How different generations approach remote work during COVID-19

TechRepublic writers discuss the challenges surrounding remote work and how to make remote work easier during the coronavirus quarantine.

How different generations approach remote work during COVID-19

TechRepublic's Karen Roby, Macy Bayern, and Veronica Combs discuss the impact different generations have on the remote work model and the change in our routines since the coronavirus outbreak. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Macy Bayern: I wrote an article fairly recently about an NRG (National Research Group) report that was talking about some of the differences between Gen Z, Gen X, and how they feel working remotely. And, I'm on the cusp of Gen Z and millennial, right in there, and the research said that about half of Gen Z-ers hate working from home. That they get distracted, they are way more distracted, they are not productive. And I think that it seems like maybe half of that younger generation really needs that structure. Because they're coming straight from college where they have, you go to class from 1 to 2:30, and then you go into the library, you do your homework, you have people telling you to do things, and you have grades that rely upon it, whatever.

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And now, working from home, it's almost like it's a little too much freedom. And I think that that was kind of funny because as digital natives, or as people that were born with technology, you would think that using the technology remotely would be a no-brainer for us. But, I think some people actually struggle with getting too distracted by the technology, whether it's social media or whatever. I thought that was interesting, that there's a little bit of a divide there.

Karen Roby:  Maybe it's more millennials that are really pushing the work from home, but if you would think it would be more of your generation. I say that I'm Gen X. Veronica and I both are, of course. But, you would think that it'd be the younger ones that would be all for working from home, to have that freedom.

Macy Bayern: I, personally, enjoy it just because I'm a talker. What can you say? When I'm in an office, as you both know, I tend to be a bit of a chatterbox, so it's good for me to have that alone time to really lock things down. But it's different for people. But, Veronica, you and I would be able to speak on this for Gen X, at least, in the research that I saw, NRG found that most Gen X-ers enjoyed working from home because they were really comfortable, and they liked that independence. And they also liked being around their families, and having that quality time, and felt a little more relaxed. Would you say that's accurate?

Veronica Combs: Well, I've worked from home off and on for the last 10 years. There's definitely good parts and bad parts. You can get up and take a break whenever, and reset your brain to shift tasks, or to find inspiration if you're stuck on something. I think if you can close the door or close your family off, it's OK. My kids are older now, but if they were little, it would be so hard to work from home now. I have an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old, so they can make their own lunch, and walk the dog, and be self-sufficient while I'm down here. I think focus is the big thing about working from home. If you know you have to get something done and you're trying to avoid it because it's hard or you just can't figure it out. When you're at home, there's no one else usually there to distract you.

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I think focus is part of it. What I found is that you really have to watch your social skills. I'm an introvert, so I do like my time to myself. But, if you work from home exclusively and you never get out, then you forget how to make small talk, and it's even harder to approach strangers and say "hello" at a networking event. I found that I had to very deliberately schedule social things so that I would get out and talk to people, would remember how to network and mingle, and it's good for you. You meet new people, and you get new ideas, and especially for writers, you never know where the next story is. So, I do like working from home, but I very deliberately balance it with getting out in the world and talking to people.

Karen Roby: I think that that's the key for everybody, to find that balance. And those that are lucky enough to have an office and have the ability to work from home too is really a great combination like we have here with our company. But, I think that the really crazy thing for a lot of people is that they were just thrust into this remote-working setup. Their office closed like that when all of these changes happened so suddenly, and schools were closed, and it all just happened at one time. And that's tough to handle. Especially like you said, Veronica, with kids at home.

Macy Bayern: And that social aspect, at least in that same report I was referencing, was really big for Gen Z-ers and millennials. And that's probably because ... I can speak personally from that. After I graduated, I moved away from a lot of people my age and my close friends. And so, work was almost the social aspect of my life as well as my working life. I think that's also difficult for Gen Z-ers just to not have that talking, and have that comradery.

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Veronica Combs: I think that routine is really important. I've found that over-communicating is really a good idea because you can look across the room and say, "Hey, what about this?" And they hear your tone and they get all of your body language, but you can come across more abruptly on texting, or instant message, or even email. And so, I think thinking about that tone is really important. And, like I said, I'm an introvert, so I'm all about texting and emailing, but sometimes you just got to pick up the phone. Because something that can take 10 emails to sort out, you can say, "Did you mean this or did you mean that? Just let me know." I've found that I'm somewhat unique among my colleagues in either picking up the phone myself or asking them to call me.

And it's really easy to get out of that habit, but it's just so much quicker sometimes. And so, I always encourage people to just pick up the phone, it's OK. It won't hurt. It'll be really quick, and you'll be happy you did when it's over.

Macy Bayern: Even with sources and things like that, jumping on a quick call can be really easy. But I've even found myself, as I've been in this job longer, this might be because of my generation, I love email responses. I love the quickness, right? That expediency of doing things over Slack, or over email, or what have you, but you're totally right. Especially the way we're working right now, it is so important to be able to still jump on a phone call just to maintain that connectivity even. Right? But also to explain things easily. I think that's a really good tip across the board.

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Karen Roby: Macy I'm assuming most of your friends don't talk on the phone very often?

Macy Bayern:  I immediately think I'm in trouble. And I don't know why. But I immediately think, "What did I do?" And talking to my friends who are also professionals in different industries, they say the same thing. If their manager or their coworker says, "Oh, hey, do you have a quick second? I'm going to call you." It's somehow this terrifying thing. But I've realized that, especially now, that that is completely normal not to just immediately think you're somehow in trouble. So, I think that's definitely something that's a weird stigma or a weird misconception in my generation.

Karen Roby: Veronica what are some things you do to make working from home easier and more productive?

Veronica Combs: Well, it's easy to read all the best practices and say, "Oh, that's a good idea. I should do that." But I try to do something that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Last week, we did a Zoom lunch, Macy and I and our colleague Beth, talked over lunch, and it was a little weird. I sent out the invitations and you're like, "Are people going to say no?" No one said no, and it was really fun. And I think we're all like, "OK, we have to get back to work." But it was really nice to connect.

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I think, picking some kind of communication, Zoom lunch, or happy hour, or just an email to be friendly and say hello. I think that's important to keep those connections and to make sure you're not withering on the vine with your social skills. And then I think there's that tactic of, "What I hear you saying is ...". They tell you to do that in interpersonal relationships with your family or kids. And I think I've started to do a little more of that with my colleagues. So, "What I think you're saying is X," "Is that really what you're saying?" And try to phrase it in a friendly way. Not to be angry, but just to say, "This is what I'm getting. Is that right?" I've had mixed results with that, but I think it's still a good way to make sure you're not going off in the wrong direction. Go out of your comfort zone and over-communicate.

Macy Bayern:  Maybe for Gen Z-ers that need some more structure, I would recommend getting dressed every day. And I need to follow that myself. But, getting up, doing a routine, washing your face, all those things, getting ready, and then having a certain time you get your coffee. Having a certain time you're going to take lunch. Maybe at 2 p.m. I'll go for a walk, just so that there is some sort of structure to your day so that you do have some sort of organization of the way that you're going to go about your tasks.
And then, I might even take a little bit of Veronica's advice from earlier and say, "Don't be afraid of phone calls." Those can be, especially now, really helpful. Give your manager a call on the phone if you need some clarification on something that you don't want to get buried in an inbox or something like that. I'll go along with the organization, keep that structure, and also, don't be afraid of the phone. I think those would be my biggest two.

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