too

Social scientists have found that not all young people are asking for these benefits, even if they want them, because they fear they will be perceived as lazy or disloyal. Even when they aspire to more balanced lives, they often find that traditional workplaces won’t enable it. But dozens of consulting and research firms that have surveyed young people have found that for them, flexibility is a job requirement.

When Pew Research Centre asked which work arrangement would be most helpful to people, young people were more likely than older people to say flexible hours. Of people 18 to 29, men were more likely than women to say this, and those without children at home were as likely as parents to say it.

In a survey of 11,000 workers and 6,500 business leaders by Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group, the vast majority said that among the new developments most urgently affecting their firms were employees’ expectations for flexible, autonomous work; better work-life balance; and remote working. (Just 30 per cent, though, said their businesses were prepared.)

Younger staff see work as a thing – not a place

Technology is a big reason for the change. The youngest people entering the workforce don’t remember a time when people weren’t always reachable, so they don’t see why they would need to sit in an office to work. (They also say they are more practised than older colleagues at setting boundaries on how much they use their phones, so it doesn’t become overbearing.)

Another reason young people are asking for more flexibility is that they’re marrying and having children later, so they’re more invested in their careers by the time they do and have more leverage to ask for what they need. Many are caring for ageing parents too.

They’ve watched what’s happened to the generations before them, and they see the problems that might come ahead

Kathleen Gerson, sociologist

Many have seen their parents struggle with inflexible employers or unstable jobs. Millennials were the first generation raised by women who entered professions in big numbers. Many young adults saw their parents lose jobs and savings during the Great Recession. They no longer expect a lifetime of loyalty from an employer, so some say they don’t want to give their whole life to work.

“They’ve watched what’s happened to the generations before them, and they see the problems that might come ahead,” says Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University whose recent research on the topic will be published this month by the Council on Contemporary Families. “As the workforce becomes more diverse, men as well as women are saying there’s more to life than work, and we want a satisfying life as well.”

‘Change the system so we can all succeed’

Few people want to work long, inflexible hours, yet many either work them anyway or sneak out without asking for permission, research shows.

But more young people, recruiters say, are asking for flexibility upfront, and some prioritise it over pay or seniority. Recruiters who visit college campuses say new graduates no longer see it as something to negotiate for, says Marcee Harris Schwartz, national director of diversity and inclusion at BDO, the accounting firm: “It’s just assumed it’s part of the deal.”

Many students now think flexible hours are a given

“Years ago, the interview was, for lack of a better word, a test,” says Kamaj Bailey, who works in recruiting at Con Edison, the power company. “Now it’s a conversation. Yes, I want to show that I’m a good candidate, but I’m also seeing if I’m going to get what I expect.”

Boomers seem to begrudge giving flexibility to young workers when they didn’t have it themselves

Sociologist Pamela Stone

A survey by Werk, which helps companies add flexibility strategies, found that older employees are just as likely as younger people to want flexibility. They’re less likely to have it, though, because they’re less likely to ask for it. Sometimes, tensions flare between young people who demand a life outside work and deskbound older workers. “As boomers age, they too are looking for more workplace flexibility, but they seem to begrudge giving the same to younger workers when they didn’t have it themselves at their ages and life stage,” says Pamela Stone, a sociologist at Hunter College.

Coleman, who works at the design firm in Portland, says it comes down to this: her generation is unwilling to settle for the way things have always been done. It’s especially true of women, she says, and she is hopeful that men will continue to join them. “We are just fed up and fired up about asking for what we need,” she says. “We’re changing the rules. We’re the ones tasked with: let’s change the system so we can all succeed.”

© New York Times

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