Many had to go through a full year of pandemic schooling, which robbed them of many of my fondest memories of the place – the thrill of being thrown around with hundreds of really smart young people from around the world. And now, like millions of other students, they’re heading to workplaces that may or may not be places. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 33% of employers have expanded remote work during the pandemic, and 60% of them intend to retain some or all of these remote options in the future. Kastle, which provides security badge systems to companies, says that as of the last week of April, occupancy at the offices they serve was around 45% of its pre-pandemic level.
I don’t have to talk about the benefits of remote work for anyone. But there are also dangers. And these dangers are likely to be the most dangerous for young people, who need to develop their human capital now: learning skills, learning about their industries, making professional contacts that can help them find their next job, or the one after. . All of this is harder to do over email or Zoom.
Humans are a social species, evolved for face-to-face interaction. Anyone who has worked or schooled remotely during the pandemic knows the downsides of switching to video conferencing. The jerky, unnatural pace of conversation stifles spontaneity, and home distractions make it easy for people to check in, even when they want to pay attention. You never meet someone before the meeting and remember a quick question you wanted to ask, or catch up with the kids and pets and recent vacation afterwards.
Over time, these deficits accumulate. You have not made friends or built up a reservoir of goodwill with managers and peers who will carry you through difficult times (I regret to inform new graduates that there will be inevitably difficult times). You haven’t heard the gossip about competitors that might alert you to opportunities or warn you of similar mistakes. You didn’t listen to war stories that teach you how to handle sticky situations or embark on an interesting project because you were chatting with the right person at the coffee pot. When you leave, you’re not a good memory, just one less box on the Zoom screen.
And while you’re at it, you’re more vulnerable. As economist Bryan Caplan points out, bosses are usually very reluctant to fire their employees because managers are people and most people don’t like hurting others. It’s a lot easier to throw a box on screen than the nice guy you had lunch with last week. And as one entrepreneur I know likes to point out, if your job can be done from the beach, it can probably also be done from Bangladesh, by someone who makes a lot less money than you. So working in the type of job or company that supports fully remote work likely makes you more vulnerable to long-term layoffs.
How big will the problem be for new graduates? Much depends on the persistence of the current situation. Currently, labor markets are tight and workers have great bargaining power, which they use to push for more distant options. But if we find ourselves in a recession soon (as we might), employers will claw back some of that power, and given the benefits for companies of having workers in close proximity to each other, they could bring back the office workers. The future may end up looking more like the pre-pandemic past.
Thus, the savvy graduate will have at least a contingency plan against the possibility of corporate offices continuing to send employees to exurban home offices or distant cities. And while I understand the danger of us old niggers giving advice (“Have you thought about blogging?” whispers the journalist who started her career in 2003), I’m going to take the risk and offer it anyway: Be there.
Do not accept work that allows you to work from the beach or your apartment. Choose a company with a head office and move to the city where it is located. Come to the office several days a week, even if the space is two-thirds empty. Chat at the coffee maker. Listen over the lunch table.