You Need to Rewire the COVID Kids

Photo: Getty Images.

The youngsters now showing up in your office have a wildly different understanding of what being an employee means. This is going to take some work.

The early returns are in and they’re not encouraging. I’m not talking about the midterm elections, which so far have had some pretty encouraging results as the country overall seems to have largely regained its senses. There’s no longer any upside to talking about politics in the office or anywhere else where relatively civilized, two-sided, and factual discussions used to take place. Those days are long gone, and the swift and informal flow of important information within our organizations–critical to building an effective, inclusive, and collaborative culture–will suffer immeasurably from its loss.

Once water cooler chats turn into confrontations and outright warfare among your people, it’s time to tell them to take those conversations elsewhere. But, having banished the bluster and boosterism, it’s hard to see how we will fill the crucial communication gaps that will remain.

While we’re worrying about that void, a more pressing concern is handling the “return” to the office of those brand-new team members, who are joining your company in person for the first time. I call them “team members” as opposed to “workers,” not to be politically correct, but to suggest that we’re already seeing some serious issues with the attitudes, aptitudes, and work ethic of the incoming wave of newbies. One clear concern is that their view of work may no longer have the same priority and primacy to them as it does to us old-timers and traditionalists. Some combination of college and Covid-19 has sorely skewed their vision of work/life balance in a different direction. And not in a way that’s particularly helpful.

Let’s just say that there’s more than a little confusion in their minds about why we call it “work” in the first place, rather than something pithier like “fun,” “self-actualization,” or “communal therapy.” Whether they’re fresh out of college, where they’ve been fed a steady diet of fiction, fantasy, and wishful thinking, or they’re freed from two years of home captivity with their noses next to a screen offering cheap stimulation for 16 hours a day, the traditional messages about what it takes to build and sustain a successful business and about each person’s essential contributions to that effort have somehow been largely lost in transition. Whatever good you can say about Zoom, there’s no way you can build a company culture remotely.

Time-honored virtues and historical values such as focus, hunkering down, nose to the grindstone, perseverance, learning before earning, taking direction, accepting rather than deflecting constructive criticism, and simply following orders rather than debating them all seem to be somewhat foreign concepts. Far too many of these newbies are just too smart for their own good.

Some of this is just another residue of the prime directives of the sleazy Trump years: hard work is for suckers; paying dues and taxes is for the little people; bogus bone spurs are far better than serving your country. And, of course, fake it ’til you make it and lie about it if you don’t. The reigning philosophy for too many of these kids seems to be that the game and the goal is to learn the “tricks” of the trade–the shortcuts and the cheats–rather than committing to putting in the effort required to actually learn the business. It’s all about Survivor sneakiness or Big Brother backstabbing and the amoral attitudes that were the very heart of the Apprentice, where so much of the unfortunate awfulness began to take hold. While the substantial youthful voting activity in the midterms suggests that no one under a certain age wants to deal with the Donald any longer, it’s going to take a while to drain all the poison from their systems.

It still seems that their default posture, again courtesy of the Orange Monster, is victimization when things don’t work out. The poor dears feel so taken advantage of and underappreciated. They’re blame shifters par excellence, and especially adept at offering explanations, excuses, and arguments as to why nothing is ever their fault or responsibility. It’s a movie we’ve seen and lived with for years–the girl who can’t dance says the band can’t play.

Now’s the time–before the numbers and the problems scale–to start figuring out how your managers are going to deal with some of these new employment realities. I don’t think, as business owners and operators, that we’ve ever faced such a flood of unprepared, uninterested, and unwilling young men and women who are also frightfully entitled, skilled in shifting accountability, and firmly resolute in the belief that they are doing their employers a big favor just by showing up for work–whenever they choose.

It’s not entirely their fault that the pandemic basically screwed most of the recent college grads out of two years of serious education but still moved them along on time with fewer academic tools, more modest social and networking skills, and basically high school levels of maturity. But now we’re stuck with making them into productive employees and remediating their deficiencies. When people talk these days about a gap year, they’re not referring to a period of time off and travel, they’re whining about the year it’s gonna take to get their newest employees up to speed on some embarrassingly basic skills.

And the newbies’ cockeyed beliefs are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the underlying problems. They’re not gonna be remotely pleased to hear that they’re lacking in anything or that, before they can jump right into the pits, they’re going to need some additional basic training and they’re going to have to spend some time watching the grown-ups from the sidelines. Remember that these are the “trophies for everyone” kids who were told by their teachers and parents that they could do anything and everything they set their minds to. All that BS and strident positivity is now coming home to roost.

You need to tell your team to be on the lookout for all of the following waffle words and behaviors:

A world of “why?” Everything’s up for discussion and debate. Maybe we should take a vote. If your people aren’t ready to defend and justify their directions, they’re in for a rude awakening.

A world of “who says?” Authority, hierarchy, and directions are things of the past. Everything, in a post-truth world, is just a matter of opinion, and everyone’s opinion matters.

A world of “good enough!” Attention to detail, proofing your work product, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s are all old school ideas and old-fashioned nitpicking. Just enough is good enough.

A world of “what’s next?” Everyone’s in a hurry to get things done so they can get on to whatever’s next. Meetings need to be a matter of minutes, or you’ll lose your audience. Patience, pride of craft, and perseverance are no longer valued in a world of onward and elsewhere.

A world of “whatever!” They’re surprisingly thin and thick-skinned at the same time. Easy to trigger or offend, but hard to really reach because they’ve mastered the “whatever” defense. Nothing matters so much that they should pay attention, change their approach, or adjust their attitude.

A world of “gotta go!” They’re gone at the stroke of five and they’re happy to leave their troubles, tasks, and team members at the office door until tomorrow. There’s a world out there of better and more important places to be, and that’s where they’re headed.

Bottom line: We’re all headed into some extremely challenging times because the “new” normal and the new workforce aren’t like anything we’ve seen before. We may not see future decades, but they will, and it’s our job to help them make something important and valuable out of it in spite of themselves.