The ask for a more flexible workday is not new. Nor is it solely associated with the global pandemic. Over several years, Telenor’s employee engagement surveys have told us that our people want greater freedom to decide when and from where they do their work. Their responses are telling us something interesting about how modern lives are led. At Telenor, we are responding to this by changing our ways of work and our models of leadership.

Well before the current crisis a growing number of our people were dividing their time between the office, their home offices or other locations which suited their needs. In fact, our Finnish unit has used this model as a standard since 2012 and has shared much valuable learning to the rest of the company.

One of those learning’s is that needs will be different from person to person and between the various phases of a long working life. Which is why flexibility is key. The demand for that flexibility is likely to become a significant differentiator, for talent attraction as well as retention.

What the Covid-19 pandemic did trigger was an involuntary exercise in spending extended periods of time away from our normal working environment. This exercise gave us an opportunity to study the dynamics associated with working from home. Some vented their frustration, others were enthusiastic. But is working from home for everyone?

Most things associated with the Covid-19 pandemic are extraordinary. This includes employee survey responses and temperature checks we invited our employees to take part in during various stages of lockdown. The results are not going to give us the all the insights we need to plan for the future of work. But there is still much for us to learn, particularly about specific groups who face difficulties.

One of those learning’s is that needs will be different from person to person and between the various phases of a long working life. Which is why flexibility is key

But let’s start with the positives. Because there are many. Most Telenor employees reported that their ability to focus on value-added work is greater outside of a busy office environment where they are more likely to get pulled into non-essential meetings. The logistics of balancing family obligations and work is in most cases easier when working from home. It is clear that the rush hour, time-waste, cost, and carbon footprint associated with getting to the office will not be missed. Also, employee productivity has remained stable throughout 2020, suggesting that people are able to do their jobs from home. What is less clear is whether the enthusiasm applies across all age ranges. What about the below 30s, are they as excited as their older colleagues?

Our surveys show that some of our younger employees are struggling to maintain their motivation away from the office. When working from home was thrust upon us, most of our employees reported that they felt energized by the thought of keeping the wheels in motion and overcoming a shared challenge. The below-30s told a different story. For many of them, working from home had a negative impact on their job motivation. The below graph illustrates this development as it unfolded in one of our country units, with increasing motivation for all age-groups except those below 30. From the comments sections in our surveys, two different explanations were emerging.

The first was related to the quality of working facilities at home. Many spoke of home working parents’ struggle to balance childcare and work, but as it turned out, the singles are also facing challenges. A poorly equipped home office is not likely to improve anyone’s sense of well-being, particularly if this contrasts significantly with what’s on offer in the regular workplace. A 25-year old employee at the outset of her career, working alone from a cramped flat is less likely to appreciate the opportunity to escape the commute. As the below-30s get older, they typically move on to enjoy a different lifestyle and part of the problem is resolved.

The other explanation is to do with a sense of social isolation at work. Younger employees have spent less time together with their colleagues, and as a result their social network within the company will be more limited. This problem is not only felt by those below 30, but also by many with only a short tenure with the company. Particularly hard hit are those hired during the pandemic, since all the normal onboarding and socialization into the community of colleagues and corporate lingo is happening online. As one new colleague explained: “I feel lonely even though I participate in lots of meetings.” In these cases, the issue was not the physical discomfort of an unsuited working environment, but the limited opportunity to be involved in social interaction with colleagues.

When we looked at these two explanations in parallel, we realized that many of our younger employees were facing a dual risk of isolation both at home and at work. Based on the feedback we received, we identified two immediate responses. The first was to involve experienced colleagues in introducing new employees to the corporate speak. This can be particularly hard to pick up in an online setting, in the same way that it is harder to learn a language online, without the chance to interact with native speakers. The second was to encourage leaders to actively help new employees gain a voice in online meetings. The threshold for speaking up online is higher than before because everyone now needs to be silent when someone else speaks. This is likely to increase the fear of saying something wrong or irrelevant, and those without a network find it harder to unmute. Taking time to introduce the new employees and actively making space for them will foster confidence and help alleviate this problem.

Although the current situation with mandatory working from home is temporary, we believe that the learning’s we are gaining now will help us turn Telenor into a better company after the pandemic. We don’t know exactly what post-pandemic working life will be about, but we know that employees will spend more time away from the office and that we need to be especially attentive to the needs our younger employees.