Collapsing

One afternoon last month, I sat chatting with two of my 20-something colleagues - both newly minted college graduates - in the office canteen. Over flavored seltzers, we did what coworkers are wont to do: We gossiped about our bosses, bonded over the work stuff that interested or annoyed us, and offered opinions about what we might do differently if we were in charge of the organization.

It was an ordinary conversation, but this being 2021, the fact that we were together was highly unusual. I work remotely, and neither of them is an office regular. Our employer lets us choose when and whether we go to the office - an approach many organizations have adopted as the world emerges from COVID-19.

"I can't imagine having to schlep to the office on a Friday," one of my new coworkers told me. She's not alone, of course. About 85% of Gen Zers, the oldest of whom are in their early 20s, say they want the ability to work remotely, the Harris Covid Tracker found.

I laughed and said something about how when I was their age, I had no choice in the matter. It was a moment of levity, but one that got me thinking: How strange it must feel to be launching your career at a time when office life - and the human connection that we've historically found there - is collapsing.

What I got out of my first and second jobs was less about the work itself and more about how to get along with others as a fellow adult. In the not-so-distant past, we spent more time at work than almost anywhere else outside our homes. It was the place where we had the best opportunities to create and develop relationships, as well as grow in the relationships we created there. Those opportunities are now diminished because people are working from home - without conversations with colleagues in the break room, in between meetings, over lunches, or over drinks after work. This may be more acute for Gen Zers, who are still growing into their adult selves, experts said.

For all the hand-wringing about how young remote workers are missing out on feedback and learning the ropes from older, more seasoned employees, little has been said about what's lost for their personal development, said Yael Sivi, the author of the new book "Growing Up at Work." "The workplace is an incubator for personal growth," she added.

Working side by side with others teaches you invaluable people skills, including how to resolve conflict and deal with interpersonal challenges. These lessons not only improve your work but also make you a better friend, spouse, parent, and member of society, she said.

This is not to say that Gen Z is doomed to selfishness or social ineptitude. (And to be clear: My Gen Z colleagues are terrific. They're smart, sparky, and enthusiastic. They're also breathtakingly young.)

"Young people can still grow in the workplace today - even a virtual one, but they have to be super intentional," said Sivi, who's also a therapist and executive coach. "They need to purposely seek out opportunities to expand and mature."

Being in an office day in, day out is an education in human nature

Adolescence - a period of intense emotional, physical, and biological growth - starts as early as age 9 and ends around the age of 25. It's the second critical window of brain development, with the first being 0 to 3, said Erica Komisar, a psychoanalyst and author who writes about this period of life. "There's a shifting, organizing, and pruning that takes place as you become your adult brain," she said.

Your surroundings and social interactions play a big role in aiding that development, Komisar added.

"At work, you're in an environment where you're not the top dog, so you have to learn to deal with authority and regulate your emotions when you don't get your way. You cultivate resilience to adversity and stress; you learn impulse control; and you develop empathy and the ability to read social cues and body language - all of those good things that we associate with being mature. It's identity building."

"If you're working away in your isolated room in your apartment, you're not getting that," she said.

I grew up a lot in my 20s. Sure, some of it was because of the reality shock of having to pay rent and do all my own laundry. But most of it came from having to go to work every day and spend 40-plus hours a week surrounded by other people of different ages, backgrounds, and perspectives. Certain visceral experiences stay with you.

In an informal Slack survey, my colleagues in their 30s and 40s heartily agreed. Their responses were all variations on the same basic theme: Being in an office day in, day out is an education in human nature. "I once had to break up a nasty fight between two colleagues who were my parents' age," one said. "A year into my first job, my work nemesis got a promotion that I wanted, and I spent an afternoon at my desk willing myself not to cry," another said. "My first boss was a jerk who alienated everyone around him. By watching how my older colleagues managed him, I learned how to be respectful but firm and draw boundaries."

The workplace is a peculiar mix of competition and congeniality NBC/Contributor/Getty Images © Provided by Business Insider The workplace is a peculiar mix of competition and congeniality NBC/Contributor/Getty Images

The workplace is a peculiar mix of competition and congeniality, said Glenda D. Shaw, the author of "Better You, Better Friends," which includes a chapter about navigating friendships at work. "You find who you can trust and who you need to be wary of. You discover who you can be yourself with and who you need to edit yourself around. And you also find out, sometimes the hard way, who's loyal and who's more self-centered," she said.

Learning this stuff is possible over Zoom, but not a given. There's something critical about being physically present with other people. "When you're working remotely, it's all too easy to disappear or simply choose to avoid certain people when you need to deal with conflict or resolve communication challenges," she said.

How to intentionally focus on building relationships at work

To be sure, the office is not a mystical place for personal enlightenment. It's also not an ideal venue for creativity and innovation, despite what some CEOs in corporate America say. What's more, work-life flexibility is today viewed as essential, for good reason. Study upon study showed that giving employees a choice of when, where, and how they work improved their job satisfaction, engagement, and productivity.

But there may be some unintended consequences to remote work when it comes to our personal growth - especially for young people, said Jeanine Turner, a professor at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business. "The tough thing about 20-somethings is that they don't even know what they're missing out on," she said. "How do you create a yearning for what you're missing if you don't even know it's lost?"

So what's the answer for Gen Zers? An intentional focus on building relationships at work, Turner said. Young people need to reach out to colleagues across the organization and make a concerted effort to spend time with coworkers face-to-face if that's possible. Shared workspaces, even if they're shared by people who aren't part of the same organization, can provide illuminating experiences and conversations.

They mustn't give in to temptations to hide from uncomfortable situations, Turner said. "We tend to make decisions around things we don't want to do," she added. "You don't want to meet with the person who gets on your nerves, and you want to avoid the person who you find difficult. So you send emails instead, or you keep your camera off in the meeting. But the fact is, those challenging circumstances and conversations help you grow."

Recognize that a short-term decision for efficient communication or a desire not to deal with a certain colleague has huge implications, she said. "Your ability to have influence in your organization depends on the relationships you establish."

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