Young people and the future of work
As we move into this post-pandemic era and we all try to resume our ‘normal’ lives, opinion remains divided on the future of work. For many, the jury’s still out on whether working from home or working in the office is the best approach. However, the decisions businesses are making on these matters are incredibly important for everyone, especially young people who, arguably, have the largest stake in the future of work. Yet our voices are rarely heard in the debate.
Therefore, as a young person, I wanted to take the opportunity of this blog column to outline my own experiences of work during the pandemic and the pros and cons of home vs office.
In January 2020, I landed myself a temporary, part-time job as a junior interior designer at Stephen George + Partners. I was in the final year of my degree, studying Interior Architecture and Design at Leeds Beckett University and working two days at the practice, whilst the rest of the week was dedicated to my studies. Not only did I have a job in my chosen career, but I was getting a glimpse into the reality of working life within an architectural practice.
At Stephen George + Partners, I found the office lifestyle really appealed to me, working as part of a team, in a lively and dynamic environment, collaborating, and sharing ideas. Despite the burden of my degree looming over me, I was incredibly happy with my appointment; I was thriving and feeling surprisingly optimistic about my future.
Then 23 March 2020 arrived and the UK went into its first national lockdown as a result of the global Covid19 outbreak. The weeks leading up to this day were extremely uncertain for everyone in so many ways. There were conversations in the office about “furlough” – which I’d never heard of before – and the likelihood of the office closing and having to work remotely, from home.
For me, it was the most important year of my degree; however, my biggest concern and the one thing I was most worried about most was my job. I’d been used to spending a lot of time studying at home for my degree, with a lot of long days and late nights cooped up in my student bedroom; so, when the work from home (WFH) directive finally came, it initially seemed straightforward and not a whole lot different to what I had been used to.
However, the impact that WFH had on my working life gradually started to emerge.
Whilst it is certainly true that the ability to meet virtually allowed many businesses to continue operating through the lockdown periods, I personally found virtual meetings not as organic as they are in person. Initially, I found it difficult to say anything in video calls unless specifically asked to do so, as they felt very structured and there never felt like time to participate. Now, two years later on, I’m more used to having virtual calls and meetings than those in real life and I’m very much aware how that has impacted both my in-person social and soft skills.
The structured nature of virtual meetings doesn’t always allow for the natural flow of conversation or small talk at the beginning and end of meetings. This has meant less meaningful interaction with colleagues and perhaps prevented friendships forming, particularly with those people outside my immediate team. As a young person wanting to better understand my chosen profession, it has also limited the vital ‘informal learning’ you get from sitting in an office listening to and observing more experienced colleagues going about their jobs.
Architecture and interior design are creative industries that require collaboration and the cut-and-thrust of face-to-face meeting to develop new ideas. I missed this element of the job terribly.
None of this is to say that there were no advantages to WFH. For me, there were certainly less distractions at home compared to the office, particularly for solo tasks that demand concentration. It’s also easier to take time away from your desk if needed or if work gets a bit stressful. No commute to and from the office gave me more time for exercise and other leisure or household activities.
So, I need to say that I am not completely averse to homeworking. I merely want to stress to those who passionately advocate for WFH on a more permanent basis that there are two sides to every story and that the experiences of all groups, including young people, should be given due consideration when we talk about the future of work.
With the exception of three seemingly short months, homeworking became pretty much all I knew for two years after starting at Stephen George + Partners. At the time, it felt like everything that I’d always wanted had been taken away from me… or so I thought. The reality is that it has clarified my views on the importance of the workplace for young people and its role in in helping us learn skills and progress our careers; at the same time, it has made me realise that there are opportunities to be had for the future of working as the time-honoured rigidity of office attendance has been challenged.
The pandemic has revealed that a more flexible approach to the way we work can have many advantages for both individuals and businesses. There will always be those who prefer interaction and working in person and those who prefer remote working and space to think. And, as the rise of ‘hybrid working’ in this post-pandemic period proves, there’s no reason we can’t have elements of both.
Whilst there is still some debate about the exact future of work, there is no doubt that the experience of WFH during the pandemic has fundamentally changed attitudes towards physical workspace. For many young people in particular, offices can no longer just facilitate sitting at a desk with a computer, but need to promote wellbeing, inclusivity, connectivity and community.
To encourage staff back to the office, and to attract and retain the best people, many businesses are reconsidering their workspace set-ups and committing to extensive refurbs and retrofits that can involve anything from agile-working furniture solutions, flexible or modular spaces and other hybrid office solutions. How do we, as interior designers, respond? Well, I’ll leave that for my next piece… watch this space!