Are young people as eager to return to the office as their bosses suggest?

Some business leaders fear junior workers could miss out on opportunities for career progression if they continue to work from home, but the reality is younger people are just as keen for flexibility as everyone else

With work from home recommendations changing once more, many businesses will be reopening their office doors this week. 

One demographic that stands to benefit the most from these changes is the youngest members of the workforce, according to City Pub Group chief executive Clive Watson.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, he said: “Every junior staff member needs a mentor or someone in the office to help them with their roles, and they can’t really do that from home.”

The hospitality boss is not alone in his belief that young people have missed out on mentorship opportunities and the social aspect of being with colleagues in the workplace. In December, former AOL CEO Tim Armstrong also suggested that young people should go back to the office in order to protect their career development.

It has also been suggested that young people might struggle to work as productively at home because they are more likely to live in noisy flat shares or have the space to create a safe and effective working environment.

But while bosses seem keen for junior staff to return to in-person work, how do young people feel about the office retu?

Do junior staff prefer office life?

Nick Kirk, managing director for the UK & North America at recruitment firm Michael Page, says many of the graduates his company are in touch with are keen to apply for companies that have a lively office culture. He says: “In the past three months, I have repeatedly been asked by graduates whether the company they’re interviewing for is planning to return to the office. 

“Many of them have had a disruptive three years at university and now want to work for a company where there’s an opportunity to learn from others, build new relationships and socialise after work. They don’t want to work from home five days a week.”

Accounting firm PwC, which hires between 1,500 and 2,000 graduates and school leavers across the UK each year, has noticed a similar trend. Director of student recruitment Louise Farrar says: “On the whole, we are hearing feedback from students that they prefer to be in the office given the choice. 

“Many graduates have told us that they felt at a disadvantage not being in the office and that they want to be able to learn from their colleagues, network and spend time with each other building relationships.” 

Many graduates have told us they felt at a disadvantage not being in the office and they want to be able to learn from their colleagues, network and spend time with each other building relationships

This is backed up by data from graduate jobs site Milkround, where less than 1% of searches include the terms ‘WFH’, ‘home’ or ‘remote’. While the number of candidates searching for work-from-home opportunities has slightly increased since last year, the proportion of those looking for remote job listings on its sister site Totaljobs, which caters to a wider recruitment audience, is much higher.

Other aspects of a job remain more appealing to graduates, if searches on Milkround are anything to go by. More than a third (35%) of 18- to 24-year-olds are searching for employment opportunities that allow them to progress their career, 26% are looking for a change of job and 20% are searching for a higher salary.

Steve Warnham, senior content manager at Totaljobs group, says: “We can see that this young workforce is really ambitious. They want to improve their skills, build their experience and to learn from their peers and mentors. And there is a recognition that by returning to the office, they can advance in their careers more quickly.” 

Work/life balance is still key

However, this does not mean that junior workers are hankering for the return of full-time office life. In this respect, flexibility is key, says Warnham. “Young people see a positive work/life balance as key to their job satisfaction. Ensuring there is still flexibility in working between the office and home will be really key to keeping young people engaged and allowing them to develop their careers.”

It’s important for businesses to recognise workers as individuals. Employers must be inclusive and offer their workforce choice 

One person who has seen the benefits of a hybrid setup is Chloe Tonge, who joined Deloitte as part of its graduate programme in 2021. Her dyslexia means that Tonge can find it challenging to focus when working in busy environments. She says: “The majority of the time I prefer to be at home where there is little distraction and I can focus on completing my day-to-day work. But when there is a need for creativity, I prefer to be in the office to collaborate with colleagues face to face.”

Tonge admits that when she was looking for graduate roles, the idea of working from home didn’t appeal, especially after having a disrupted final year of university with very little social interaction. However she now appreciates having the choice of whether to work from home or in the office. 

She adds: “It’s important for businesses to recognise workers as individuals. Working parents and carers may not have the luxury of time and those with disabilities may find an office environment challenging, so an employer must be inclusive and offer its workforce choice.”

While it may be true that many young people are keen to get back to the office – whether that be to progress their careers or for the collegial environment – providing flexibility for all staff will continue to be important.