Generation Z is relatively new to the workforce, but is having an outsized impact on the preoccupations of many managers. The expectations of this generation—sometimes defined as anyone born 1997 onward—often loom large in conversations about the future of offices, the Great Resignation, and how much businesses should speak out on societal issues.
We spoke recently with a group of managers who said emphatically that they felt young employees today were more challenging to manage than in the past. How would you respond to that?
I think that it’s true. I don’t think that we should act like it isn’t difficult to meet the many demands that were not demands before. A lot of companies do have to get used to the fact that mental health sick days are something that folks may be asking for. Or things like, I’m having a period and I really don’t feel like coming into work today. Those are conversations that some organizations are genuinely new to having, and it would be unfair to say that it isn’t difficult to have those conversations if you never experienced it before. But what we have to realize is that every generation that came into the workforce shook it up and we’re just shaking it up in a different way.
Of course, it will take a minute for folks to adapt. But they do know that they have to adapt because that’s where the workforce is going and you want to retain young talent. It absolutely is difficult, but you should be honest about what you can and cannot do with the resources that you have. That’s something else that’s super important: Don’t overpromise based off what you think that they want to hear. Be realistic about what your organization can do and can provide for the workers.
The managers we spoke with cited their perception that young workers are less focused on doing the work required, more reluctant to put in extra effort and hours to advance themselves or their company, and more distractible by what managers view as internal debates and considerations. What do you make of that?
This generation wants to be involved in a lot of things, especially as it pertains to their job. They fundamentally approach work differently than previous generations. With previous generations, it was definitely about sitting down doing the work, doing as you’re told, and you don’t ask questions. This generation absolutely is going to ask, ‘How is what I’m doing related to the overall company mission?’ Which is going to require extra time and an extra conversation. But actually engaging in those conversations will encourage retention. It’s showing these Gen Zers who often do want to see how their work is contributing to the overall role of this company in a larger sense, showing them the way. Breaking it down for them shows that you’re invested in their personal development because you’re increasing their understanding of how the business works. But it also shows that you’re invested in their professional development because obviously the role matters to the organization.
So absolutely Gen Z is certainly a bit more challenging. A part of that is due to how every generation is shaped by the political realities and the things that happen during their time. This generation asks a lot of questions, given our political reality. But it’s also an opportunity for professional development by the managers.
What advice do you have for colleagues and managers of Gen Z workers?
Transparency. It’s not about putting on the facade that everything is perfect, that everything is together because obviously that’s not realistic and we’re all people. Mentioning what you can do with the resources that you have really does go a long way instead of maybe not even trying to have that conversation at all, trying to avoid the elephant in the room. Instead let’s address it, let’s be honest about what we can do given the resources that we have in the department or in the organization.
The other thing is, do not be afraid to tap into Gen Z as thought leaders. If you’re young or new to a role, obviously there’s some hesitation about tapping into you and giving you a level of agency. But this generation has proven themselves as leaders in other realms like politics and being behind a lot of the movement during summer 2020 and social media natives—that puts us in a unique position that we can definitely be utilized in a lot of different areas of organizations where we may not be.
What are common mistakes that colleagues and managers of Gen Z workers make?
A one-size-fits-all approach. Everybody’s different. Everybody is motivated by different things. Fundamentally we get too stuck on trying to change what people are motivated by instead of changing ways that we could motivate them based off what they’re motivated by. We often tack on labels to this generation, like ‘lazy’ or ‘not wanting to work hard.’ But it’s really about what they are actually motivated by. Have you tried to have that conversation with them and have you tried to make any adjustments based off those things?
The second mistake is not remembering what it was like for everybody else to be 20. How ambitious was everybody else when they first got into the workplace? At 22 years old, I remember how ambitious I was and I’m only 26. There definitely is a need to level set sometimes that folks may be missing out on because of remote work. So find the opportunities to have those conversations. Don’t shy away from it. Don’t say it’s too difficult because they’re too young and they don’t get it. Instead, say ‘Let’s have the conversation, break it down to me. I’m more than open to discuss it with you.’
How will Gen Z shape work and workplaces for the future?
I love that question. I really feel like this generation will encourage organizations to reimagine what workplace culture is, even though everything that we are asking for and demanding can seem a bit overzealous at times. I do think that it’s important for us to do that, to encourage conversations to be had. We have different organizations in Europe, for example, doing the four-day work week, testing out to see if that’s actually productive and if that improves retention and showing that folks are actually willing to work long hours so they can enjoy their four-day work week.
This generation is going to encourage folks to begin to dabble in exactly what we want workplace culture to look like. This generation wants workplace culture to look like the world that they want to live in. Having these tough demands and these tough conversations is pushing us in the right direction, even if it can be a bit difficult at times.
Read a full transcript of our conversation, including more about workplace friendships, training, mental health, and how Gen Z sees employers’ involvement in societal issues.