Learnings from Early Career Professionals (ECPs) working remotely during the pandemic.
As we move into a post-pandemic world, we are trying to figure out what hybrid working means for our organisations, and how to attract and retain early careers talent who have or will be joining remote and hybrid teams. Now is the time to reflect on what we’ve learnt working remotely through the pandemic. This research goal is to raise awareness about the challenges ECPs face and to recommend practical solutions to support a productive workplace for all.
While reading previous research conducted on remote working and learning, I spotted a gap. Specific information regarding early career professionals were missing.
Given how recent the COVID-19 pandemic is, it felt important and relevant to learn more about this audience as well. Since there are predictions that the pandemic will make some roles permanently remote (Sytch and Greer, 2020), they will also be impacted. And we need to be ready to support them.
As I conducted the interviews and gathered my findings, I became not only convinced of the value and importance of this research but also compelled to share what I had learnt to improve the working experiences of ECPs.
I also remember seeing an HBR article published in May 2020 (Markman), early in the pandemic, which suggested that new remote joiners had to be proactive in scheduling calls, introductions, finding mentors, and announcing that they were new to the organisation. Whilst some may perceive this as reasonable, especially for experienced professionals, I felt that for someone starting their first job, the experience should be more supportive.
Research conducted before the pandemic highlights the challenges and advantages of working remotely.
One of the common challenges identified in the research of working from home is linked to poor employee wellbeing. Employees may want to signal a commitment by overworking which leads to feelings of sacrifice which has been found to negatively affect an employee’s wellbeing (Cristea and Leonardi, 2019) Some have used the term “technostress” which is defined to be as the result of using different types of technology when working from home (Vuori et al., 2019 in Ipsen and al, 2020).
Another issue, which aligns with the issues discussed in Cristea’s and Leonardi’s research, is presenteeism (eg. working more hours than required), which leads to exhaustion. This is found to be typical in organisations with cultures of low trust and where employee and online monitoring is commonplace (Donnelly, 2015, as cited in Donnelly & Johns, 2020).
The concept of dehumanisation is also brought up in their research - the feeling of being detached from in-person social relationships (Gilson et al, 2015 as cited in Donnelly and Johns, 2020).
Another interesting challenge is boundaries (physical and mental), which are arguably harder to manage whilst working from home. According to Basile and Beauregard (2016), lines between work and home are more blurred for those who are not responsible for others, children, or pets.
Once work enters the home, it is exposed to a variety of complexities. The topics of equality and inclusivity have been introduced to the conversation for various groups of individuals, whether they are carers, have children, don’t own a computer or a desk, have bad Wi-Fi connection or live in a shared house. Each of these situations can bring different challenges to individuals. Interestingly, according to Desilver’s (2020) data (US based), before the pandemic, teleworking has been a “luxury for the relatively affluent” and not something common among younger workers. Whereas, during the pandemic, everyone who could work from home, young/older, experienced/new or rich/poor, were all given the same instruction: work from home.
Other challenges that have been highlighted through the literature are that remote working can cause feelings of isolation which seems to be linked to the level of manager support and engagement (De Vries et al, 2019).
Moreover, Donnelly and Johns (2020, p.12) have found that teleworking can affect productivity negatively due to tacit knowledge being lost or not transferred as quickly as it would in an office environment through daily interactions.
Some research would suggest that remote working could contribute positively to well-being as it can increase one’s work-life balance and a benefit would be to reduce someone’s commuting time (CIPD, 2019).
It has also been found to improve retention rates (Gyton, 2017) and lower the number of absences (Caillier, 2013) which is positive but could also be linked to the previously mentioned presenteeism which Donnelly has observed in his research.
Research also shows us that younger workers need a more tailored approach to well-being (Aviva, Baska, 2021). Those under 25s were more likely to feel anxious during the pandemic and feel less connected when working from home.
In July 2020, MetLife’s 18th annual US Employee Benefits Trends Study demonstrated that Gen Z workers were 3 times more likely to seek support for mental health issues like burnout or stress compared to their older colleagues (Blum, 2020).
Another survey showed that those aged 18-45 were nervous about missing out on career opportunities when working from home (Davies, 2021). Different types of chatter in the office amongst colleagues can lead to career opportunities and the office is also a good place to learn when employees are present. Especially, the ‘learner’, perhaps the new employee and the ‘teacher’, the experienced employee they can learn from.
Some of the literature seems to suggest a rise in autonomous learning and that “today’s students are “do-it-yourself” learners” (Nussbaum-Beach & Hall, 2012, p.11).
Similarly, Kop and Hill (2008) suggest that the learner will become the center of the learning experience and that the role of the tutor may change and perhaps even disappear. This claim implies a high level of learner autonomy. It is not without criticism, however, and some argue there is a risk of only connecting with like-minded people and lacking the challenge of a tutor or expert (Freire and Macedo, 1999 in Kop and Hill, 2008) which is essential in a learning context. Autonomy in learning also suggests some level of individualism when learning.
On the other hand, Lave and Wenger (2002)/reference/ReferencesPapers.aspx?ReferenceID=587577) proposed the phrase “community of practice” when they researched how people learn in their daily lives and do not believe that learning is an individual process like our learning institutions would have us think and that we are social beings who learn from and with others. Although Lave and Wenger’s theories do not directly conflict with the idea of the autonomous learner, they do suggest that this is not the best way to learn or even the natural way to learn given we are social beings. Arguably, learners could benefit from a balance of both.
Compelling research conducted by Edmondson, shows how important psychological safety and managing the risk of learning is foundational to enabling learning in organisations (2002). Schein (cited in 1985 in Edmondson, 2002) equally asserts that psychological safety can help individuals overcome ‘learning anxiety’. Edmondson also argues that individuals do not learn automatically and that is why goals are crucial to motivate learning and that psychological safety enhances the power of these said goals. The value of goal setting for learning purposes is well established in the literature (Locke, 2001). Goal setting in organisations is usually translated as ‘objective setting’ where progress is reviewed during the year and frequency is dependent on the organisation’s policies and manager engagement.
Research also shows a preference for learning by doing (51%), with learning by seeing at 38% and listening at 12% (Barnes and Noble, 2016). Another research conducted by Seemiller and Grace (2016) showed similar responses and showed a clear preference for a facilitated approach to learning as opposed to directed learning or lecturing. Nicholas’ research (2020) does conflict with Barnes and Noble (2016) where a significant preference for listening to content is demonstrated rather than reading material. It may be no surprise that in Purcell et al.’s research (2012) on how students do their own research, online search engines such as Google or online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia were the top answers, closely followed by YouTube, social media sites, and their peers.
My research was conducted in Spring 2021 when I interviewed individuals in their 20s who started a new role remotely during the pandemic. These individuals came from a range of organisations from the Big 4, private and public organisations as well as charities.
3 main categories were established through a thematic analysis; age, learning, and wellbeing.
Age equality was a concern that came out from the interviews in the context of affecting their career progression. This was a result of joining an organisation remotely, putting them at an unfair advantage in comparison to other colleagues. Strong concerns were also voiced about not knowing if their boss likes them or convinced even that their boss hates them and generally low levels of confidence to speak up and contribute.
Research participants spoke in ‘them vs. us’ language regarding working with older colleagues and expressed feelings of being taken advantage of or lack of power due to being “in the minority, the young people here”.
Comments surrounding inequality were related to the individual’s age which inherently determined their living situation and their financial capacities in comparison to their colleagues who were older and ‘settled’ in houses. Inequality was also highlighted through the lack of possibilities for career progression and the feeling of missing out due to being new, remote, and therefore not having those relationships that others have already created within the organisation. These circumstances meant many of the research participants felt low levels of confidence which was at times linked to lower levels of experience in workplace ethics and politics. This was mostly due to the lack of feedback given, which was exacerbated in a virtual environment where instant feedback or reading cues from managers and colleagues is easier when face to face.
“I was so obsessed for some time, like “oh I’m sure they hate me”, you know, and that they compare all the time with the job that the other person was doing. […] And even for me… the slightest thing, like “oh, they didn’t put a smiley back” you know or like an exclamation point […] you're full of doubt that you wouldn’t be before right.”
Learning was an important part of the research as learning is central when starting a new role. I wanted to find out about the learning experience of early careers joining an organisation remotely and what technical or soft skills were needed for that age group. The challenges of knowledge transfer remotely were also discussed and generally, participants described their learning curve as steep and even “traumatic”.
In the analysis, I identified 5 main soft skills that most frequently came up as being key in learning when working in a climate of uncertainty and when working remotely.
Through the interviews, it appeared that learning platforms were not effective and participants admitted to not engaging with them much due to lack of time (heavy workloads) and due to having no guidance from managers or colleagues on what would be useful for them to know/learn. Participants shared that they would usually practice ‘just in time’ learning, when necessary, for example finding a video on how to do a formula in Excel.
Many repeated that they didn’t feel the ‘important’ learning would occur on platforms but more in the office, through conversations and interactions. Particularly when it came to knowledge transfer and most importantly tacit knowledge. Knowledge transfer was deeply affected when working remotely, especially when joining an organisation. It slows down the speed of learning and feels inefficient and frustrating which perhaps was intensified by feeling siloed and not wanting to bother their busy bosses/managers too much.
Other sources of learning were identified, such as having mentors, which didn’t always work due to not having the right match or having an informal set-up. Feedback was also a source of learning and development, which in the participant’s opinions, did not occur nearly enough as they would have liked.
“Whereas now I feel like it's a lot more of maybe a formal process, because you have to send them an email or you have to send them a message on Teams or Skype or whatever it is. It feels like a much more formal process to ask a question. And then you perhaps have to wait for feedback, you have to wait for them to reply, whereas it used to be instant so… I think you almost have to be a bit more careful about what you ask, because if you're just having a conversation like we are now, you can ask several questions quite quickly and build your answer.”
Wellbeing was a recurring theme in the research findings which incorporates sub-themes of connection (relationships with colleagues), managerial support, and working preferences.
Everyone’s wellbeing has been tried and tested during the pandemic. Feelings of isolation, working like a machine, and being trapped in a cage were expressed as well as the distance building between colleagues through not seeing how a colleague is ‘really’ doing behind their screen. Some felt so distant and said that they felt like being a freelancer, working for the client, but not for your company. This highlights the disconnect between the employee and organisation. Expectations were also shifting as meetings were set up at 6 pm when typically, everyone would have left the office by 5.30 pm.
Generally, among the participants, there was a feeling of reduced amounts of connection points and opportunities. Instead, one individual refers to “a million emails flying around” whilst others mention not having any ‘work friends’. One individual was thankful for connections they had made previously to bypass some of the slow processes related to IT. In addition, observations were made on only being able to connect with those you work with directly. Some organisations set up ‘coffee catch-ups’, online quizzes, and even informal catch-ups in the park when restrictions were alleviated to meet with colleagues. These initiatives were helpful and alleviated the feeling of being a burden when asking for help formally, for some, and for others, it felt awkward and forced.
Managerial support or lack thereof appeared to have the most impact on an individual’s experience of being new in the role, working remotely, and being from the age group in question. There is a clear correlation between managerial support and engagement and the participant’s narrative of their experience. Those with supportive and engaged managers talked about their experiences more positively than those with little or no managerial support, who were more likely to express issues with their wellbeing.
In terms of working preferences, all research participants have expressed wanting to go back to the office. Still, they would like a balance and flexibility to go in the office when they wish and not to have particular rules around attendance on certain days.
“When you know, you have a bad day with your superior, everyone is like “is everyone okay, does anyone need anything?” Well, you know, maybe I need a psychologist, you know, but what am I going to tell you in a unit meeting, right. (laughs) […] I got used to like… It’s not expected from us to be fully healthy and with our 100% mental health or like very active and energetic. It's just expected for us to do our work, you know.”
As a new joiner and a less experienced employee in the workplace, ECPs would benefit from guidance on learning, relevant training based on needs, and technology and platforms that support the learners needs and provides personalisation options.
In summary, this research project revealed that many early careers feel disconnected from their teams and suggests that a tailored approach is needed, that focuses on the themes of perceived age inequality, confidence, wellbeing, and effective learning in a hybrid world – with managers being at the heart of helping them to feel engaged.
The main question to answer now is what does this all mean in practice for employers?
As part of this research, I wanted to offer recommendations to HR professionals and employers to bring it all together, to make the workplace a better place to work for ECPs and all employees.
We know the onboarding process is key to integrate new joiners into an organisation and even more so when onboarding virtually.
Given that the research quoted in this article as well as other research suggests that managers have a very big impact on their team members wellbeing and experience overall in the workplace, we know how crucial it is to develop good managers and leaders.
Why should we care? According to research, managers are sliding back toward their pre-pandemic behaviours, after a spike in better management practices in 2021. For example, in 2019, 59% of managers were open to new information. That increased to 70% in 2020 but has now declined to 61% in 2021 (RedThread research).
As a new joiner and a less experienced employee in the workplace, employees would benefit from guidance on learning, relevant training based on needs and technology and platforms that support the leaners needs and provides personalisation options.
As you reflect on your experience and the findings from this research, think about what you could change or introduce to your organisation to make it a better environment for your ECPs to succeed.
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