The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of just about everyone in Hampton Roads, both personally and professionally. Businesses have been forced to make difficult decisions and quick adjustments, schools have closed their physical doors for the rest of the academic year, and social interaction has all but evaporated during this time of social distancing and quarantine. As our state and local leaders wrestle with the prospects of slowly re-opening, and we envision a full recovery and return in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, we will have to address several issues to discover our “new normal” in the business community. Young professionals will be instrumental in driving us forward, catalyzing their employers to rethink the way they do business and re-evaluate their policies and procedures.
Consider work-from-home, the stereotypical young professional rallying cry. Many companies that once considered telework to be unproductive, or were simply reluctant to allow it because of deep-seated opinions and reliance on past practice, are suddenly confronting a new reality. The cat is out of the bag, so to speak, as employers and employees alike are generally discovering that telework flexibility was possible all along. The needle was already moving—even before the pandemic, around 29% of recent college graduates enjoyed some amount of telework in their jobs according to the Atlantic. Employers need to start planning now for their post-pandemic telework policies and procedures, including their IT capability and investment in collaborative digital platforms. Of course, young professionals generally recognize that no amount of technology can replace face-to-face interaction and collaboration, and many of us miss the office after spending the last weeks and months exclusively at home. Employers should consider long-term plans to allow for telework once or twice a week, depending on the needs of the position, to help employees achieve their desired work/life balance.
Speaking of healthy balance, many young professionals have taken this time to readjust, reset, and refocus mentally and emotionally. Many of us have been able to spend more time with family, learn a new hobby, or finish a project. That being said, there have certainly been drawbacks aside from the economic strain of lost income or uncertainty: added stress and disappointment, missed weddings and graduations, and separation from close friends to name a few. This highlights the increased need for employers to focus on mental health and morale. With the high level of uncertainty these past months, employers have stepped up their efforts to keep the lines of communication open and provide support. These efforts should continue with a renewed sense of purpose as we emerge from this crisis. Whether this means re-examining crisis planning, enhancing employee assistance program offerings, or embarking on new communication and engagement strategies, the 757 business community can use this time as a springboard for the future of employee mental health and morale.
Finally, the COVID-19 crisis has provided an opportunity for the narrowing of the generational gap in the workplace. The sudden and rapid onset of increased technology use has certainly helped in that regard; many young professionals have found themselves teaching their older coworkers how to use a videoconferencing platform or other tech in recent weeks. However, there is a more personal component to this crisis as well. Young professionals are typically newer employees, with less job security than their more tenured counterparts and a greater susceptibility to layoffs and furloughs. When combined with staggering levels of student debt, savings accounts in their infancy, and the stress of starting or expanding a family, the millennial workforce has a lot of pressure on its shoulders. With the onset of this pandemic, suddenly older generations are feeling more of a pinch as well. These shared struggles are an opportunity for greater understanding and empathy going forward, particularly across generational lines. Businesses can leverage this to enhance inter-generational collaboration and interaction through mentorship programs, cross-functional teams, and other initiatives.
The organizations that will survive and thrive through times of crisis are those that are agile, intentional, and forward-thinking. Although operational innovations (think delivery and curbside pickup) are absolutely necessary, we cannot forget that businesses are comprised of people—including young professionals. Focusing on people enhances creativity, increases productivity, and boosts the bottom line. As the 757 region prepares for its new normal, young professionals stand at the ready to help transform their companies, paying dividends for years to come.
Daniel Sileo is Chairman of tHRive, the young professional program of the Hampton Roads Chamber. tHRive cultivates regional awareness and community development by providing a platform to empower young professionals, give them a voice, and invest in the future of our region (www.ypthrive.org). Daniel holds an undergraduate degree in economics and government from William and Mary, and a graduate degree in human resources and employment relations from Penn State.