Why millennials are refusing to return to the office

‘I’m not surprised by the figures, because the pandemic has been a disruptive and extraordinary event,’ says Professor Emma Parry, head of the Changing World of Work Group at the Cranfield School of Management. ‘I think for virtually everyone it’s been a career shock, and we know that when people experience career shocks it makes them reflect on their lives and jobs.’

Though Parry says historically there isn’t always a clear link between intent to quit and actually doing it, we are of course living in unprecedented times. ‘It’s a fallacy that this generation are not loyal and they don’t stay in jobs long – the data doesn’t really back that up,’ she says. ‘But what we do know is that they’re more prepared to leave if they’re not satisfied with what they’re getting.’

What is clear is that the pandemic stripped jobs of their bells and whistles – flash offices and travel – and for some what was left was a poor work/life balance and an unfulfilling role. ‘A lot of people realised they were in bulls—t jobs that involved a lot of emails and not a lot else,’ says Dr Eliza Filby, a historian and generations expert.

Many millennials feel worse off than their parents’ generation. ‘They joined the workplace in the financial crisis, then they’ve dealt with the instability of Brexit. They feel quite battered and bruised,’ says Filby.

‘Burnout’ is often cited by millennials as a reason for being dissatisfied. Technology means they are a workforce that rarely switches off – a trait that has got worse over the last year with the blurring of work/life boundaries and a heavy reliance on technology. In 2019 The World Health Organization defined burnout as a syndrome ‘resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.

Jasmine*, 26, quit a full-on job at a public relations start-up in March when she realised the enormous toll it was taking on her mental health. ‘I felt so undervalued, so stressed out, so unappreciated,’ she says. ‘I sat there crying every morning, working every evening. I could never switch off. Leaving with nothing else lined up was definitely the scariest thing I’ve ever done but I couldn’t do it any more.’

She’s since found a new role at a PR company, where she set herself strict boundaries, logging off at 5.30pm each day – but says she wouldn’t hesitate to quit if that role became stressful too. ‘I’ve always had a really strong work ethic but I’m no longer going to break my back for someone who can replace me in a day or two.’

Once completely career-driven, the last year has changed her relationship to work. ‘Your job doesn’t have to be everything about you. It’s just one aspect of your life.’ She’s aware some might call her and other millennials ‘snowflakes’ for not sticking it out – but doesn’t care. ‘I value my happiness and my mental state way more,’ she says. ‘When people say “snowflake” they’re just not ready for things to change. They think that just because they suffered everyone else has to as well.’

Despite WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani’s recent comment that the ‘least engaged are very comfortable working from home’, research shows that people are actually putting in longer hours when working remotely. Business-support company NordVPN Teams found UK employees working from home spent an average of two extra hours a day logged on compared to pre-pandemic. The dating app Bumble recently made the decision to halt work for a week to give its 700 employees a ‘much-needed’ break to destress.

Filby believes that more companies need to show they care. ‘That doesn’t mean organising a Zoom cocktail hour, but a commitment to managing staff, taking into account their well-being, enabling them to switch off.’

Separate research by HR company Beamery found 63 per cent of office workers felt frustrated due to little or no support from their managers over the last year. The same study found that 48 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds felt isolated or undervalued working from home and 74 per cent felt it hindered progression in the workplace.

It has led to a ticking time bomb of resentment, which some experts predict will explode in resignations. ‘Where companies didn’t manage their staff well, I think people have just gone “screw this”,’ says Filby.

But many experts caution that compromises need to be made. ‘It has to be a two- way contract. Millennials do have to understand that flexibility at work is a negotiation between you and the employer on what suits them and what suits you,’ says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School. ‘There’s got to be a warning here, and it’s that we’re going into a major recession. I think it would be foolish to quit right now without having another option lined up.’

Many are not happy about an impending return to the office. In research carried out by YouGov on behalf of well-being and performance company PUSH, 40 per cent of people did not want to go back full-time as it would be ‘bad for their mental well-being’ – and this figure rose to 50 per cent in the under-35s. The work-from-home order is expected to lift from 19 July, leaving it up to businesses to decide if employees should come back. Despite Michael Gove saying, ‘We won’t go back to the status quo,’ the Government has denied rumours it will introduce a legal right to work remotely. Labour says this should be guaranteed, along with an employee’s ‘right to disconnect’ and not be expected to reply to emails and calls outside work hours.

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