“When you’re in the office, you can jump into a conversation more easily,” she continues. “When you’re doing this virtually, it’s this intense one-on-one situation.” In her previous job, Annie says, she never had the chance to get to know her boss, a “legend” in the agency world, because everyone was working remotely.

“I only got to talk to her when we had an actual meeting scheduled on the books,” Annie recalls. “It was rough. I mean, we did schedule one-on-ones, but it’s not like I could hear something funny she had said [in the hallway] and bring it up or even ask her, ‘Hey, do you want to grab coffee?’”

Forcing employees to return to the office will not fix this. But listening to them and being open to offering different incentives for managers and junior folks might. “People do what they’re measured on, so maybe if you had a [key performance indicator] for the number of times a manager comes to the office and has a lunch with their team…” suggests Whillans. “Could they get a bonus based on the number of team meetings they have in person?”

Whillans warns that companies will have to maintain a “delicate balance” because flexibility does benefit people, whether it’s “people from minority groups who might not feel as accepted in their organization” or working parents who rely on flexible work policies to help them take care of their kids while also fulfilling their job requirements. 

Younger workers, too, likely enjoy the option to work remotely while on a trip with family or friends, or simply to avoid dull office chit-chat or a long commute. And now that mask mandates have been lifted in most workplaces, employees with disabilities or chronic illnesses may feel safer or more comfortable continuing to work from home. Adds Whillans, “An organization would have to be careful that the incentive felt like a reward as opposed to a punishment.” 

For younger employees who crave community or are concerned about missing out on growth, Whillans suggests they create interaction opportunities, even if it’s not with people directly on their team. Could you go into the local office? Are there a couple of people who also go in on a regular basis who are adjacent to your team or you could go to lunch with? Is there a separate workspace you could visit, like a WeWork or coffee space, that would make you feel more strongly connected to a community that isn’t necessarily your office?

It may seem scary to be the one suggesting new ideas if you’re more junior, but Whillans is a proponent of speaking up. “We often worry that asking for a change in the way our team is working will negatively reflect on us,” she says. “But our managers actually see us more positively and [as more] committed.”

If you ask your manager to meet up and can tie it to a specific reason, like to debrief your quarter as a team or celebrate a win, that’s even better. “You could even say, ‘Hey, I’ve been reading some research that brainstorming meetings are more generative together,’” says Whillans. “‘Do you think we could try to organize as many people [as possible] who could make it for a meeting that’s our white-boarding session in two weeks? Could we try to do that in person and then go to lunch?’”

“The more initiative younger people take, they shouldn’t feel like it will be received as a signal of discontentment or that they’re complaining,” Whillans says reassuringly. “Rather, their manager will think of them favorably for asking as opposed to it coming at the cost of their reputation. Don’t be afraid of negotiating what you want your work to look like.”

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