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PwC UK Interns to Undergo Intensive Training in the Ancient Art of Pointless Water Cooler Chitchat

a bunch of young people in an office

PwC UK is following through on its threat to force “lockdown-damaged” interns into the office so they can learn how to interact with human beings face-to-face, reported The Times this morning. Three summers have passed since the pandemic first forced everyone inside, this summer is the first year since that the firm is making a conscious effort to ditch Zoom and get the newbies in a room with their colleagues. They may be interns now but if they’re going to be seniors some day they need to learn how to carry on a SFW conversation with their colleague Tammy about her cat Paw McCartney.

“We understand that students who missed out on face-to-face activities during the pandemic are keen to learn skills such as networking and presenting,” Ian Elliott, PwC’s chief people officer, said. “That’s why this year we’ve got an increased focus on face-to-face training, to ensure the students we work with have more exposure to in-person activities, our people and our clients.”

Privately, partners at all Big Four professional services firms, and some of the smaller accountancy groups, have acknowledged that some younger members of staff, who were at school or university during the pandemic, have “skills gaps” compared with other generations.

While many are more adept at certain tasks, such as working independently, they struggle with other basic skills that would have been expected of earlier joiners, including speaking up in meetings, collaborating with colleagues and networking.

In an interview with the Financial Times a couple months back, Elliott said basically the same thing, that new hires who spent most if not all of their college years deprived of human contact have confidence issues and seem reluctant to speak up in meetings. And in March he said PwC was “acutely aware that lockdown will have impacted students in all sorts of ways” when discussing the possibility of the firm softening its stringent hiring requirements to allow for the fact that young people today might not do as well in interviews as the students who came before them in 2019 B.C. (Before Covid) and earlier.

The plan is to have interns working in-office or at the client site for at least half the week. PwC UK has been trying to herd all of its people back into the office for longer than its American counterpart, PwC US only announced a very soft and totally-not-mandated part-time return to office for certain employees a few months ago. In 2021 UK chair Kevin Ellis tried to “create a buzz around returning to the office” and when that didn’t work he told 25,000 people on the payroll “the latest wave of AI will likely bring people back to the office. People are going to want to learn from others face to face, and the best way a human can differentiate themselves from a robot is in person.”

While there’s no denying the pandemic had a profoundly negative effect on an entire generation that missed out on the time-honored formative tradition of getting taunted by a bully in gym class to sharpen their people skills, it also appears that PwC has been looking for all kinds of reasons to get their people back under the fluorescent lights. This just happens to be a good one.