Remote work looks like it’s here to stay. Whether that’s good for young professionals in the long run is up for debate.
More companies are indeed demanding workers return to the office. But even RTO orders from big-name CEOs are often just for three days a week; meanwhile, many corporate offices are downsizing, and it’s increasingly common for remote workers to be hired and eventually let go having hardly met anyone in the company face to face.
Yet in American culture, the workplace has long been important as the primary place where young adults in particular form both personal and professional relationships affecting all aspects of their lives. What happens to that dynamic when more work is done at home and less of it—or none at all—is done at office where people can meet?
As far as high-profile venture capitalist Marc Andreessen is concerned, trouble lies ahead. The Andreessen Horowitz cofounder spoke at length about the social upheaval caused by the shift to remote work at the “American Dynamism Summit” in Washington, D.C., hosted by Andreessen Horowitz in November. This week, the firm shared recordings from that summit on its a16z Podcast.
Andreessen made his comments in a summit discussion entitled “Disrupting the World’s Largest Asset Class,” which also featured Adam Neumann, the controversial WeWork founder whose latest startup, Flow, is about making renters “feel ownership” over their home (the details are a bit fuzzy). Andreessen Horowitz invested in Flow in August, reportedly to the tune of about $350 million.
Andreessen described a traditional middle-class path that existed 50 years ago, where you go to college, graduate, and then buy a starter house. Over the last 20 to 25 years, he said, it became common to have a corporate campus, as exemplified by Google. The idea was that workers—lured by perks like gourmet food and swimming pools—would spend more time at work and, in the process, work more. The corporate campus also served as a dating pool, much like the college campus.
When the pandemic hit, Andreessen said, “then all of the sudden the experience of a kid going through that—it’s like, nope, nope, you don’t get that. What you get is your studio apartment in front of your laptop and good luck. You’re cut off from everything else.”
While some companies are discussing having workers come back three or four days a week, he said, “the spirit is gone” in terms of workplaces being the primary source of connection. “Elvis has left the building for these kind of environments.”
The focus then turns to where you live, Andreessen said. “Are you literally by yourself? Do you have roommates? Are you in a small complex, are you in a big complex? Do you have any sense of connection whatsoever—do you know who your neighbors are?”
Traditionally in America, tenants in an apartment building have little connection with others living in the same building. When you also remove work as a place to forge relationships, you end up with more workers feeling “alienation and loneliness,” Andreessen believes.
He’s not alone. Carmine Di Sibio, CEO of consulting firm EY, told Fortune during the pandemic in late 2020: “We have a lot of young people who are in small apartments around the world—and being in a small apartment in this environment is just not great. We have had more [employees] calling our hotlines wanting help, just from a mental state.”
The pandemic has ended, but remote work goes on. For many workers, of course, particularly married ones with children, remote work can be a blessing, allowing them to spend more time with family and less time commuting. They’re in no hurry to return to old work patterns.
Younger workers have had less time to establish such lives.
“There’s this whole model that an entire generation grew up with that has all of the sudden been detonated…I think the idea of sitting in an apartment in front of the screen with DoorDash and Tinder is not a good life,” said Andreessen. “And so that opens the door for reinvention.”
As Fortune reported earlier this month, remote work is changing the way new apartments are designed.
“We’re designing for at-home workspace in a way that we have never done pre-COVID,” Jessica Hester, CEO of architecture firm Verdant Studios, in Rogers, Ark., told Talk Business & Politics. “Making sure people have access to comfortable, well-lit desk space has become a priority,” as has considering “what the background looks like on a Zoom call.”
Some also include co-working spaces.
But it seems likely that for many young adults who’ve recently entered the workforce, or are about to, the chance for connection will not be what it was for previous generations.
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