It’s one thing to start a new job remotely. It’s another to start your entire career that way. While reporting “Out of Office,” a book we’re writing on remote work, we heard stories from early career workers who’ve felt adrift during the Covid-19 pandemic. (The participants, concerned about retaliation from their employers, agreed to speak with us about their experiences on the condition that we withhold their last names.) All were grateful to be employed, but many felt left behind, invisible and, in some cases, unsure about how to actually do their jobs. While their companies adapted their workflows to function outside the office, few spent the time to craft policies to mentor young professionals, many of whom found themselves stuck on their couches, attempting to decipher cryptic emails and emojis sent over Slack.
Most newcomers are terrified of messing up and hesitant to ask questions that might make them sound naïve. Which, of course, means that they’re also scared that they’re already failing. “I think I’m missing out on a lot of the soft skills that one picks up in the first few years of working,” Haziq, a 22-year-old living in Ireland, told us. He’s found it nearly impossible to socialise with colleagues and lacks the confidence to casually ask a question of his manager or teammates. “If I was sitting next to my manager, I could just have a quick chat and move on,” he said. “But I’m much less likely to Slack my manager and ask something because I don’t know what they’re up to at the moment. The amount of on-the-job learning has reduced dramatically.” You could chalk up some of these experiences to the harried nature of the pandemic, which required many organisations to build a work-from-home plane, as it were, while trying to fly it. But many of the perks of truly flexible work — a self-directed schedule, distance from overly chatty co-workers, remove from office gossip and politics — could also work against younger employees. If companies don’t create intentional, structured mentorship programs to help younger and remote colleagues with on-the-job learning, they risk leaving a generation behind.
While we believe that the spontaneous water-cooler interactions of the office are often romanticised, we also recognise the ways in which gossip, after-work drinks and even body language come together to teach new employees the standards of behavior in the office. Small talk, passing conversations, even just observing your manager’s pathways through the office may seem trivial, but in the aggregate they’re far more valuable than any form of company handbook. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be translated into a remote or flexible work environment.
Almost every story we heard from adrift and isolated employees had the same root cause: well-intentioned but frazzled managers working inside systems that adapted to the pandemic by trying to cram office work into the home.
For Joe, a mid-career lawyer who started a government fellowship right before the beginning of the pandemic, remote work meant that his already distant manager disappeared fully. Pre-pandemic, he described his supervisor as “one of those people that was visibly very busy and constantly apologising for it.” Things only got worse when they left the office. “I can’t emphasise the extent to which I felt like I fell off the face of the earth to her,” he said.
Joe doesn’t blame his supervisor or have any ill will toward her, as he says she clearly struggled during the early parts of the pandemic with child care issues. But because Joe’s office made no formal plans to adapt schedules or workflows for remote work when the pandemic started, his supervisor’s struggles trickled down to him.
The first week of remote work, Joe’s supervisor canceled their check-in without rescheduling a new one. “We went months without emailing over the rest of the fellowship, and we only spoke on the phone once over that time, and weren’t in any meetings together,” he said. On his last day, there was no exit interview or procedure at all. “I sent out a goodbye email to about two dozen people right before leaving my laptop in the office on my last day and cc’d my personal email, but only one person wrote back,” he recalled.
This is a classic example of how flexible work — absent intentionally designed support systems — can hurt the most inexperienced employees in an organisation. Had Joe’s office implemented a remote plan, it’s possible his supervisor could have changed her schedule to fit her needs or delegated portions of her work across other employees and departments. If she’d felt more supported, perhaps she might not have felt the need to juggle direct reports she didn’t have time to mentor. Perhaps the organisation could have crafted clear HR policies and procedures so that employees lacking guidance could feel comfortable coming forward. Something, anything, would have been better than nothing.
We asked early career workers what resources they wished they could have had during those early pandemic months, and the responses were full of helpful ideas for any company. Most important, they wanted a clearly delineated mentor who — crucially — was not also their supervisor or in charge of evaluating their performance. One person suggested a dual mentor program that paired new employees with a co-worker in a similar position in the company who could offer advice on more quotidian concerns, as well as a more senior employee who could provide longer-term career advice.
Others wanted more scheduled sessions for employees to come together and bond. “Zoom meetings are not enough,” Joe told us, though he struggled to articulate exactly what kind of bonding might work. “Maybe take something that people already do and bring it into the workplace — pub quizzes, pen pals, video games, a book or movie club. I feel stupid writing those! But you have to try something.”
Importantly, these sessions were presented as safe, off-the-record opportunities to connect but also to vent and commiserate, which is often the primary (if unacknowledged) value of in-person co-worker interactions.
But that early professional hunger for structure extended far beyond Zoom meet-ups. People wanted opportunities to sit in on calls with senior members of different teams — the equivalent of silently sitting in on an in-person meeting — if only to get a better sense of what others’ jobs entailed. They wanted access to email templates for specific kinds of intra-office and out-of-office outreach. They wanted to know what time was normal to reply to emails. In short, they wanted to be told what they were supposed to be doing at work and how to do it successfully. Even those who admitted that such guidance could quickly become stifling agreed that it was better than flailing around with vague expectations and zero guidance.
Petersen and Warzel are the authors of the forthcoming book “Out of Office,” from which this essay is adapted
The New York Times