The Young and the Restless: Digital Natives Want to Go Back to the Office

When faced with a complex and far-reaching situation such as the COVID-19
pandemic, Chief Human Resource Officers (CHROs) cannot rely on old data,
outdated assumptions, and past ways of thinking—such parochial reasoning
will eventually wreak havoc on an organization. In light of the rapidly changing
nature of the current workforce, cultural, and social landscape, leaders’ need
for real-time employee feedback that can drive meaningful action is paramount.
Such data not only helps leaders address the concerns of today, but shapes their
thinking and guides decision making along the road ahead.
Since the beginning of March, in the early days of the outbreak in the U.S.,
Perceptyx has acted quickly to offer a series of free COVID-19-related employee
surveys, eventually serving more than 100 large enterprises such as CVS Health,
Standard Chartered Bank, Nike, Comcast, Prudential, Caterpillar, S&P Global,
WPP, OhioHealth, BAYADA Home Health, IDEXX Laboratories, Checkers/Rally’s,
NXP Semiconductors, and Huntington National Bank. The surveys collected
essential, in-the-moment feedback from employees on topics critical to CHROs
and other executives engaged in guiding their organizations through the
developing pandemic. Employees were invited to complete brief, anonymous
surveys ranging in focus from their company’s response to COVID-19, to
supporting people managers engaged in maintaining critical business
operations, and eventually, readiness for the return to work.
The insights uncovered from this growing database of employee perception
data, representing a globally-diverse cohort of over 500 thousand people from
every major industry, have challenged our once-held assumptions and beliefs
about employee needs, preferences, and engagement through turbulent
times. The findings have proved to be a much-needed rudder that CHROs and
business leaders are using to navigate the road ahead. As Gio Twigge, CHRO of
IDEXX Laboratories, noted in a recent Insights Discussion webcast, “This is HR’s
moment (…) there is no playbook here; lean in and make it happen.”
Research & Insights June 2020 Report 01
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we
used when we created them.”
ALBERT EINSTEIN 2020 Report 02
Organizations partnering with Perceptyx have made important course corrections as a result of these
insights, guiding much needed action and enabling a greater agility and responsiveness in the process. In
a recent webcast on the COVID-19 response, Tanuj Kapilashrami, Group Head of HR, Standard Chartered
Bank, noted of their listening program during this period: “We thought we knew the areas where people
were comfortable working, but we did not. Because of our listening, we got data to actually know the
parts of our organization where we needed to deep dive [to take action]. It’s quite important to not get
carried away by what we think our employees are thinking, but to actually go back and really listen. More
than ever before, the power of data—actually listening to employees—is so important.”
While many of the insights derived were company-specific and often far-reaching, the Perceptyx
Research & Insights team continues to mine this growing database of over 500 million data points to
pull out themes and insights that apply to organizations of any size. Furthermore, in light of the rapidly
changing nature of the current environment, the team continues to evolve their research to quickly
identify key issues that in turn can drive meaningful change for employees and their organizations.
This paper provides a look at three key insights related to the unique—and somewhat counterintuitiveneeds of those at the outset of their career and their implications for CHROs as they guide their
organizations into the next normal:
1. Digital Natives are at the greatest risk of feeling disconnected from the effort to meet
organizational goals and achieve personal accomplishments at work.
2. Digital Natives feel less productive and supported in remote environments, leading to pervasive
negative sentiment about remote work.
3. Return to work preferences vary by age, with Digital Natives leading the push to return to the
physical workplace compared to slightly older co-workers.
Research & Insights June 2020 Report 03
Call it what you will—age, stage of life, or generational differences—younger workers have been
traditionally perceived as the most engaged; this is no longer the case now, during COVID-19. For
perhaps the first time, it is these younger employees (those under 26 years of age) who are most at
risk of feeling disconnected from the effort to help achieve the company’s goals, and their own in the
process. More directly, younger employees who used to work in the physical workplace—an office,
store, worksite, etc.—but who are now working remotely, have the least favorable attitudes in some key
areas of well-being and productivity (see Figure 1). Given these “Digital Natives” have spent more than
half of their lives with tablets and smartphones at their fingertips, and are likely the best equipped to
navigate the technology-dependent world of remote work, these findings suggest the exact opposite
and certainly came as a surprise.
Age Differences are Not What They Used to Look Like
Figure 1. Digital Natives Feel Less Productive and Supported Working from Home
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%
My company’s response to COVID-19 has minimized stress for employees
I have the resources to do my job effectively while working remotely
My work gives me a sense of personal accomplishment
My remote work envonronment enables me to work productively
If I do not feel well, I can stay home from work without fear of negative
Percentage of Favorable Responses
< 26 Yrs 26-35 Yrs 36-45 Yrs 46-55 Yrs > 55 Yrs
Research & Insights June 2020 Report 04
To examine these findings further, all open-ended comments were thematically analyzed using artificial
intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) built into the Perceptyx platform. The comments
from Digital Natives were more than 2x as likely to be negative than positive in sentiment (see Figure 2).
For example, “the office” appeared frequently (shown in larger text size) in open-ended comments, and
had very negative sentiment (shown in darker red text) on average. This relates to how digital natives
perceive both their own productivity while working remotely, as well as their impact to achieve business
goals as part of a team. As one Digital Native commented, “I do not feel as productive at my home as I
do when I am in the office. It is now difficult to separate my personal life and my work because I have
to work in my bedroom. There is not a place for me to go to unwind after a long day ‘at the office’.”
Another said, “My main issue is the lack of workspace while working at home. This does not seem to be
something that can easily be resolved without being onsite.”
Figure 2. Digital Natives Are Negative About Remote Work
This raises the question of what leaders can do to foster better well-being, connection, and higher
productivity for younger employees.
To answer this question, we compared the response patterns of younger employees who felt productive
and supported against those who did not. By contrasting the survey responses of these two groups,
several clear differences emerged that give leaders insight into actions they can implement today to
ensure younger workers stay engaged:
1. Frequent conversations with younger employees help diffuse stress, build connections, and
enable problem solving. Young employees are new to the workplace and the work experience.
Many have had limited time experiencing the organization’s culture firsthand in a traditional work
environment. They want to be noticed by their team and their manager, and may be uncomfortable
asking for help or additional resources. Managers that reach out on a regular basis will build trust
and create comfortable opportunities for young employees to ask for help. Ask “What challenges
are you facing working from home?” or, “What can I do to help you be more productive?” Listen, and
then act on their responses in a timely manner. Create opportunities for young staff to interact with
a broader cross-section of leaders virtually to build visibility. Encourage them to participate in virtual
skill development.
2. Support individual employee decisions about the eventual return to the workplace. Our research
suggests that employees have divergent opinions about returning to the workplace. Younger
employees likely will want to return to the workplace sooner than others. While it will be necessary
to encourage this group to use good judgment to make their decision, their willingness to return
quickly may enable organizations’ plans to gradually ramp up office occupancy.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Managers must maintain close connections with
all employees, and serve as a conduit for upward and downward communications. A virtual work
experience requires purposeful and regular outreach to employees. Managers that acknowledge
what they do and don’t know about the organization’s future plans create a culture of psychological
Research & Insights June 2020 Report 05
Figure 3. The Forced Migration to Working from Home.
Research & Insights June 2020 Report 06
Among employees who experienced a forced migration to working from home, perhaps unsurprisingly,
older workers are more likely to want to return to the physical workplace once it is safe to do so (see
Figure 4). But yet again, the Digital Natives (< 26 years old) surprise us with an interesting pattern in their
responses: they too have a significantly stronger preference to return to the physical workplace than
employees in the middle (those 26–45 years old).
Return to Work Preferences Vary by Age
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 72% of employees performed their jobs in a physical workplace. During
the pandemic, however, these numbers were rapidly turned on their head, with 75% of employees
working exclusively from home (Figure 3). Today, when asked about their work preferences once it is safe
to return to the office after COVID-19, 56% of employees prefer a mixed working arrangement, alternating
between working from home and working in a physical workplace.
We also asked employees about what types of support they need to continue effectively when working
from home. We found that employees 26–45 years old are 2.5X more likely to say they need help
managing care-taking responsibilities than other age groups. As one employee illustrated, “I need tips
on how to manage having my child home and trying to work on her virtual schooling and being able to
help her when she needs help.” Similarly, this cohort was also the least engaged among those surveyed,
lending strength to the argument that the challenges of balancing work and personal responsibilities is
having a disproportionate impact on their preference for a mixed, flexible working environment postCOVID-19.
Figure 4. Work Preferences After COVID-19
Research & Insights June 2020 Report 07
Perhaps the surprise is unfounded: these youngest workers were entering adulthood with record-low
unemployment and a rocket-ship economy, when economic summer quickly turned to winter with
COVID-19; the shift disproportionately affected the job security of this cohort. As the newest members
of the workforce, this group has yet to forge strong relationships or prove themselves within an
organization, leading to a distrust among 1 in 5 employees that their organization will not do all it can
to support their job security. We believe this, coupled with the sensationalized mentality of “last in, first
out,” is most responsible for the perspective of Digital Natives; young employees, in the dawn of their
careers, do not want to be forgotten in an all-digital workplace. As one employee commented, “I have
anxiety and fear of not being able to deliver the demands at a distance…and suffer termination.”
• Continue to monitor the evolving environment. Organizations should continue to collect employee
perceptions during the return to the workplace. These data coupled with actual employee behaviors
(e.g., IoT tracking data) will best inform workforce planning and, in all likelihood, can be leveraged to
substantially reduce a company’s physical and carbon footprints.
• Consider new and innovative programs that support flexibility for employees with caregiving
roles. Many women in the workforce may feel pressure to take on caretaking responsibilities over
the next few months, as the availability of day care, summer camps, and school schedules remain
very uncertain. Similarly, those with caretaking responsibilities for extended family may have difficulty
finding the kind of help and assistance they depended on prior to the pandemic. Organizations will
need to ensure that programs exist that can support these needs so that caregivers of all types can
remain in the workforce. June 2020 Report 08
These findings can inform decisions about employee support programs as well as plans to return
employees to the workplace:
• Employees’ interest in a mixed work experience can help organizations plan for a smooth
transition back to the workplace. The logistics of returning employees back to open office
environments and large workplaces are complicated. Our research suggests many employees are
open to being in the office on alternate days or weeks and working other days at home. Employees
with caretaking responsibilities may be open to working an alternative schedule that allows for
phased movement of people in and out of the workplace.
See the Way Forward
The path to the next normal is still uncharted territory, but we’re learning as
quickly as the future of work is unfolding. Now is the time for HR leaders to
throw out the dusty playbook, collect fresh data, and challenge former ways
of thinking. Understanding the highly varied and sometimes counterintuitive
preferences of employees in different stages of life can give the CHRO much
needed insight as they work to rebuild organizational norms, helping them
balance the needs of the business with those of their people.
People analytics has always been a key differentiator among businesses looking
to stay ahead, but an organization’s ability to quickly respond and adapt to
changes will be critical on the road ahead — as it has already proven to be
during the pandemic. As the workforce continues to adapt, and as organizations
continue to support evolving employee preferences, the ability of leaders to
listen closely and respond quickly is becoming increasingly important. As the
world struggles to regain its footing, the needs of employees will undoubtedly
be different, and many of the mechanisms for creating and maintaining an
engaged and high-performing organization in the future will change with them.
Armed with greater visibility into the employee experience and insights into the
connections between employee perceptions and business performance metrics,
HR leaders can respond more quickly and decisively than before, ready for
whenever the next challenge arises. Developing this capability will undoubtedly
be a differentiator among those organizations who recover more quickly, and
remain more resilient along the road ahead.

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