judge david langham 240538639

Generation Z Osmosis

judge david langham 240538639

The pandemic sent many into remote work settings. Some more readily than others. I have heard envy expressed for that person that already had a desk at home and transitioned a workspace somewhat seamlessly to more steady use. I have also talked with some that spread their work live over their home environment, losing non-work access to a dining room or other former "living" space. I have heard praise and criticisms regarding the challenge of the change.

Virtuality has had challenges. See Evolving Work Challenges (January 2022), Remediating (February 2022); The Next Thing (July 2022); Productivity is Down (December 2022).   

A recent article on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) noted that some of the next generation, Generation Z, are starting work life at a great disadvantage as a result of virtuality. Some of Generation Z, have purportedly "only known virtual work settings." This generation is born between 1996-2009 and entered the workforce beginning in 2014 and will continue to join through about 2031. See Bring Value (February 2022). So, the BBC's "only" is a generality, as the earliest Gen Z had been in the workforce for perhaps several years when the 2020 shake-up occurred.

But, particularly with those who elected four-year colleges, that workforce introduction might have been in 2018 at the earliest. Certainly, in that college cohort, more have joined the workforce since COVID ('20-23) than before (2018-20). There is merit in seeing impact in a broad perspective with this group. There may also be merit in the potential that flexibility of youth generally and acceptance of technology may have predisposed this group to success in the remote transition. 

The BBC notes that many have thrived. They are happy with the flexibility, and with relying on the technology that is such a natural and normal part of their world. Keep in mind these folks never really had to adapt to technology and its impacts. They were born into the midst of it all and never knew a world without the internet, smartphones, and social media.

That said, the absence of office presence is impacting some workers. There are lamentations of the "workplace intangibles." The BBC author cites examples such as "casual conversations and informal observations that traditionally teach young employees how to act." There is a remoteness that borders on isolation. And the claimed result is that the young are "missing out on picking up vital cues that guide behavior, collaboration, and networking."

This is not new. See Presenteeism and the Coming Divide (June 2021); A Modern Dilemma (February 2018). The idea of not being seen around the workplace may have implications. But, this most recent perspective is more on development than being noticed and engaged. The experts cited by the BBC note the following potential isolation impacts:

  • communication
  • norms
  • values
  • etiquette

There is lamentation here about the challenges of "being noticed" and "falling off the radar." These are not new concerns. However, they are persistent. I question whether this is all very temporary. The comfort of these workers in virtual settings is admirable. If they are productive, efficient, and contributing, perhaps there is little to be concerned with. As we old folks age out of the workforce, the conflict between their paradigm and our own will likely become less important by natural evolution. Possibly the challenge is merely with our old-school perspective colliding with their new world?

One expert cited by the BBC seems to see this as a larger and more long-term issue, however. He perceives that the lack of in-person interaction will impair the development of leadership in this next generation. He is convinced that they will master the work or task performance, and their particular skill or contribution, but will lack the development of "cross-functional skillsets" and the "strategic view" to evolve into tomorrow's leaders.

For today, it is not that communication, etiquette, and leadership cannot be mastered in the remote work environment, but that they will have to be addressed more directly. Gone are the days of casual water cooler conversations, impromptu "desk drop-by," and similar opportunities for subtle adjustment regarding skills, behavior, or interaction. Not mentioned is the opportunity for the young to observe others and learn from their prowess or errors. One can learn a great deal from an example, even a bad one. The deficit, it seems is they are missing the chance for "osmosis" (absorbing what is around them). 

The article sources lament miscommunication that is possible in digital communication. I have lamented the challenges that come with email and texting. You lose the tone and timber of conversation. Often in recent years, I have encouraged lawyers to speak to one another more frequently. The phone is not yet antiquated and conversation is so powerful. See The Great Good Place (August 2021). Unfortunately, most lawyers seem averse to simple conversations about conflicts and litigation. Some have withdrawn behind the keyboard and perhaps become a bit snarky, or misperceived as such.  

How will employers handle the management of the remote and virtual? Beyond the communication challenges, there are questions about the evaluation of employee performance. Are teams remaining engaged and committed to outcomes? Are more formalized management tools necessary (meetings) or are those merely excuses and distractions? And in the midst, there are concerns about productivity working back into the conversation. 

By Judge David Langham

Courtesy of Florida Workers' Comp

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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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