Christine Sizemore left New York shortly after the suited-up corporate world turned into a realm of button-downs paired with pajama pants and athleisure. Once the pandemic hit, the 24-year-old from Kent pursued a new position at Google. The company gave her the freedom to work anywhere, so she soon found herself living back in her hometown, with her mother and cat, Simba, who sometimes make guest appearances during team meetings.
This past year, Sizemore and many other members of Gen Z, loosely defined as anyone born after 1996, made their first appearance in the professional realm through a screen. It seemed fitting. Gen Z is known as the most technologically fluent age group, the masters of iPhones and Androids, Instagram and TikTok. It wields cultural power via these mediums, setting trends that range from the middle part to a revival of Y2K fashion.
Yet, as Gen Z has increasingly joined the remote workforce, some have struggled to make meaningful connections with their peers and longed for a connection beyond Zoom, according to a recent report from Washington State University’s Carson College of Business.
In the sample of 1,050 workers in the Pacific Northwest, Gen Z employees reported experiencing “negative impacts on their mental wellbeing” when working from home more frequently (47 percent) than older employees (34 percent). The age group also led all others in “significant negative impacts” on stress level.
Chip Hunter, the business school’s dean, says that Gen Z is “disproportionately harmed by not going into the office.” He observes that a lack of connections and mentors has led many of the PNW’s youngest professionals to question how to advance within their organizations. With fears of downsizing rampant, 68 percent of Gen Z employees said they were worried about the growth potential of their business or career, compared to 43 percent of older workers.
It’s not just a regional sentiment. In a recent Axios report, Clark University psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett said that younger employees miss out on “socialization and the chance to make the contacts and relationships you make in the workplace that lead to other things.”
Sizemore agrees with that assessment. She admits that it’s harder to make more connections remotely, especially when you’re new. “In person, there is a stronger connection that can be built.” But with remote work: “You have to be really intentional with meeting people,” and you have to “put in the time to make those connections.”
At her mother’s home, Sizemore’s new “office” consists of a laptop connected to two desktop monitors that sit atop a desk with a few scattered papers. The customer engineer works her 7-to-3:30 shift just a few feet away from where she sleeps.
Zoomers have frequently found their work-from-home environments “not that great,” Hunter says. In the WSU survey, Gen Z employees were more likely to be impacted by “pain points,” including at-home distractions (54 percent) and a “decreased ability to focus” (44 percent). When asked what is “driving the negative impact of teleworking,” common responses were a poor workplace setup, a lack of in-person communication, and extended work hours.
But Sizemore remembers a time where she would be distracted by aspects of in-office work: coworkers dragging her to lunch, early morning train rides to the office back in New York. She believes that working from home has opened up a lot of opportunities for her, and not just because it’s allowed her to work wherever. For example, it’s allowed her to attend virtual conferences that she might have missed out on if she had to attend in-person. “I really got lucky,” she says.
Sizemore’s optimism seems to be a common theme among Gen Z workers. WSU’s research finds that they “exude more confidence than more tenured employees,” with just over half (52 percent) feeling optimistic for the future. Remote work has also been a net-positive for productivity and creativity. “They’ve got their optimism, they’ve got their energy,” says Hunter. “They haven’t checked out.”