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Gen Z is getting screwed by remote work, Microsoft survey finds

Young adults feel that they're losing out on the career growth that happens in the office.

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Microsoft's Work Trend Index took data from people using its products and surveys around the world.

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Millions of people are embracing a new way to work. The coronavirus pandemic has compelled employers to largely accept remote-working arrangements to keep employees safe and flexible schedules to let workers take care of family. But though large margins of people Microsoft surveyed in January about work habits said they hope the flexible office will remain when COVID-19 subsides, Generation Z workers are struggling.

A new study from Microsoft, released Monday, found that among the more than 31,000 workers it surveyed, 73% hoped remote work options would continue when the pandemic ends. Even Gen Z applicants were slightly more likely to apply for a job with remote options than for one strictly in an office. But those workers are also facing particular drawbacks.

Gen Z workers, born roughly between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s, responded to Microsoft's surveys generally by saying they're more stressed and find they're struggling more than their peers. They tend to be single, since they're younger, leading them to feel isolated. And since they're early in their careers, they don't have financial means to create a good workspace at home if their employer won't pay for it. And they're not having those in-person meetings that sometimes help them land in career advancing projects, or even to get in good with the boss. 

"Without hallway conversations, chance encounters, and small talk over coffee, it's hard to feel connected even to my immediate team, much less build meaningful connections across the company," wrote Hannah McConnaughey, a product marketing manager at Microsoft who's a Gen Z worker. "Networking as someone early in their career has gotten so much more daunting since the move to fully remote work -- especially since switching to a totally different team during the pandemic!"

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Working from home can be isolating, even if we're all still talking.

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Gen Z is not alone in struggling, of course. Tech employees with children have faced resentment from colleagues as they struggle to balance work with overseeing kids who are learning at home. And though companies have attempted to offer more benefits for parents, including more paid time off, tech industry employees in particular tell surveyors they feel worked to the bone.

Employees also say they want flexibility rather than fully remote jobs. Of the workers Microsoft surveyed, 73% said they want remote work options to stay, with 46% saying they plan to move now that they can work remotely. Still, 67% said they want more in-person work or collaboration too. In short: We don't seem to know what we want yet.

Which is why Microsoft's survey underscores the complex new world we'll all face when social distancing guidelines ease and we enter the new normal. A century ago, the new world that arrived after World War I and the 1918 pandemic gave birth to the Roaring '20s, highlighted by rising wealth and quality of life. The present-day new normal seems increasingly poised to raise quality of life once again, by giving many workers more time away from the office and more flexibility to care for family.

The great COVID pandemic work experiment has largely been a success. Big tech has gotten bigger, with some of the highest profits it's ever seen. Productivity has risen among well-established companies too.

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There's been a focus on parents struggling as schools shut down. But Microsoft said Gen Z needs attention too.

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For companies that have obsessed for years about making their workspaces more productive, though, this has required a change of heart. Facebook kept its desks out in the open, with everyone expected to come to work each day to see, hear and interact with one another. Apple dotted its massive "spaceship" campus with trees and walking paths so workers could come together -- on campus -- and brainstorm in an open space with built-in changes of scenery. And Google offered free meals at work, which encouraged people to not only stay at the office longer, but also to congregate during lunch hour and maybe, perhaps, come up with that next billion dollar idea, instead of waiting in line at the local deli. 

"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," George Anders said in the study. Anders is a senior editor-at-large for LinkedIn, which is owned by Microsoft. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking, and training that they would have expected in a normal year."

In its conclusions, Microsoft suggests companies invest in technology that helps bridge the physical and digital worlds, so teams can work remotely and in the office. Additionally, it says Gen Z employees need more career support.

"Be ready to build a new plan -- not just once, but maybe two, three, four times," Anders added. "What worked for your people and business in April may not be the same as November."