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Graduates would benefit from office working, but proceed with caution

Sunak is right, graduates learn best in person, but don’t use it as ammunition for an early return to the office.

“What piece of information do you need to finalise the proposal when you get back to the office?” my manager asked me during a post-client meeting debrief. I didn’t know, and he wouldn’t give me the answer. After squirming for 15 minutes, I worked it out.

Twenty-six years later I still remember that the six year lease rate was a specialist number not included in the standard finance tables. Would this interaction have happened as effectively after a Zoom call or would I have just been emailed the number?

When learning about work the best learning occurs in the physical world, particularly when graduates are just starting out. That’s why graduate employers focus on experiential learning.

So Rushi Sunak is right when he says that for young people in particular, being able to physically be in an office is valuable.

The work skills that graduates need to work on most are how to manage upwards, how to influence and negotiate, and how to manage their career.

While theoretical models, simulations and even role play exercises can be explained and experienced virtually, these key life skills also need to be learned through physical interactions in the workplace.

In the digital world, we still negotiate contracts, work up innovations in teams and settle business conflicts online. But it is harder to teach graduates the skills they need to be successful managers only over wifi.

Training programme structures are often based on the 70:20:10 model: 70% of learning derived through job-related experiences, 20% from interactions with colleagues and customers, and just 10% via formal courses.

Skilled managers guide and coach graduates through projects, difficult problems and situations and the constraints they work within.

Work provides the experiential learning that guides a graduate’s growth and development.

Through hands-on experiences, graduates make critical choices, interact with decision makers and negotiate office-politics.

Good managers give instant feedback so graduates learn from mistakes and improve their performance in real time. The relationships that graduates build in their first months can be incredibly important – Rushi Sunak is still in touch with his early mentors.

Now that office work is again possible, graduates can meet their managers over a coffee. September is when many graduates start work and elements of an induction programme can now be delivered in person.

That said, this shouldn’t be used as an argument for a swift or complete return to full-time office-based work, or that facetime is the only time that counts when getting in and getting on. Employers delivered a lot of training online pre-pandemic, and this will no doubt continue.

Online training has advanced considerably over recent years, doesn’t rack up hotel and travel expenses and can be delivered in module format.  

Many employers have learned how to deliver all facets of a development programme through cyberspace. But online learning is only ranked seventh in terms of impact by graduate employers.

Employees and employers will need to listen to each other’s needs as we discover the best approach to work-based learning post-pandemic. There are already signs that talent is getting harder to source in some sectors and in-demand employees will have the market power to choose flexible employers.

Hybrid working is likely to become the norm across many sectors; hybrid graduate programmes will develop in parallel.

Managers who may be reluctant to re-join the commute need to remember how they learned and who they learnt from when they were starting out.

The best graduate training programmes are multi-dimensional.

Stephen Isherwood is CEO of the Institute of Student Employers