Graduation season is upon us and for the Class of 2023, the pandemic has markedly shaped our college experience. And now, (spoiler) it will continue to shape our lives beyond The Arch.
For Gen Zers who entered the workforce in the last three years, a great number have never stepped foot in an office setting. You may be graduating with a degree that proves some level of competency, but working with other people in a corporate setting is an endeavor a Northwestern education has not prepared students for. Below are a few pieces of advice from experts and other Gen Zers who’ve successfully made the transition to in-person work.
In an office, you are no longer alone and may be motivated to form stronger bonds with co-workers outside of a Slack channel. Most of your co-workers may be older and have worked in your field for years, if not decades. A common worry among young people today is how to connect with older coworkers and form a community at work, after having been alone at one’s desk for months on end.
Alan Henry, a service editor for Wired Magazine and author of Seen, Heard and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized, advocates for showing genuine curiosity in any industry you are a part of.
“When you work on a team, everyone's work impacts everyone else's work in some way,” he said. “The more you can be interested in the work the people around you do, the better you'll be able to represent them in the work you do. You may even discover a passion you didn't know you had and a mentor you didn't know you wanted!”
According to Simran Deokule, a paralegal working in Chicago, older adults can be very resourceful.
“Networking with my older coworkers has been helpful in figuring out what I want to do with my life,” she said. “They have given me really good advice about law school.”
Deokule also recommends inviting your coworkers to interact over non-work related activities.
“Chances are if you are in the same line of work, you probably share similar values,” she said.
Deokule shared that she has rounded co-workers for happy hours at nearby pubs and has enjoyed getting to know them on a more personal level. “I feel like I belong now. Like I have a reason to be there,” she said.
Henry suggests translating the phrase ‘professional network’ to ‘work friends.’ “The key to building a successful network is being open and interested in what others have to say,” Henry said. “Networking isn’t all about brokering power; it’s also about making friends who are willing to back you up on work-related matters, specific projects or a new job at a different company.”
And if all else fails, Kellogg professor Maryam Kouchaki recommends young workers choose a spot in the office where they are most likely to encounter other workers.
“It’s been proven that people situated near the water cooler or near exits have more work friends and tend to enjoy their working environments more,” she said.
You have legs, again
You’ve been ousted from your bedroom and are now forbidden to wear the same pair of sweatpants three days in a row to teleconference with your coworkers who can only see you from the waist up. Transitioning to a work-appropriate dress code when you have never worked in-person can be a challenge. Hesbon Ochako, a junior associate at a consulting firm in Seattle, recommends you visit the office space during work hours before starting your job to effectively gauge the level of professionalism expected from you.
“Getting dressed up in the morning gives me a sense of purpose, like I have things to do and goals to accomplish,” Ochako said.
With a personal sense of style that’s extravagant and flamboyant, he initially felt stifled by the category ‘business casual.’
“Finding that delicate balance between who I am, what I like to wear and what’s professional for the office has been tricky, but I’ve managed to bring my flair to boring suits and ties,” Ochako said.
Henry reminds us that the idea of looking “professional” is often rooted in privilege and racism, and he urges young workers to find workwear that works for them.
“I'm not saying wear your sweatpants to the office, I am saying try to embrace your own personal style in a way that's clean, put together and well managed so no one can doubt that you intended that particular look,” he said.
Deokule recommends pushing back on dress codes if you feel strongly about the restrictions to your closet.
“The benefit of working with other adults is that they can’t just tell you what to do,” Deokule said. “You have to reach a compromise that works for you both. But every workplaces draws the line at cropped tops.”
You have chores
‘Office housekeeping’ refers to the work essential for teams to thrive but can’t be put on a resume, such as taking notes in a meeting or planning Susanne from finance’s birthday party.
“Return-to-office means more office housekeeping, especially for young workers,” said Elizabeth McCabe, a professor at NU who studies representations of work in the media. “It is important for young workers to learn the delicate balance of advocating for oneself without alienating one’s coworkers.”
Henry wants young workers to remember there is nothing intrinsically wrong with office housework and advises new recruits to pitch in if they can but to focus their efforts on tasks that utilize more of their skillset.
“When you catch yourself being assigned things that don't pertain to that, or that you know will go unappreciated, talk to your manager as soon as you can and don't let it linger,” he said. “Come with solutions so your manager doesn’t think you’re just complaining: Explain to them that you don’t mind helping out but the load should be shared equally among everyone.”
You have a life, again
A benefit to remote work: No commute. During the pandemic, when most bars and restaurants were closed, and other recreational activities were effectively halted, it was easier to continue with projects even when the work day ended. Finding a work-life balance that works for you is crucial.
Kenneth Allen, a grant writer at a nonprofit organization in Chicago, has figured out ways to effectively set boundaries with work.
“When you’re young it’s difficult to not focus on your career and overwork yourself,” Allen said. “The time you clock-out is a boundary. I don’t go to work events after 5 p.m. if there is something else I’d rather be doing.”
Intentionally setting aside time to hang out with friends and explore new hobbies is essential to forming a healthier relationship with work when working in-person, Ochako said.
“Committing to doing things outside of work has been helpful to my mental health," he said. “It helps to know work isn’t the only thing I have to look forward to.”