Despite headlines and warnings, is virtual working all that bad? Helen Goulden counts the benefits, both for young people, and for organisations.
Earlier this year, The Young Foundation was approved as a Kickstart employer. As an independent research organisation with a keen interest in creating a more inclusive social research sector, it felt like a very tangible opportunity to recruit people who would otherwise struggle to get a foothold in this kind of work.
Over the course of 2021, we have been recruiting, training cohorts of previously unemployed young people as community – or peer – researchers. For those unfamiliar with the term, peer research is where people with direct experience of the issue being studied are directly involved in the research process. They often also use their understanding of a city, town or neighbourhood to help generate new insights about a place. A valuable input into levelling up strategies, given what we know about the 0% impact of previous initiatives.
Our cohorts of young researchers have been recruited from across the UK. They entered the world of work during a pandemic, in a completely virtual environment. Much has been written in the press about how virtual work is disproportionately affecting young people in the workplace; that younger employees feel the loss of being in a shared space, missing out on moments of connection that come from being physically together and having access to resources. This is couched within a wider set of “warnings” about working from home being bad for your career; despite some significant upsides to remote working for companies.
It’s a complex picture, for sure – but one that often misses out the substantive point about remote working offering access to employment that would have otherwise been out of reach.
Like so many other organisations, The Young Foundation shifted overnight to 100% remote working at the beginning of the pandemic. Everyone recruited during that time was onboarded and has worked virtually, including our young Kickstart cohorts.
Overnight, our talent pool went from being commuting distance from our offices to UK-wide. And our Kickstart employees come from all over. They were able to apply to a London-based organisation without moving to England’s capital city. The type of Kickstart roles we were advertising are not often found in other parts of the country, meaning those who wanted to begin their career in research previously did not see entry-level roles in the places they live. For them, the downsides of virtual working were compensated for having access to a job at all. And one they really wanted.
Zero commuting costs also opened up access to a more interesting and diverse talent pool for us. Pay isn’t high for most people starting their working life, and while we ‘topped up’ the government’s offer of National Minimum Wage to National Living Wage it’s still a challenge to live on – especially as some of our Kickstarter’s are in commuting distance from London. 100% virtual working removes the burden of shelling out for train and tube tickets.
We’ve also been able to recruit people with physical disabilities because of virtual working; people who would have been put off by an employer who demanded physical presence in an office.
Where there have been downsides to remote working, we’ve worked with our Kickstarters to overcome them. Recruiting cohorts of people, rather than individuals, has definitely helped. They’ve been able to have a shared experience and support each other, to an extent. They’ve had a named person to call with any worries, concerns, and questions (why would someone straight from school know what an invoice is?). Daily check-ins have built familiarity and trust, too.
Our Kickstart cohorts have certainly gained a range of transferrable and relevant skills in their time with us, and their routes into research and other employment opportunities are far clearer and more accessible to them than they were. But there is no denying they’ve given us something too. They’ve helped evolve our recruitment and onboarding. They’ve been commissioned by other organisations to undertake research, and produced some quality work for entry-level researchers. They’ve challenged our lazy assumptions: no, many of them don’t want to work in social media, and they don’t think TikTok is a ‘cool’ way of engaging them. We’re a better organisation for having them with us.
Many employers and employees are navigating a complex world of mixing real life and virtual work together – and we don’t have all the answers yet. But if remote working means new opportunities to reach a broader base of young people, who just don’t have the right roles for them on their doorstop, let’s please enable that to happen.
Join the Social Research Association (SRA)’s annual conference on 25 November to explore inclusivity in the sector.