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Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development

<i>SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images</i><br/>Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development.
SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images
Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development.

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN

New York (CNN) — CEOs and other senior leaders very often want employees in the workplace for more days than employees who can do their jobs remotely would like.

Many leaders assert more in-person experiences can, among other things, provide better career development for the youngest and newest employees.

They have a point … up to a point.

“There were things lost in the sauce in Covid,” said Cali Williams Yost, founder and CEO of the Flex+Strategy Group, which advises companies and other organizations on how to successfully implement flexible work strategies.

A recent study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Iowa and Harvard University found that while remote work may boost output in the short term, it can come at a cost to the development of the newest workers.

“[Remote work] decreases collaboration and training of more junior workers. Young workers and women, who may feel less included at the firm to begin with, see a particularly large decrease in their ability to collaborate with other workers and they quit more often in response,” the researchers wrote.

They also found that one worker’s choice to work remotely can reduce collaboration between other colleagues. And older workers opting to work remotely may hurt younger workers’ skill accumulation, they suggest.

Such findings, however, may be less an indictment of remote work itself than an invitation for employers to seriously reconsider how to better train employees and foster collaboration in a more flexible work world, which many other studies indicate have positive effects on engagement and retention.

To executives who assert that innovation and mentoring are best fostered by more days in-person, Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, asks “How do you know? Did you measure it before?”

The key, say Lister and other workplace strategists, is for employers to be much more intentional about training and mentoring their newest hires, rather than assuming time in person automatically confers benefits in those realms.

The good old days may not have been that good

Consider that before the pandemic, most employees were at their workplace five days a week.

But the newest hires still left their jobs at a high rate, Lister said, pointing to an analysis from The Work Institute, a data-driven consulting firm that helps companies develop employee retention programs and engagement strategies.

The Institute analyzed workplace data between 2010 and 2019 for more than 200,000 US employees, and found that 38% of employees who leave an employer do so within their first year and another 17.5% do so in their second year. By age, roughly a quarter of employees between the ages of 20 and 29 cited career development as the biggest work-related reason for leaving, followed by work-life balance.

To Lister, the takeaway for employers is this: “If employers want their people to stay, they need to be intentional about mentoring both in and outside the office.”

No one-size-fits-all Goldilocks solution

A new Fortune survey found that 34% of Fortune 500 CEOs now expect workers to be in the office four or more days a week and 40% expect them in three days a week.

But fixating on the question of “how many days should employees be in the office?” is the wrong approach, Yost said. “One size will not fit all. That is why mandates are failing.”

She points to data suggesting that the office occupancy rate in 10 major cities, after reaching a post pandemic high in February, has since slipped as work-from-home rates have risen.

Meanwhile, an informal online survey of more than 400 director-level white-collar employees conducted in March by the organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry found that a majority of respondents said their employers are requiring a return to office (although only 20% said they are required four or five days a week). And a vast majority said their boss is more interested in having workers return than are the workers themselves.

It would be better, Yost suggested, if leaders let individual operating units within an organization decide for themselves how often they need to be in person after addressing the same series of questions.

First: “What work needs to be done?”

Second: “How should we train and mentor new talents to achieve that?”

Then: “How, when and where can training and work happen best?”

Included in the answers to these are issues of onboarding and how to successfully foster observation and learning — while realistically assessing what is best done in person versus what can be accomplished remotely.

“In general there has been a lack of intentionality of how we develop young people,” Yost said. “It wasn’t awesome pre-Covid either. This is an opportunity to do better.”

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