Nikitha Koppu, a 23-year-old software engineer at Veeva Systems, chooses to work at home from her apartment in Cambridge pretty much every day.
Her co-worker and fellow software engineer Jared Berger, 21, on the other hand, almost always goes in to their office in downtown Boston.
For both, it’s their first job out of college, and the “work anywhere” policy at the company, which develops cloud-based software for the life sciences industry, gives them the kind of flexibility that was largely unheard of before the pandemic shook up the corporate world.
For many recent college graduates, however, this way of working is the norm.
“Seeing everyone every day in and out, that will never exist for me, I don’t think,” Koppu said.
The benefits of not being tied to an office are universal — no commute, the freedom to work from the beach or your parents’ basement — but for people just starting their careers, working remotely can be trickier than for longtime employees. It takes more effort to befriend co-workers and learn from seasoned colleagues, connections many of them are craving in their first professional jobs.
At the same time, twentysomethings may be more comfortable navigating the digital workplace than their older co-workers are. They grew up communicating virtually, after all, and spent the last few semesters of college learning remotely, said Deborah Lovich senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm.
“We talk about digital natives,” she said. “I wonder if these new workers are Zoom natives.”
Lovich sees this firsthand through her daughter Eli, who graduated from Brandeis in May and started working remotely, downstairs from her mother, for a small health care communications company in Needham. Eli Lovich is used to forging connections with colleagues; in college, she messaged classmates she didn’t know during virtual lectures to play a game she dubbed “Zoom I Spy.”
But her co-workers tend to be “all business business” on Zoom, she said. So far, her company hasn’t announced if, when, or how often they will return to the office. The one time she went in and saw the open floor plan, she realized how easy it must be to get to know people when they’re in the same place every day.
“I think I’m missing out on a lot of social interactions,” she said.
Maggie O’Connell, 22, can relate. The graduate of St. Lawrence University in New York, a self-described “social butterfly,” recently started working remotely as a sales rep for Numerated, a Boston-based digital lending platform, and listens wistfully to friends with in-person jobs talk about the co-workers they hang out with. She’s moving to Boston in the fall, and plans to try out the company’s WeWork space near South Station.
“I’m hoping to get a work friend,” she said.
But working remotely has its advantages, too. During a weekly sales and marketing virtual meeting, she messaged one of the people in charge to ask for further explanation afterward. “I think if I was in person, I might have been a little intimidated to ask for a meeting,” O’Connell said.
Being willing to make the first move is key to getting to know people through their screens, a number of new college grads said, already sounding like remote-work veterans. Introduce yourself in meetings, even if your supervisor forgets to, they said. Compliment people’s Zoom backgrounds (but do it in the chat, so you don’t put them on the spot), and put something interesting in yours. Participate in company events. Join Slack channels for beer lovers or dog owners or whatever your interests are. Post news tidbits as conversation starters, and respond to others doing the same.
Ryan Turner, 23, a software engineer for Liteboxer in Boston, likes to send co-workers custom emojis, which he finds help break the ice. “I feel like I’m able to express myself pretty well and that helps other people open up,” he said. It helps that many of his co-workers are also in their 20s and fairly comfortable getting to know each other digitally.
Turner’s job — working on the startup’s at-home boxing gym system — went fully remote when the pandemic started, aside from production and hardware testing, which makes it easier for him to continue living in Bedford, N.H. The rent is cheap (he splits an $1,800-a-month two-bedroom with a roommate, who also works remotely) and his family lives nearby.
But the limitations of remote work are becoming clearer.
College seniors who completed remote internships reported being slightly less satisfied with the experience than those who had in-person internships, according to a new survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
This is likely due to isolation and difficulty integrating into the corporate environment, said Edwin Koc, the organization’s director of research and public policy. Likewise, graduates starting out in remote jobs may not have the same sense of loyalty to a company that they would if they were in a physical office, he added, which could lead young employees to switch jobs even more frequently.
“I identify with my workplace. I think that’s true for a lot of veteran employees that are working from home,” Koc said. “It’s a totally different experience if you’re a brand new employee and you’ve never been in the work world.”
Organizations that don’t reinvent how they work to engage hybrid or remote workers will likely lose people, said Lovich, of Boston Consulting Group. But companies that come up with new ways to help young employees — assigning them buddies, holding events designed to be virtual, setting up times to meet with executives one on one, and tapping into the expertise of these “Zoom natives” — can actually establish deeper connections more quickly.
“It’s easier to get access to more people remotely,” Lovich said. But, “it takes intentionality.”
At Veeva, if one person in a meeting has to dial in remotely, everyone else gets on Zoom, too, in order to keep things equitable. The company also maintains an internal directory that lists each employee’s skills, so workers can quickly get help no matter where they are, as well as Slack channels populated by people working on similar issues companywide who can instantly offer support.
Despite these remote connections, Berger, the new hire, still prefers going into the office.
“I went to Williams in the middle of nowhere Massachusetts,” he said. “After over a year of Zoom classes, and Zoom internships, and Zoom social events, and everything on the screen, it’s just very fun and exciting for me to be in the city, and be in the office, and meet other people here.”
Besides, he said, his work setup at the office is much nicer than at his apartment in Somerville. “The air conditioning is great,” he said.
Koppu, Berger’s colleague who works from home, is grateful to have the ability to work both in-person and remotely.
“A job is not just the work you’re doing,” said Koppu, who went to Northeastern and has a co-working arrangement of sorts with her roommates, who all work side by side at the same table. “It’s making connections, learning from senior colleagues.”
And being face to face helps. Still, Koppu’s not sure how often she’ll go to the office. “I keep hearing about a terrible commute,” she joked.