73.3% of respondents were moved to working from home at some point from March 2020 through January 2021

How Does Gen Z Feel About Working From Home?

A deeply unscientific study

Last week, I asked the Gen Z readers of IBT to answer a survey I crafted about their thoughts on work from home. I am extremely pro-WFH and I was curious to see whether other people starting their professional lives felt the same as I do.

Of course, none of these results are scientific, but the responses were informative. A huge thank you to all of the readers who responded. I received way more answers than I expected. You are all fabulous people.

College from home

66.7% of respondents had college classes from home or lost out on collegiate amenities while still being charged full tuition

Every single reader who has been a college student sometime between March 2020 and January 2021 reported that their college reduced the amenities offered to students but continued to charge full tuition. 

This fact raises hard questions about what students and their parents are paying for each semester. With credits continuing to cost thousands of dollars, whether they were completed in-person or over Zoom, it will be harder for universities justify a tuition raise by building a new student rec center or upgrading dorms when tuition did not decrease without access to any of these things. 

Despite the price of college staying the same, some of the students who responded were content with the instruction they received from their bedroom. Peter, while making the caveat that he was a second semester senior at the time, reported that if a class wasn’t “interesting or relevant”, he didn’t have to “sit there and listen”.

This was, and continues to be, true. Large lectures rarely require cameras, or even microphones, to be on, as this would be unfeasible for a class with hundreds of students. There is nothing stopping people in a boring 8:00 a.m. lecture from recording the lecture on their phone and playing it back at 1.5 times speed when they are more awake

Another respondent, Jeff*, reported that students in majors like pre-med seemed happier with college from home because cheating is now much easier. 

Jeff* brought up a good point. Employers are not alone in requiring increased surveillance from home. Colleges and universities around the country have required students to install invasive software to monitor computers during classes and exams, as well wearable technology to track student locations, ostensibly for contact tracing purposes. The long-term consequences of the forced adoption of surveillance technology are yet to be seen, but I foresee no positive outcomes.

However, the majority of survey respondents felt very negatively about online college, supporting the common refrain that most college students are not enrolled solely for the academics.

One class of 2020 graduate stated she was “lucky to have graduated when [she] did, since the majority of [her] college experience was spent in a traditional classroom setting.” Another submission highlighted the issues the individual has experienced with his WiFi as an off-campus student, as the half-dozen students in his house trying to access Zoom at the same time every morning often results in poor connections for all six of them.

Perhaps my favorite response on the issue came from reader Nick, who put it bluntly: “I did not like transiting from in person to online, it sucks.”

Working from home

73.3% of respondents were moved to working from home at some point from March 2020 through January 2021

The overwhelming majority – 73 percent – of survey respondents reported working from home since March 2020. Just one respondent reported still working in-person due to being essential.

Most submissions agreed with me and reported feeling positively about working from home. Jonny came to the “sobering realization” about how much time was “stolen” from him when he was working from the office. He estimated that, when working in-person, three hours of his time each day was lost to tasks like commuting, meal prepping, and ironing together his clothes.

I also received responses from two teachers, who both worried about communicating effectively over video and the toll that digital instruction has taken on their students. Both of them still found positives in working from home, however, such as saving time throughout their days and feeling safer than they would in-person.

As I outlined last week, the time saved is by far the biggest positive of working from home. Commuting is essentially unpaid work. It is required every single day you are scheduled in order to get your in-person work done, but your employer does not compensate you for it. 

With ballooning housing costs in professional hubs such as San Francisco and Manhattan pushing young people further and further from city centers, commutes before the pandemic were growing longer and longer. Add in decaying or non-existent public transportation infrastructure and we have the perfect recipe for commutes that take an hour or more each way. That leads to two hours of unpaid time every single day of your life, all so you can sit in an office and do labor that, as the last ten months have shown, can largely be performed from the comfort of your bedroom.

Only one reader felt completely negatively about working from home. Dave* is finding it harder to get things done, and stated that he does not believe working from home is efficient or “sustainable in the long term”.

Concerns about long-term sustainability, or, in the case of professions like teaching, the efficacy of work from home, are warranted, which is why I feel strongly that employers should make work from home optional, rather than mandatory, after the pandemic subsides. 

In the meantime, many readers said that being brought back to in-person too soon would negatively impact their mental health.

One of the teachers, Grace, said she while she was eager to conduct a few special upper-level classes in-person when the local government gave permission to her school, if she was asked to return to in-person instruction along with the majority of her students she would “definitely feel more uncomfortable and concerned about [her] health.”

Rachel, whose job at a coffee shop could not be performed virtually, stated that she had to take a full week off due to fears about contracting COVID. She wrote that there were several instances where her coworkers contracted the virus and that she did not feel her store was taking sufficient precautions to protect its employees.

Another respondent, Nelly*, whose job has allowed work from home, detailed how virtual work has helped her with her depression and anxiety. Nelly* said that she believes she will save on using vacation time which she otherwise would have used for mental health days because of the ability to grab a quick nap on her lunch break when she does not feel well afforded to her by work from home. 

To me, these responses highlight the privilege for those whose jobs can be performed from home. As a person who also struggles with depression and anxiety, I am all too familiar with the days where my brain simply will not cooperate. The ability to go for a walk in the park, cook a fresh meal, or watch an episode of The Mandalorian while on my lunch break has done wonders for my mental well-being.

At the same time, workers whose jobs continue to be performed in-person have only had mental health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. Others, whose jobs should have been prioritized above gyms and movie theaters for the return to in-person, like the teachers mentioned above, have accumulated new stressors as a result of digital labor. Working from home is currently a necessity, but it is a necessary privilege.

66.7% of respondents say the biggest thing they miss from working in person is the social interaction

As far as what readers miss about working in an office, the answers were as expected. Two-thirds of respondents miss the social interaction of collaborating with coworkers most.

One home-based worker, James, informed me that he misses the “informal social interaction of being in the office.” Jeff* wrote that, while he has been able to spend more time with family as a result of work from home, not being near friends “is definitely taking a toll.”

Other social problems stemming from work from home that garnered special mentions included how the days can blend together without anyone to talk to and how a day requiring long hours to meet a deadline is made even tougher without anyone to interact with.

The social downsides of WFH will be mitigated after the pandemic, once logging off will enable an employee to meet up with their friends for happy hour or game night. But for now, the challenge presented by isolation is very real.

Personally, I find that the mandatory video calls required by my job make me less willing to have fun video calls with loved ones after work or on the weekends because I am tired of sitting in front of my laptop. Call it Zoom Fatigue. It is very real. 

Zooming having largely replaced skyping as the verb for “making a video call” summarizes this problem perfectly; where video calls were once largely social in nature, and Skype was most familiar to long-distance couples and international families, Zoom is now the dominant player in the video chat space. Employers and educators alike rely on the platform to carry out their everyday functions.

I am extremely grateful to every single one of the readers who took the time out of their day to share their thoughts on work from home. While I am emboldened to learn that I am not alone amongst my peers in mostly enjoying the change in what it means to be a young professional, I was saddened to read the responses from those whose lives have been made harder by the transition.

I hope deeply that the new administration taking over the White House will improve the vaccine distribution process so that work from home can once again become an option up for debate rather than a necessary action to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

*Some names have been changed to protect respondents’ anonymity

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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