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6 April 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 6:02am

How mass remote working is setting the UK up for an employment skills crisis

Who will be left to pick up the pieces? Those comfy mid-careerers pushing to abandon the office.

By Charlotte Pickles

Around the same time that the first Covid cases were diagnosed in the UK, the Resolution Foundation reported the death of the teenage Saturday job. Over two decades, the proportion of teens earning a few quid at the weekend had plummeted by half, to just 25 per cent. Similarly, far fewer university and college students were working alongside their studies. In the context of the pandemic-induced debate about the future of office working, that’s more important than you might imagine.

Over the past year, company after company has announced plans to shrink their office space. Property is pricey, and having seen that working from home does not in fact mean shirking from home, businesses are seizing the opportunity to appear enlightened champions of flexible working while boosting their bottom line. And it’s fine, because poll after poll shows we want to work from home.

Except we don’t all want to do that, and, more importantly even those of us who do, shouldn’t – at least not for a majority of the time. The office is more important than you think.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s attack on people for working from home shows his own irresponsibility]

Unsurprisingly, there’s a generational divide in attitudes to home working. Ipsos Mori found that one in five 18-34 year olds are finding working from home “very challenging” compared to closer to one in 17 over-35s.

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For people mid-way or more through their careers, with a comfortable work from home set-up and long-established networks, life might feel easier out of the office: no more commute, no more having to attend awkward work socials or dull, stuffy conferences; no more interruptions by colleague queries or office banter.

But for young people, the picture is very different – and not only for the obvious reason that a kitchen table and noise cancelling headphones are no substitute for a decent workspace. Young people’s very ability to become great employees is at stake. That stuff that mid-lifers want to leave behind? It really matters to people starting out on their careers, and its absence will have repercussions for everyone.

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If young workers are anxious and miserable – which finding your working conditions “very challenging” is likely to induce – they’ll perform worse. There’s a wealth of research showing that happy workers are more productive workers. And while there are lots of things that go into creating happy workers, one well-evidenced factor is high-quality workplace relationships.

Building professional relationships is very different to making friends at school or college. It means building networks across a diverse set of colleagues – and clients. It means figuring out how to build an effective relationship with your boss, and with people you don’t like but have to learn to communicate with.

[See also: Why Rishi Sunak’s defence of the office doesn’t stack up]

That’s why the death of the Saturday job matters. Many Gen Z graduates are starting their careers having never done any paid work. And despite the plethora of digital tools now available to help us collaborate online, when it comes to relationship building, there is no substitute for office life.

On an intrinsic level, we all know this. Haven’t we been lamenting young people’s increasingly virtual existence precisely because it impacts their ability to form productive relationships? We might find it tricky to quantify the benefits, but awkward work socials and office banter matter.

In fact, a 2017 Deloitte survey found that 37 per cent of these digital natives are themselves worried about their ability to maintain strong relationships and develop people skills. A LinkedIn survey the following year found 61 per cent of HR professionals believe Gen Z will need extra support to develop soft skills.

If that was the case before the pandemic hit, imagine the situation now. Entire graduate intakes are yet to meet their colleagues and see an actual real-life office in person. The result, as one global consultancy contact told me, is “they’re just not picking up the softer skills”.

That should surprise no one. So much learning is done by watching people – literally seeing them navigate difficult conversations, network with strangers, build professional relationships, interact with clients and customers, give presentations, lead meetings, motivate teams. So much on-the-job training is delivered informally – the slightly embarrassed whisper to a more experienced colleague when something doesn’t make sense; the everyday micro-feedback and coaching that is invaluable to development. 

[See also: Does the end of lockdown mean a return to normal office life?]

Young professionals are missing out on gaining what scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi termed “tacit knowledge”, learned not from training modules or books, or even through discussion, but through observance. It is how we learn the culture of an organisation, how we interpret the behaviour and hunches of colleagues, and how we pick up the tricks of our trade. It’s key to success.

Employers never miss an opportunity to lament the lack of soft skills among today’s graduates. If these skills aren’t learned at the start of a career, those new entrants aren’t going to blossom into the high-performing managers and leaders of the future.

And who will be left to pick up the pieces? Those comfy mid-careerers pressing to abandon the office. Suddenly short-term property savings and avoiding the commute don’t look quite so attractive. 

Charlotte Pickles is director of the think tank Reform.