In the last few months I’ve read countless articles and had dozens of conversations with people regarding the reality of remote work. For the most part, there seems to be no good consensus. Some people seem to love it and other people hate it, still other people like it a little but don’t want to do it forever, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern to follow (industry, age, etc.) to figure out who is going to fall into which camp. That can make it difficult for a business to plan how to adapt forward as all-virtual industries slowly regain the option of conducting work in-person.
But what if – crazy thought coming – all we needed to do was ask people?
For example, it’s generally assumed that young people are comfortable and happy with new technological solutions to everything, while older people struggle more to adapt to those same technologies. By that logic, all young people would be happy to work remotely for forever, and older people can’t wait to get back to the office.
That’s not what’s happening, though. That’s true some of the time, but not all of the time. And I believe the biggest factor in determining who wants what kind of working environment is not their age or industry but rather the particular circumstances of their life.
Let’s look at “young people,” which are not a generic group of identically-minded people but let’s pretend they are for a second. They are generally living in small apartments with at least one roommate and no dedicated space they can disappear to for several hours to work uninterrupted – except maybe their bedrooms, or a closet, or possibly their cars. A lot of them have very young children that either need constant attention or who will expect to be picked up from daycare before the traditional working day ends. These conditions are not especially conducive to a relaxing work-from-home environment.
“Old people,” on the other hand, often own homes and have offices or basements that are spacious, comfortable, and isolated. They also don’t often have young children at home that wander around and bother them every 14 seconds while they’re trying to focus on a videocall. These conditions are far more conducive to enjoying the whole work-from-home thing.
Now there’s a generational stereotype that flies directly in the face of the previous one, that old people hate new technology while young people love it. So which one is correct?
Neither of them. Or rather, you just won’t know until you ask.
I have one friend whose school-aged children are in a district that is still doing exclusively remote learning. His wife, however, teaches school in a district that is conducting in-person education. Which means he is not only working from home but also the only person who can manage his children’s online education. For him, working from home right now isn’t an option – it’s the only way he can operate, and he can only do it when his kids don’t need him to help them with their schoolwork.
I have another friend, approximately the same age as the guy in the last paragraph, who lives alone in a house with more than enough space for working from home. Her job is in the tech industry, so transitioning to a virtual environment was more natural for her than for a lot of other people – and she’s miserable. She desperately misses the face-to-face interaction she used to have and can’t wait to get it back.
Can you guess what people want or need by looking at their age, industry, and job title? Yes. But that’s all it will be – a guess. If you really want to know how people are dealing with their “new normal,” you’ll need to specifically ask them. Figure out what their circumstances are, how this has caused relief or stress or some combination of both, and then act accordingly.
It’s a fairly simple solution, by the way. Talk to people, get to know them, and go from there. Old school. That’s the way I like it.