Arrested development: young workers struggle with working from home

The rise of hybrid work is a godsend, but the youngest generation taking their first steps at work face an unknown challenge, writes UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel

In biology, arrested development means that natural growth does not continue as expected. Animals – including humans – can get stuck in a specific development phase. There are sensitive ages to learn skills. Newly hatched geese attach themselves to the first moving object, usually their mother. If that turns out to be a croaking German scientist, they bond with that man. Konrad Lorenz won a Nobel Prize for the flock of geese attaching to him as if he was their mother. Once attached to a human during this critical phase, the geese never managed to attach to their natural mother. 

There are also critical periods for learning in human development. Those who learn a language at a later age have a more difficult time. Anyone who has ever been on a ski slope with children knows there is also a critical age for learning motor skills.

Frederik Anseel UNSW Business School-min.jpeg
UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel says informal learning is a social process and the value of social learning in a hybrid world may have been underestimated. Photo: supplied

A case of arrested development?

Is there a critical age for learning professional skills? Perhaps not in a biological sense. But arrested development is a good metaphor to understand what the youngest working generation is struggling with these days. Just at the crucial transition phase from studying to working, covid overtook them. Worldwide, people nowadays work from home for an average of two to three days. The flexibility of working from home is a godsend for most employees, at least for those who already have solid work experience. 

But what if you have never experienced the classic busy work floor? What if you start from home behind your laptop or come to the office, but hardly anyone is there? That turns out to be a problem, and I don’t have any good scientific data on it. 

The questions come from alumni and companies who don’t know what to do with it. The starters have the feeling that they have missed something, but they are not sure what. They try to find their way in their job, but get lost. There seems to be some unspoken code of how things work at work, but they haven’t received the manual. A company tells me that its starters seem a bit haggard and lack basic manners. It is not well received in every company to leave the meeting unannounced to get a coffee. And is it a good idea to eat lunch by yourself while playing on your phone?

Read more: Why it’s so important to make people feel like they matter

Learning moments on the job

Usually new starters learn their job literally ‘on the job’. You learn by hearing others taking calls, talking to colleagues about projects and quickly tuning in before or after a meeting. But if you spend hours alone behind a screen at home in the first few months of your job, the number of learning moments will quickly dwindle. Research shows that when working from home, experienced employees spend only half the time mentoring and coaching young colleagues compared to days in the office.

Even on the days when people come to the office, the informal learning opportunities are dwindling. These in-person office days are fully planned and overstructured. The formal presentations and exchanges during a meeting do not allow newcomers to learn what is going on. Video calls happen in a place where you do not bother others. That means fewer learning opportunities for observing young colleagues.

Some companies indicate that newcomers struggle with work norms and have difficulty estimating how much work is “enough”. Some young people work extremely late hours at home. Others only do what they are explicitly told to do and don’t meet expectations. Social norms, expectations and implicit codes were perhaps not always openly discussed before covid, but you learned the ropes by observing and talking to others. Informal learning is a social process and perhaps we’ve underestimated the value of social learning in a hybrid world.

That’s no reason to turn back the clock. The benefits of hybrid work, both for productivity and mental wellbeing, are phenomenal. We don’t need to go back to pre-covid time, but we do need to deliberately organise and structure informal learning. Experienced employees should think about how and from whom they learned the trade. Make time to pass on your knowledge to younger colleagues. The first years of work are a unique imprinting period where you learn from and with others. With a little goodwill and the right technology, this is also possible in the hybrid office.