Dr Helen Hughes and Dr Nalayini Thambar consider how careers services can help students and graduates prepare for the hybrid workplace
Seven years ago, the term 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' was coined by the World Economic Forum and the prospect of big data, AI and robots transforming the workplace and jobs became a hot topic. There was much speculation and evidence of change, and then the global pandemic diverted us all.
The crisis phase of the pandemic triggered many workplace changes, including the mainstreaming of hybrid work, for white collar workers. And then, at the end of 2022, along came ChatGPT - currently the most prolific form of generative AI - making everyone, including its creators, reflect on the seismic impact it could have on all aspects of life.
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What do graduates do? 2023/24
An altered landscape
Against this backdrop, discussions on hybrid working can seem mundane. Yet, for those only just entering the workforce, the shift to hybrid work remains pivotal. Since 2020/21, graduates, school leavers, and interns have been expected to enter a new world of work that is devoid of cues that those of us with more work experience can too easily take for granted.
Work environments and the way they are used set expectations for office etiquette. The size and organisation of space can provide insights into hierarchy, culture, and politics, and navigating these aspects can be crucial for employees as they seek to thrive in their work.
Research undertaken at the University of Leeds has found that hybrid workplaces create unique challenges for graduates and school leavers entering the workforce for the first time.1 Students transitioning to the hybrid workplace struggled to understand the intricacies of workplace culture. They felt confident in undertaking their core work tasks, but needed help understanding how these core job tasks contributed to wider business activities.
The new hybrid way of work life is affecting every part of the university-to-workplace transition.
Some believed this hampered the 'learn through osmosis' opportunities that were afforded by a physical office environment, such as picking up on snippets of information from colleagues that could shape their work. They reported difficulties in working out how their day-to-day work fitted in with the rest of the company, and in working out who were in positions of seniority and how formally to address them.
New graduates needed clearer and more candid guidance on workplace etiquette and norms (e.g. for messaging and online interactions), and found it difficult to instigate and maintain relationships with more senior colleagues, where there were fewer obvious opportunities for informal interaction.
Graduates also spoke about the challenge of feeling committed to their employer, when they interacted with them entirely, or almost entirely, online. They struggled to feel a part of the company, but were often reluctant to reach out to co-workers, not wishing to be seen as needy or time-wasters.
These challenges could lead to misunderstandings with more senior colleagues, for example, who expressed dissatisfaction that they were not being kept in the loop by interns about their daily projects. From the interns' perspectives, they were showing respect to their employers by trying to present as capable, intelligent, and independent workers.
Problems with remote communication, such as having fewer social cues and engaging predominantly in task-related conversations, also caused graduates to perceive networking as harder in a remote workforce than a face-to-face one.
Being proactive, therefore, became of paramount importance both to learning the ins-and-outs of the practices, behaviours and culture of a workforce, and to building connections with peers and superiors who could act as mentors.
The new hybrid way of work life is affecting every part of the university-to-workplace transition: from engaging with prospective employers, to being selected for work; from those early days of induction, to the day-to-day learning and job performance; all the way through to the longer term art of building of career networks.
This significantly alters the ways that recent graduates can access tacit knowledge, develop appropriate workplace behaviours, and maintain their career wellbeing. Social mobility can be undermined, as can wider matters of equality, diversity and inclusion.
Careers services are critical to meeting this challenge, uniquely positioned to simultaneously support students through an increasingly hybrid and dispersed student experience, work with academics to help embed revised employability skills in curriculum, and partner with employers to understand their evolving workplaces and support their attraction, recruitment and retention.
Careers service expertise can be deployed to:
- Help graduates develop strategies and techniques to improve visibility, without being overly demanding or intrusive.
- Help graduates develop confidence to ask the right questions, at the right time, and of the right people, when working remotely.
- Enable graduates to develop skills to approach conflict and uncomfortable topics with colleagues (in hybrid environments, it can be easier to avoid people).
- Help graduates learn about different types of collaboration platform, how and when organisations might use them, and likely etiquette.
- Help graduates see the value in informal social interaction with colleagues, as well as purposeful task-related communication.
- Help graduates manage their online presence - not just for network building, but also for day-to-day relationship management, so they can keep in touch with colleagues, and interpret cues about the organisation's culture and politics.
- Prepare graduates for peaks and troughs in workload, and help them develop strategies for seeking support when needed.
- Help graduates refine techniques for focusing when there might be personal distractions.
You can learn more about these challenges and how they might be addressed in our recent publications. Find details in the Notes section below.2,3
- Starting your career during a pandemic - report, Leeds University Business School, 2021.
- The Robots are Coming 2 - Rise of the Screens: The role of higher education careers professions in
disrupted times, Journal of the National Institute for Career Education and Counselling, 2023.
- Hughes, H.P.N., & Thambar, N. (2023). Graduate Careers in a Changing Workplace: A Fresh
Challenge? In W. Donald (ed.) Establishing and Maintaining Sustainable Career Ecosystems for
University Students and Graduates. Chapter 24, pages 469-487. ICI Global, UK.
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