The forced migration to remote work has left many organizations scrambling to develop new programs and content to help employees successfully make this shift, from new tools for video meetings to shared file systems to team communication platforms. These technologies have made the transition to remote work both possible and productive in many ways, but are they enough?

Recent research suggests that the events of the past three months have upended much of what we thought we knew about our employees, particularly when it comes to their remote work experience. For example, we might assume that digital natives — employees under the age of 26 who grew up with technology at their fingertips — would be most adaptable to working remotely. However, according to this research, these employees are the most anxious to return to a traditional work environment.

The research, conducted between March and May, surveyed more than 500,000 employees working at over 100 companies, most of them global. The findings indicate that:

    • Employees under the age of 26 are at the greatest risk of feeling disconnected from the effort to meet organizational goals and achieve personal successes at work.
    • These employees feel less productive and supported in remote environments, leading to pervasive negative sentiment about remote work.
    • Preferences for returning to work vary by age, with young employees leading the push to return to the physical workplace compared to slightly older co-workers.

These findings are surprising and counterintuitive in many ways, as a lack of awareness of or expertise with remote technology is clearly not the issue. These employees are adept at using social media, video calls and direct messaging, yet they are significantly less likely to say that their remote work environment enables them to work effectively. Digital natives are struggling with the physical limitations of working in small starter apartments, personal and social isolation, and the lack of visibility to leaders and teammates.

These younger employees feel vulnerable when it comes to career progress and continued employment with their organizations. One in five do not believe that their organization will do all it can to support their job security. There is fear and anxiety around losing their jobs, as they are also concerned about their ability to deliver quality performance at a distance.

Historically low unemployment has whipsawed to historically high unemployment. Younger employees are concerned about a “last in, first out” mentality when it comes to corporate cost-cutting, particularly as many feel they have not been able to put their best foot forward in a suboptimal remote work setting.

Training That Supports Remote Digital Natives

So, how can training organizations help? While communication technology and proficiency are key, they can’t increase employee engagement or performance by themselves. Instead, organizations should consider focusing on collaborative and dynamic interventions, such as effective communication in a remote work environment and increased efforts for cultural integration. Consider these strategies:

    • Offer virtual strategy roundtables with senior leaders, so younger employees can engage with and ask questions of them. Conducting these sessions via video will increase interaction so that both young employees and leaders feel seen.
    • Expanded remote onboarding activities and learning can help new employees, especially digital natives, grow their relationship with the organization.
    • Access to online learning platforms will enable employees to develop new skills and capabilities and remind them of the organization’s willingness to invest in their growth.
    • Lead group and case study projects that focus on real or simulated challenges to curate critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
    • Gamified interventions create or replicate an in-person development or culture building session with peers and leaders.

Training the Managers of Digital Natives

Managers of these employees will need to learn new skills as well. Supporting digital natives as remote work continues will require managers to adjust their leadership style to understand and meet the needs of this group. Just-in-time training for managers will enable them to incorporate a variety of new tactics specifically to support this vulnerable population:

Firstly, frequent conversations with younger employees help diffuse stress, build connections and enable problem-solving. These employees are new to the workplace and the work experience. Many had limited time experiencing the organization’s culture in a traditional work environment. They want to be noticed by their team and their manager and may be uncomfortable asking for help or additional resources.

Secondly, managers should provide the support and connections to resources necessary to establish self-sufficiency in the absence of a co-located work environment. Managers who reach out on a regular basis will build trust and create comfortable opportunities for young employees to clarify expectations and ask for help. Leaders can ask these employees, “What challenges are you facing working from home?” or, “What can I do to help you be more productive?” or, “How can I support your productivity or attainment of goals?” Listening and then acting on their responses in a timely manner will help build confidence and competency.

Finally: Communicate, communicate, communicate. Managers must serve as a conduit for upward and downward communications to help young employees stay connected to the organization. Managers who acknowledge what they do and don’t know about the organization’s future plans create a culture of psychological safety.

Change tests us all on what we think we know. As the world shifts, we need to question our assumptions and beliefs about our people. We need to collect fresh data and insights to accurately see the way forward. In a recent webcast on the topic of returning to work, Tanuj Kapilashrami, group head of human resources at Standard Chartered Bank, pointed out the value of listening to employees at this time: “We thought we knew the areas where people were comfortable working, but we did not … It’s quite important to not get carried away by what we think our employees are thinking, but to actually go back and really listen. More than ever before, the power of data — actually listening to employees — is so important.”