Any organisation dithering about the merits of working from home should consider that we’ve just birthed the first generation of remote-work natives.
As New Zealanders’ living rooms surrender their temporary role as classrooms, it remains to be seen what impact the few weeks of distance learning for our country’s children might’ve had. But whatever happens next, there’s no doubt that this generation of students took to the remote work experience with greater proclivity than any before it.
Today’s school-aged children, labelled Gen Alpha and born to Millennial parents from the early 21st century onwards, follow hard on the heels of the digital native Gen Zs. While their Z predecessors are totally comfortable with technology, Alphas are completely and fully integrated. In a world of wearables, tech has literally become an extension of their bodies. In-person interactions remain an important part of their lives — but lockdown demonstrated their ability to effortlessly switch to remote interactions, using apps like TikTok, WhatsApp, and Google Hangouts to maintain their social lives without skipping a beat.
During our unplanned hiatus, a common consensus emerged that a day’s schooling could be completed by lunchtime. And it didn’t take kids long to realise that concentration in the morning meant free afternoons. We’ve truly lost sight of how unproductive our “collaborative” environments can be — and recognising the returns that focus without distraction offers will be a skill that upcoming generations are certain to bring to the workplace.
Faced with the prospect of remotely managing a couple of dozen young people, teachers delivered a Management 101 masterclass, applying principles like setting defined portions of work with deadlines and instituting daily check-ins to ensure steady progress and accountability. Given the opportunity, Gen Alphas proved they could be largely independent and motivated to continue learning irrespective of where they were and exactly when they did it.
As the last stop before entering employment, tertiary education has already led the transition to online learning models. Access to a global talent pool of the best academics means courses are richer as the constraints of on-campus presence melt away. But it’s student freedom to choose when they engage with course work that probably has the greatest implications for the future. The days of bleary-eyed undergrads shuffling into lecture halls are numbered, as students tune in online when they’re wide awake and ready to concentrate. Rigid schedules have relaxed, and in-person interactions are often tutorials, lab sessions, and collaborative working group activities rather than seminars.
It remains to be seen how widely work-from-home models will be embraced. Early indications suggest a broad desire to adopt a mixed model that continues to offer the social aspects of the office while working remotely to achieve better focus. Assuming we have the courage to apply the learnings of the past weeks, Gen Alpha will be the first of successive generations to experience higher rates of parental presence, with all the benefits that brings. They’ll watch as their parents adapt to a better work-life balance — and they’ll enter the workforce with the same expectations.
As traditional draws such as salary, benefits, and titles continue to sink down the priority ladder in favour of flexibility, work-life balance, and a sense of purpose and mission, attracting and retaining the best Gen Zs and Alphas will require businesses to adapt. Events over the past weeks have largely exposed the 9-to-5 folly for the outmoded practise it is. As coming generations are educated without spoon-feeding and school bells, their expectations as they graduate to the world of work will evolve even further.
COVID-19 is a human tragedy affecting the lives of millions. A global pandemic is by no means a change-agent we wish for. But faced with it as we are, we’ve been forced to adjust more of life’s fundamentals in a few short weeks than many of us might otherwise have in a lifetime.
Let’s follow through and make choices now that normalise and celebrate different ways of working. Make no mistake: a handful of years from now, a new generation of remote natives for whom work isn’t about place or time will be demanding just that.