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WFH has killed networking as we know it. Here’s how Gen Z plans to adapt

March 16, 2022, 3:04 PM UTC

A good internship or first job can help you build connections that will propel your career forward not just in the immediate future but for decades. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, most of these relationships were forged in person. But what happens when those connections exist only in cyberspace? 

It’s an issue facing the oldest members of Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) as many in-person internships and entry-level roles disappeared during the pandemic, and many white-collar jobs remain remote. It’s created new barriers for these young professionals as they learn how to navigate workplace norms and foster relationships without a physical connection to their colleagues.

“It was a struggle,” says Rabmeet Singh, 24, who started a job as transfer pricing consultant at Deloitte remotely last summer. “The trainings, and even the opportunity to meet your peers, was limited because in a Zoom setting, it’s not as meaningful as it is in person.”

Rabmeet Singh, 24, is a transfer pricing consultant at Deloitte and currently completing his MBA at Brandeis University.
Courtesy of Rabmeet Singh

In consulting, Singh says, relationship building is particularly important, so even missing a small part of that could have a long-term impact. It’s something that Singh—currently completing his MBA at Brandeis University—says he worries might make him less prepared for the future. But it also motivates him to make the extra effort to connect with other colleagues and experts. 

“The people that you talk with today are definitely your peers or mentors in the future,” Singh says. 

Working remotely tends to silo teams as well. At times, the challenge lies not in networking with potential mentors and hiring managers, but connecting with colleagues. Anne Pearson, 21, says that her remote internship with D.C.-based Free the Facts allowed her to connect with senior leaders in the organization, as well as lobbyists and heads of nonprofits outside the company. 

“Where it fell short for me was I didn’t get to really meet the other interns,” Pearson tells Fortune. But she says that was a small price to pay for the opportunity to even do the internship in the first place. “I actually wasn’t going to apply for internships last year until they went online because I couldn’t move across the country for the summer,” Pearson says. 

Anne Pearson, 21, is a senior graduating this spring from Bellarmine University.
Courtesy of Anne Pearson

If remote is the new normal, where does that leave those trying to build connections?

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted not only in-person classes and graduations for many young people but also access to internship and job opportunities. During the pandemic, fewer college students took internships—about 21.5%, compared to the typical 50% to 60% of students who reported landing opportunities prior to the pandemic, according to 2021 research from the Center for College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Of those who completed internships in 2020, 45% of interns were completely online while 47.8% of students secured in-person gigs. About 7% completed a hybrid internship, according to the center’s ​​National Survey of College Internships.

During the 2021 internship season—February 2020 to September 2021 — the number of remote opportunities grew 342% compared to the previous season, according to data from Emsi Burning Glass. The growth in remote professional job postings grew 219% during the same time period. 

It totally sucks for this generation that they have been kneecapped because of COVID in the last 24 months from getting in-person internships.

Kelly Hoey, a networking expert

While not all industries pivoted to remote jobs, the challenges of remote internships and entry-level jobs have the potential for long-term effects. Some worry it could prevent the next generation of executives from having the same opportunities as the leaders who came before them and benefited from in-person interaction.

“Networking is something you do with all of your senses, not just your mouth,” argues Kelly Hoey, a networking expert and author of Build Your Dream Network: Forging Powerful Relationships In a Hyper-Connected World.

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon contends that in-person networking is crucial to the success of his business, and it’s one of the reasons he wants the investment firm’s employees back in the office full-time.

“If you’re a 22-year-old who has just been thrown into a pot of 3,000 other 22-year-olds—let alone the 23-, 24-, 25-, and 26-year-olds—you get to interact with them. Some of that interaction is professional. Some of it becomes a friends network that you carry with you in life. That is the ecosystem of the firm. That’s a very powerful ecosystem,” Solomon told Fortune.

In a world of remote—or even hybrid—work experiences, it’s harder to form casual connections. You’re not just bumping into a department head in the office kitchen and bonding over a shared love of a specific granola brand, or impressing coworkers with a suggestion for a great happy hour spot that becomes the go-to office watering hole.

Instead, many young professionals must rely on Zoom “coffee chats” with their new colleagues, and it can be a struggle to be engaging and memorable in a sea of virtual faces and meetings.   

“It totally sucks for this generation that they have been kneecapped because of COVID in the last 24 months from getting in-person internships,” Hoey says. 

It’s not all bad news. In some cases, remote internships and entry-level jobs have actually opened doors. “There’s obviously the detriment of not being physically together. But there’s so many more opportunities because geography is no longer a factor,” says Susan McPherson, CEO of communications consultancy firm McPherson Strategies and author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships

Remote internships and jobs can provide more flexibility for many young professionals who previously couldn’t afford to take internships in expensive cities like New York, D.C., and San Francisco.

For recent graduate Maia Lewis, 22, taking an internship with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce on a remote basis was the only way she’d consider the unpaid opportunity. “The entire reason I got the internship was because it was remote,” she tells Fortune

Photo of Maia Lewis
Courtesy of Maia Lewis

That doesn’t mean the job was without its challenges. “It was definitely trying having 30-minute conversations all day long with all these different people,” Lewis says. If she had been in the office, the introductions would’ve likely happened all at once in a group meeting or even a team lunch. 

But Lewis’s network actually helped her land her first postcollege job as a recruiter. Lewis gave her application to a friend and fellow alum at a career fair, and the rest was history. “I feel like the whole networking portion of it was definitely helpful. I don’t know if I would have been in this position had I not gone to the career fair that day just to go see my friend,” she says. 

Lewis’s new job is hybrid. While she likes the opportunity to go into the office and interact with her coworkers, she’s not opposed to a fully remote job in the future. “It just opens you up for so many more things that you can do,” Lewis says. “I really feel like we’re working more toward a remote world.”

Online connections can be just as powerful—but they take work

Despite the challenges, most experts predict that Gen Z will be able to adapt to building their professional networks through both virtual and traditional methods. In fact, the shift to virtual networking doesn’t even seem to faze most of this generation. 

Nearly seven out of 10 of Gen Z respondents said that you don’t need to physically meet up to make a professional connection, according to a 2021 Handshake survey of 1,200 Gen Z respondents. Moreover, many young workers don’t see in-person meetings or interviews as essential for landing the job. 

“You absolutely can still build meaningful relationships and meaningful connections virtually,” says Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake, a college recruiting platform.

But as many are finding out, you may have to do it a little bit differently, Cruzvergara says. “For students, they do have to be more proactive. They have to think more intentionally about who and where they want to build those relationships, and they have to take the initiative to actually reach out and do that,” she says. 

Mary-Helen Kolousek, 19, is a junior at University of North Carolina Greensboro.
Courtesy of Mary-Helen Kolousek

That can be intimidating though, says Mary-Helen Kolousek, a 19-year-old junior at the University of North Carolina Greensboro who has completed two hybrid internships and is participating in a virtual one now. “It takes a lot more guts to reach out to someone and say, can we hop on a Zoom call or a phone call?” she says.

Each time she reached out to make that virtual connection during her internships, Kolousek felt like she needed to do a lot of preparation, including at times putting together an agenda and even taking meeting notes—even for short calls. It was rarely an impromptu meeting, she says. 

“There's just much more effort that needs to be made. I don't know if they always realize that,” says Beth Hendler-Grunt, founder and president of Next Great Step, a firm that helps recent college grads land their first professional job. 

If the job or internship is fully remote, every Zoom call becomes an opportunity, Hendler-Grunt says. Anybody who's on that call, she recommends writing their names down and reaching out afterward, saying it was great being on the call with them and expressing an interest in learning more about what they do. 

This generation has had to adapt in ways that no other generation has had to.

Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake

When students and recent grads do score the opportunity to connect, Hoey says, it’s important they not waste it. It’s a chance to stand out and ask the type of questions that you can’t simply Google the answer to. 

“Don't just sit there and say, ‘Hey, this was great. I'd love to connect with everybody. Here's my LinkedIn profile link,’” Hoey says. Send the communication you would like to receive.

And it’s not always about networking with the CEO or senior leaders either. Hendler-Grunt recommends college students and recent grads reach out to recent alumni to build their network as well.

“The prize is going to go to the proactive,” Hoey says. “The opportunities to excel in this virtual internship environment come about because they did some really basic things anyone else can do.”

But don’t bet against Gen Z’s success in the workplace, Lewis says. "We are the ultimate adapters,” she adds, saying that she’s confident the pandemic won’t stop this generation from having the careers they want. There are learning curves to everything; working remotely is just the latest one. 

Cruzvergara agrees. “This generation has had to adapt in ways that no other generation has had to,” she says. “That muscle of being able to adapt and be agile is going to serve them so well as they go into their careers…because they will be ready for whatever the world throws at them.”

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