How has Covid-19 and remote working changed millennials?

Organisations should not presume that offices can reopen, and millennial employees can return to work in the way they did prior to social distancing, say Trinity Business School’s Christine Zdelar and Michelle MacMahon

Millennials represent the largest segment of today’s working population. They have been at the centre of an ever-growing body of research for at least a decade – but millennials in the workforce can be best understood through the lens of technology.

As the world’s first digitally native generation, millennials’ tech-saturated upbringing has made the group distinct from the older generations that preceded them. And while some may view millennials’ behaviour as a sign of collective human progress, others see this in a more pessimistic light. Either way, the generation can be best understood from the perspective of the environmental circumstances that shaped them: the growth of technology.

Whatever people may say about them, millennials walk to their own beat and are revolutionising work culture. Managers must therefore acknowledge their workstyles and preferences.

Yet, managers often struggle with millennials that expect flexible work schedules and prioritise their work-life balance, as well as the reality that maintaining millennial engagement requires organisations to improve and adapt on a continuous basis. If you Google ‘millennial employees’, you’ll find a deluge of articles with advice about how to manage them. Nonetheless, millennials have a strong desire to connect with their organisations and do great work within them.

Death of the traditional office?

But as Covid-19 has forced businesses across the globe to work remotely, new data suggests that this could be the ‘new normal’, killing the traditional office as we know it. Large proportions of the adult population have been working from home during the lockdown restrictions. Now that everyone has had a taste of working from home, the workplace of the future is likely to never look the same again.

But how is this change affecting the technology-savvy millennial employee? How are they adapting to the collision of work and home? Together with my Trinity Business School colleague, Michelle MacMahon, we decided to find out.

In our investigation, we conducted semi-structured interviews with a sample of millennials to explain how ‘sensemaking’ tactics facilitate the relationship between ‘transactional distance’ and work performance. Transactional distance is the physical and psychological separation between the employer and their work. Dialogue, structure, and autonomy are considered to be key components of the transactional distance theory.

Interviewing millennials allowed us to investigate the impact of transactional distance on work performance even for a category of worker that typically prefers technology as the medium of communication. 

Sensemaking and adapting to new circumstances

We viewed this relationship through the lens of sensemaking, which has been described by Ross School of Business’s Karl Weick, as ‘creative authoring on the part of individuals who construct meaning from initially puzzling and sometimes troubling data.’ The tactics and process of sensemaking helps the sensemaker sift through ambiguity confronted in an unfamiliar situation and take action in order to move forward.

In analysing the data, three properties of sensemaking; socialisation, enactment, and cue recognition appear within the patterns identified from participant interviews. However, a fourth property which was not initially anticipated, identity construction, was also revealed during the interviews.

As people encounter new situations, they will construct and assume an identity they feel is an appropriate response to the event, basing their actions and decisions on who they believe themselves to be. By labelling oneself with a particular identity, the sensemaker can proceed in attempting to solve the ‘ongoing puzzle’ that is sensemaking, utilising that identity.

Utilising sensemaking tactics allows millennials to adjust to their circumstances. In some cases, it even helps them find new efficiencies as a result of transactional distance. For example, identity construction and enactment are illustrated by an employee labelling herself as ‘somebody that’s been able to bring people together from a virtual space’ and then taking on the extra responsibility of leading virtual check-ins. Socialisation and enactment are observed when an employee describes adapting the process of communicating with her manager: by packaging and sending messages in bulk, this employee learned she would receive a more complete response, just perhaps later in the day, increasing her overall productivity and improving the ability to manage her expectations.

Therefore, we found that millennial employees not only rely on sensemaking tactics such as socialisation, enactment, and cue recognition, but also on grounding themselves with particular identities in order to make sense of and adapt to their new remote working environments, self-regulating the potential negative effects of the distance.

Links to organisational change

While investigating how millennials creatively reauthor their situation and confront ambiguity we also found that their sensemaking process closely mirrored Lewin’s model for organisational change.

Lewin’s model represents a very simple and practical framework for understanding the change process and involves three steps: unfreezing, changing and refreezing. For Lewin, the process of change entails creating the perception that a change is needed, moving towards the new, desired level of behaviour and finally, solidifying that new behaviour as the norm. These three phases align closely with the three phases of sensemaking, defined as superficial simplicity, confused complexity, and profound simplicity. In other words, millennial employees have acknowledged the complex situation they find themselves in and used sensemaking tactics in order sift through the mess and overcome the effects of distance and form their new normal. This sensemaking process has had such a profound impact on millennials that we believe this cohort has genuinely undergone a longstanding model for explaining change.

Working with the new reality

Ultimately, this development of a new normal has profound implications for how organisations plan to resume ‘business as usual’ once the health threat of the pandemic subsides and social distancing measures loosen. For organisations to presume that offices can reopen, and millennial employees can return to work operating as they did prior to social distancing, would be to disregard the new reality that millennial employees are experiencing.

Lockdown has potentially changed the way millennials work forever and we believe our research reveals how the pandemic has created a new state of working that makes going back to the way we worked before extremely challenging for organisations. Given that millennials view technology as a functional necessity, not a modern convenience, and have undergone the sensemaking process to adapt to their new working environment, perhaps we can learn a great deal from this category of worker and their ability to make sense of our new reality – a socially distanced world.

Christine Zdelar is an MSc student and Research Assistant at Trinity Business School. She is also Senior Product Manager at mobile phone service, Ding.com.  

Michelle MacMahon is a Research Fellow at Trinity Business School, having completed a PhD in organisational behaviour at the School in 2019.

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