How has COVID changed expectations for students entering the workforce?

By John Stevens and David Kassnoff

Current employees know how the COVID-19 pandemic re-wrote how their workplaces operate. Frequent video calls via Zoom, anxiety from prolonged isolation, and seemingly perpetual work-from-home days became the norm for associates and teams across the marketplace.

Graduate students entering the workforce, however, bring different expectations. Research performed in Spring 2022 by Master of Business Administration students at St. Bonaventure University suggests these students are looking at a work environment that offers more respect, more planning for disruption, and more compensation.

“The pandemic has changed the workplace and the market for searching for jobs in almost every way,” said Jacob Osswald, a graduate student from Buffalo. “And, it will likely never be the same as it used to be prior to 2020.”

Osswald was one of 17 MBA graduate students led by SBU School of Business faculty member John Stevens in a course, Organizational Behavior. The students surveyed dozens of companies. Their questions examined where employees worked during the pandemic, how companies relied on digital technologies, managed workers’ productivity, retention and turnover, and other workplace concerns. Rather than produce a quantitative analysis, students were asked to share their take-aways from a personal perspective after researching how managers and employees at companies reacted to the pandemic.

Not all work-from-home

Osswald explained that his job search expectations now include prioritizing work/life balance over a high-dollar salary. “I would prioritize a job that is flexible and offers remote work as an option, even if the pay is lower, because I value flexibility over my salary. Having a good work/life balance is important to me.”

But a few students found they would prefer in-person work over remote work.

Victoria Vega of Hornell said, “A top priority for me is being inside a building. I know that if I am working from home, I will not want to do my work. I will be distracted by everything around me, and … my work will not be my top priority.”

While other co-workers might work from home, Vega said, “If I am working inside a workplace and many others are working from home, I would hope that my company would compensate me for mileage.”

Madison Callan of Long Island said flexibility while retaining a company culture is important — both in an organization and from her own professional perspective.

“Companies (during the pandemic) had to learn how to create and establish a company culture when their workers worked from home,” said Callan. “Organizations needed to be flexible and willing to adapt on the fly. With my research I was able to see how multiple companies were able to adapt and thrive during the height of the pandemic. One common theme was adapting quickly. You need to stay ahead of the curve and be ready for anything that may be thrown at you. Personally, I am looking for a company that is open to hybrid or remote work. I want a company that will be flexible. I want a company that prioritizes company retention and acknowledges that we need a healthy work-life balance.”

Even after the pandemic’s peak, some students said they want to work for companies that will be ready for potential hazards.

“It is very important to me to see how a company plans to protect their workers,” said Brendan O’Kane of Rochester. “I’d like to know that the organization cares for me. I also would like to know their plan for working from home or hybrid work, in case something like this happens again. Then I will know there’s a plan in place. This research also made me realize just how little businesses were prepared for a situation like this.”

Other concerns

Few of the researchers encountered concerns about the “big resignation,” in which numbers of employees opted not to return to work after infection rates declined. But other concerns remain, including how businesses address compensation, health services, and internal and external relationships. Some examples:

  • Evan Joyce of Buffalo: “Being at the office, especially with my aspirations as a future CPA where I will interact with clients, is the way to go. To me, it is the best way to build camaraderie with coworkers and clients; also, it would help me to build trust and have co-workers more at my side if they are in the same building.”
  • Matthew Wagner of Clarence said that companies could learn from Walmart’s COVID-19 response, in which it grew its internal health-care expertise. “During COVID, (Walmart) stepped up and administered COVID vaccines because they realized how big they were, and how big of an opportunity they had. For such an already large company, it only makes sense that they continue to step up and offer its customers medical treatments.”
  • Nathan Prisella of Corning: “I want to know how the business is going to handle layoffs if another pandemic comes around and how at risk my job will be. I want to understand how the work/life balance will work with this company. Are they going to be expecting me to do a lot of work from home when it isn’t company hours? During this project, I did experience an ‘ah-ha moment’ when looking at worker retention. The moment happened when discovering how much in-person stores laid off during the pandemic. This was because … after COVID, all of these places were now offering jobs for around $15.50/hour, but because unemployment pay was so high, no one wanted to go back to work even after the stores re-opened.”
  • Mike Waseda of Tokyo said he would look at how an employer applies mandates for employee vaccination. He could not leave the U.S. due to global travel restrictions during the pandemic, but he noted the “strictness of airline companies. United Airlines said 593 of its employees are facing termination for failing to comply with its COVID-19 vaccination policy, one of the strictest mandates for inoculation from a U.S. company… Roughly 2,000 United employees sought exemptions from the mandate, which the airline announced this summer, for religious or medical reasons.” Waseda noted that United said staff to whom it granted exemptions will be placed on temporary unpaid leave.

John Stevens is a lecturer in the School of Business at St. Bonaventure University. David Kassnoff is a recently retired lecturer in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure. This story was reported and written as part of the Jandoli Institute’s Hybrid Journalism Project.

Categories: hybrid journalism, Jandoli Institute

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