Why remote work may be hardest on junior employees

We’re eight months into corporate America’s great work-from-home experiment, and it hasn’t gone quite the way business leaders expected. Their scattered workforces, even in the midst of a stressful pandemic while shouldering extra burdens like childcare, have been remarkably productive.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the period has been easy on employees, and leaders have also been surprised by what parts of their workforce remote work has been hardest on.

“The beginning of this was confusing. We thought our younger people would be the ones that love working from home and love the technology, and that it would our people in their fifties that would hate it. In fact, it’s the other way around,” said Carmine Di Sibio, global chairman and CEO of the the consulting firm EY, speaking at a Fortune Global Forum event on Tuesday. “It’s younger people who want to network and so forth. And it’s people in their 50s, who are comfortable, who have their networks, who can save two hours a day commuting, who therefore, kind of like it.”

The average age of EY’s 300,00-strong global workforce is 27. “We have a lot of young people who are in small apartments around the world, and being in a small apartment in this environment is just not great,” said Di Sibio, who notes the firm’s support resources have been in high demand.  “We have had more people calling our hotlines wanting help, just from a mental state.”

Di Sibio said EY, which regularly surveys its employees, has done a number of things to try to ease the strain on employees around the world, including giving those in the U.S. an extra holiday—the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. “Our employees deserve it,” he said.

Annette Clayton, CEO of Schneider Electric North America, also acknowledged younger workers have been impacted by the isolation of remote working. She said that the company’s open talent market—a digital platform ­­­­­that connects employees with opportunities across the company, exposing them to new teams and allowing them to gain skills and experiences—has been helpful in keeping the company’s workers happy and growing in their careers even at this moment. She mentioned one example in which a young employee volunteered to pitch in with policy work on data centers and cyber security; the junior employee brought valuable subject matter expertise, so much so that the individual was brought to a meeting with U.S. Senators and is now being considered for other roles.

Sarah Franklin, an EVP at Salesforce who heads Trailhead, a platform aimed at reskilling, agreed that it’s a valuable strategy for keeping employees engaged and for diversifying talent across the business.

Thoughtful, personal communication has also been key, said Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of Hyatt Hotels, who describes the year for the company and the travel industry as “extraordinarily painful.” At tough moments, “picking up the phone impromptu and being able to connect with people has been very meaningful.”

Also important at this moment of employee stress and anxiety, he said: communicating “hope.” A quick and full rebound of the travel industry may not be right around the corner, but with the promising news on vaccines, “we at least have the ability to pick up our eyes and look into the future and understand there is going to be an end to this.”

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