U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak sparked a bit of social media debate last week when he stressed how important it is for young people to return to the office, saying it is crucial for their career progression.He extolled the benefits of being in-person to learn directly from mentors and establish long-lasting connections. “I doubt I would have had those strong relationships if I was doing my internship or my first bit of my career over Teams and Zoom,” he told LinkedIn news. It’s a concern that’s been echoed by many senior executives in the City, including most recently Abrdn Plc Chief Executive Officer Stephen Bird who reportedly said he didn’t think he would have been noticed on Zoom.

While Sunak said any return to the office would be gradual and it was up to businesses to decide, he was criticized by some for being out of touch with what young people want.

But the question is, what do young people really want?

Well, they do want to return to the office. It’s just that they don’t want to have to go back for the full workweek. Survey after survey shows how — much like other age groups — the majority of Gen Z and young millennial workers are keen on a flexible approach. While opinions may change over time as the pandemic evolves, the Locatee/YouGov survey below gives a snapshot.

The WFH life hasn’t necessarily been easy for young adults. A survey by workplace researcher Leesman found 72% of under-25s don’t have a dedicated room where they can work in peace at home. For some, living and working from a small, lonely flat share may have contributed to a rise in anxiety and depression.

Yet, at the same time, working remotely has given them the flexibility and control over their days that they crave. Even before the pandemic, in a 2018 survey, 84% of Gen Zers said that a good work-life balance is important to them. Hybrid working would help achieve that. 

A recent Morgan Stanley survey found that most of the firm’s interns in the U.S. and Europe favor flexible working when they enter the workforce. Junior employees have been getting pay hikes at investment banks to make up for grueling, long hours and the stress of their jobs.

There is research showing Sunak and Bird have a point that the office is the place to be if you want to get ahead in your career. Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, tested the hypothesis in a 2014 study where 250 workers at a large multinational in China were split into two groups: one that worked remotely for four days a week and another that remained in the office full time. While the performance of the WFH employees improved compared to their office colleagues, they had a 50% lower rate of promotion after 21 months.

But don’t think that young people aren’t aware of that fact. Of all ages groups, they’re the most attuned to the possibility, according to the Locatee/YouGov survey.

Gen Z workers are also ambitious. When considering a new role, 52% of 18- to 24-year-olds say that opportunity for promotion is a top priority, compared to just 36% of millennial workers.

Rather than commanding young people to return, companies should focus on making the office a place they want to come back to — and that means having colleagues there too, especially those important mentors. Achieving that will probably involve taking a bit of flexibility away from all workers post-Covid so they’re in the office together again at least some of the time. Teams should decide on which days everyone must be in the office, from the manager to the intern.

Cycling past bus stops on the few trips I’ve taken into the office recently, I’ve seen big, friendly posters about the need to be kind and patient in this new phase of travel: “Some of us need more time than others.” With the delta variant still spreading, leaders ought to take the same approach to returning to the office. You can bet that young people will be back, when they’re ready.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lara Williams manages Bloomberg Opinion’s social media channels.

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