Published on 24 November 2022
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Screens and water-coolers: Why young knowledge-workers need special attention in the world of hybrid work

As part of the ongoing partnership between the University of Cambridge and KPMG, Nina Jörden and Ayantola Alayande explore solutions to ensure the wellbeing of young professionals while increasing individual and organisational productivity.

Hybrid work arrangements have become a popular model for many employers. However, they pose a challenge for young professionals in particular: for their mental wellbeing as well as for their professional development. 

The post-pandemic world of work is above all a hybrid world. For many of us the Covid-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented shift to working from home all the time. The suddenness and magnitude of this change meant that systems and processes in the workplace had to be quickly adapted and improvised. Before 2020, remote work was relatively rare. Now, hybrid working at scale, thanks to digital technology, is a familiar concept and many professional organisations have learned to adapt and find positives in this new way of working.

Surveys show that the vast majority of workers want flexible remote work options and that managers are in the process of redesigning physical spaces, employment policies and job descriptions to better accommodate hybrid working.  For workers, this offers the opportunity to convert costly and sometimes stressful commuting time into activities that promote a work-life balance and good health.

But hybrid working is not always as smooth and straightforward as it may seem. The 2020 KPMG American Worker survey, which examined the impact of Covid-19 workplace adjustments on employees in the United States (US), found that while employees were mostly satisfied with the hybrid work approaches put in place by their organisations and reported being more productive, a large majority also suffered mentally from increased work demands as a result of hybrid work.

In this context, more attention needs to be given to one group in particular: young professionals who are just entering the world of work.  This focus is important: studies show that while young professionals are the most enthusiastic about remote work, they are also the ones benefiting the most from spending as much time as possible in the office – this is especially the case for young knowledge workers as working from home has denied them the type of professional support they need to navigate their new working environment. This presents them with a dilemma.

Surveys conducted during the pandemic show that Generation Z (those born post-1996) are more likely to struggle with work-life balance and post-work exhaustion than older generations. This may be because young professionals:

  • may find it more difficult to set up a fit-for-purpose home workspace depending on their housing situation;
  • often haven’t yet built up a large professional network and may feel more isolated;
  • may simply have very little experience of drawing boundaries between work and private life, which may be made even more difficult by a lack of physical boundaries and the ‘always on’ digital environment.

There is a reasonable assumption that hybrid working arrangements could have a greater adverse impact on the wellbeing of young professionals than those who are already mid-career.

This is worrying and noteworthy from a psychological point of view, but its economic dimension is also worth considering. The impact of mental ill health on employment and productivity is significant, as the annual cost of mental ill health in the United Kingdom (UK) is equivalent to around 5% of total GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

On top of this, hybrid work settings present organisations with the challenge of successfully socialising young professionals and young knowledge workers in particular.

Organisational socialisation primarily refers to young professionals adopting appropriate behaviours, developing professional skills and adapting to organisational norms and values. For young knowledge workers this includes but is not limited to understanding the company culture, acquiring tacit knowledge, building connections within the company – including those ‘water cooler’ conversations – and developing career perspectives.

Research shows that inadequate socialisation impacts turnover, employee satisfaction, job performance, productivity, organisational commitment and the continuity of organisational culture. These aspects are all critical to the sustainability and, even more so, the performance of organisations, making the socialisation of young knowledge workers an important component for the prosperity of our society.

While organisational socialisation is already a major challenge for individuals and organisations in the physical work environment, the hybrid work environment adds further constraints that can make this process even more challenging and may have a significant negative impact on mental wellbeing.

In collaboration with KPMG, the Bennett Institute and colleagues across the University of Cambridge are seeking to understand the links between hybrid working, mental wellbeing, and the organisational socialisation and productivity of young knowledge workers. Specifically, we will be exploring:

1. What learning methods do young knowledge workers use in hybrid work settings?

Here we want to better understand the methods, tactics and behaviours that young knowledge workers employ to navigate their new work environment. Such methods could include requesting feedback, forming friendships or intentionally seeking information. We hypothesise that some learning methods work better and others less well in hybrid work settings.

2. How do young knowledge workers interact with organisational insiders in hybrid work settings?

Interaction with organisational insiders – fully integrated members of the organisation – is key for young knowledge workers to build a personal and professional network that is crucial for the socialisation process as well as their future career. We want to better understand how hybrid working influences the process of interaction and what kind of networks and relationships young knowledge workers are able to build.

3. What influence does mental wellbeing have on the organisational socialisation and productivity of young knowledge workers?

Organisational socialisation within hybrid work settings may require behaviours that have a negative impact on the mental wellbeing of young knowledge workers. On the other hand, a poor mental state triggered by hybrid work settings could also slow down or hinder the socialisation process. We seek to better understand this relationship to derive meaningful interventions.

4. What efforts are organisations and managers making to ensure the successful socialisation and mental wellbeing of young professionals in hybrid work settings?

We anticipate that organisations may need to develop new methods to successfully undertake the socialisation of young knowledge workers in a hybrid work setting, and managers may need to be further trained in areas such as emotional intelligence.

A multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Gordon Harold (Professor of Psychology of Education and Mental Health), John Aston (Harding Professor of Statistics in Public Life) and Diane Coyle (Bennett Professor of Public Policy) will collect data to address these questions. This includes employee surveys, interview studies, focus groups, and observational studies.

Answers to these research questions will lead to insights into measures and strategies that help individuals to better understand and cope with their new working environment, and enable organisations and policymakers to create working conditions in which employees’ mental health is ensured and they have opportunities to acquire competences, skills and experiences that enable them to develop personally and professionally.

Image by DCStudio on Freepik

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s).


Dr Nina Jörden

Research Associate

Dr Nina Jörden is a research associate at the Bennett Institute. Her work focuses on questions around the future of work: What do employees need to be resilient and productive?...

Ayantola Alayande

Research Assistant

Ayantola is a Research Assistant on the Digitalisation of the Public Sector project, which explores various aspects of digital government in the UK and other countries. Prior to joining the...

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