The Future Of Work Includes Gen Z . . . Are You Ready?

Article contributed by Ellen McKitterick

Over the past few months, as workplaces slowly ease out of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been countless articles written about the capital “F” “Future” of work, covering everything from the continuation of remote work and hybrid models to ongoing recruitment and retention challenges to an accelerated adoption of automation, AI, and other technologies. There is no doubt that our workplaces have evolved, and will continue to evolve, at a rapid pace post-pandemic. Amidst the chaos, employers should not lose sight of a new demographic that is just beginning to enter the workforce. One that, like the generations before it, has the potential to significantly shift the way we think about work.

Yes, we’re talking about Generation Z. Generation Z – “Gen Z” or “Zoomers” – represents those born between 1997 and 2012, meaning the oldest, at 24, have only been out in the workforce for a couple of years, and many more are still in school or are just now entering the workforce after completing their education. According to Gallup, Millennial (1981-1996) and Gen Z workers now make up nearly half (46%) of the full-time workforce in the United States. And while, many of Gen Z’s values are similar to that of earlier generations, there are significant differences that employers must consider as they reimagine the future. So, if you haven’t already, you need to ask this question: What do your youngest workers want out of the workplace? Below are common themes already emerging from the research.

  • Despite younger generations often being categorized as “lazy” by their predecessors, Gen Z considers themselves to be the hardest-working generation – They just want to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to their careers.

Having grown up in the midst and aftermath of the Great Recession, and having witnessed their parents lose a home, go through a layoff, or Millennial counterparts become saddled with crippling student loan debt, many Gen Z workers express a desire for traditional job security most closely associated with older generations. In a recently released “Gen Z Spotlight Report,” the Washington State University Carson College of Business (CCB), surveyed more than 1,000 Gen Z workers in the Pacific Northwest, and found that younger workers are much more concerned about the future of their careers than their older colleagues, with 68% of younger workers reporting that they worry about their career growth potential, compared to 43% of older employees. Other research indicates that many in Gen Z are willing to work hard for the financial and job security that they desire, with 58% of Zoomers willing to work nights and weekends if it meant achieving a higher salary.

However, Gen Z’s concerns regarding career growth opportunities and stability have not completely erased the entrepreneurial and mobile spirit of their Millennial predecessors. For example, 79% of those surveyed in the CCB study reported they have high ambition and drive when it comes to furthering their careers, and 76% described themselves as responsible for driving their own career in a Monster Multi-Generational Survey, with close to half of respondents still expressing a desire to own their own business. Rather, the entrepreneurial spirit most closely associated with Millennials has simply been rechanneled. While Millennial career paths often gravitated to start-ups and early-stage companies, Gen Z’s preferred career development path is one that, in addition to entrepreneurship, provides more opportunities to “own” and diversify opportunities within the safe confines of stable employment. In other words, Zoomers who aren’t ready to take the entrepreneurial leap want to create and drive their own narratives for what success looks like in their currently-existing workplaces. As a result, many Zoomers have an expectation of control over and, perhaps more importantly, choice with respect to many facets of the work environment – everything from having a say in their work schedule, to autonomy over the manner/methods they use to complete tasks, to the career development paths that are available to them.

Given their desire for independence and control over their work life, employers should look to create more opportunities for Gen Z workers to “own” their projects and tasks, with less “management” and more “support” from leaders. Additionally, organizations should seek to create a more personalized work experience based on the individual needs, interests, and career goals of their Gen Z workers, and allow personal ambition to drive success. One approach might be to create latticed career paths for positions in your organization, as well as multiple work formats, thereby providing Zoomers with more varied paths for growth and development and more flexibility in their daily work to meet the individual needs of this incredibly diverse (see Bullet #3) group of workers. This flexibility, combined with diverse opportunities for professional development, could help your organization edge out competition that simply offers employees a higher paycheck.

  • Gen Z expects employers – and their managers – to put a premium on employee health, support, and wellbeing.

Employee wellbeing has been a top priority issue for every generation currently in the workforce, and nothing brought that into sharper focus than the upheavals of 2020. The shift across the workforce toward a stronger work-life balance continues with Gen Z, with 75% of participants in the CCB study identifying a healthy work-life balance as a top priority. But while, many employee wellness programs focus on physical health, and some mental health, services, Gen Z workers are looking for their organizations to encourage a broader sense of wellbeing, including supports for career, social, and financial wellbeing. When looking to attract and retain Gen Z talent, employers should consider what else they might offer employees beyond traditional employee benefits, like good healthcare coverage. Benefits such as flexible work arrangements, paid time off, mental health days, and activities that create a sense of community – especially when connection is largely via digital platforms – are essential for Zoomers.

In addition to wellness from an employee benefits perspective, a 2019 survey by The Workforce Institute at Kronos found that nearly one-third (32%) of Zoomers said that they would be motivated to work harder and stay longer at a company if they have a supportive manager. The top three attributes they value in a manager are: “they trust me” (47%) (which goes back to the desire for autonomy discussed above), “they support me” (40%), and “they care about me” (35%). While offering benefits to support employees in various aspects of their lives, employers should take steps to ensure that leaders in the organization are playing their part in fostering a culture that considers the whole person, both professionally and personally. Performance reviews and job feedback aren’t going away – in fact, 25% of Zoomers want regular check-ins with their manager during the first month of onboarding and nearly half (43%) prefer receiving real-time feedback rather than during a scheduled review – but managers should take care to check in with employees on the specific and tangible points of performance, while also sending the quick, “Hey, how are things?” email or text message to help employees feel connected, supported, and on track.

  • Gen Z takes a values-driven approach to their careers and workplace expectations – and expects a workplace that will deliver on creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.

While salary and traditional job security features are important to Zoomers, 74% rank purpose ahead of paycheck compared to 70% of Millennials, 66% of Gen X and 67% of Boomer respondents in the Monster Multi-Generational Survey. Similarly, 70% of Gen Z participants in the CCB study reported that they wanted to work for a company “whose values align with their own,” and 83% of younger workers reported that they want to work for an organization “where they can make a positive impact on the world.” And it’s no wonder that, as the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, diversity, equity, and inclusion rank high among the values that matter most to Gen Z workers.

Employers seeking to attract and retain Gen Z talent need to engage potential applicants and current employees in the mission, vision, and values of the organization through their external and internal marketing and branding efforts. Workers will gravitate toward companies that are transparent, socially conscious, and, most importantly for retention, practice what they preach. Additionally, companies should develop a robust DEI strategy based on a broad understanding of diversity through many dimensions – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, socioeconomic status, etc. – while creating specific, measurable initiatives to increase diversity in the organization, foster inclusion and appreciation for the individual contributions of each employee, and create equity in the workplace.

  • Despite being digital natives, many Zoomers still crave in-person connectivity and interactions at work.

Gen Z is often stereotyped as being perpetually connected to their devices. And while it is true that they have never known a world without technology at their fingertips, and expect to use up to date technology in their day-to-day work, their high-tech abilities don’t trump human needs. In fact, 90% of Gen Z workers prefer to have a “human element” woven into their work and team environments, and the Kronos survey, referenced above, found that three out of four Zoomers prefer to receive manager feedback in person, while 39% prefer to communicate with their team or employer in person. To add an additional layer to these statistics, there has been much written about how the shift to remote work to sustain business operations during the pandemic had an adverse impact on the mental health of workers. According to the CCB report, while just 34% of older workers complained about remote work, some 47% of younger workers reported that working from home has had a negative impact on their mental wellbeing.

In order to address the needs of Gen Z workers – given their expectation for a technologically advanced workplace, their desire for in-person interaction, and the need to reverse the negative effects remote work has had on employee mental wellbeing (see Bullet #2 above) – employers must put careful consideration into crafting a balanced workplace that offers Gen Z workers some aspects of both in-person and virtual connections with their leaders, their teams, and others in the organization, rather than continue blindly down whatever path of the fully remote or hybrid models sustained them throughout the pandemic. What worked as a short-term solution may not provide the balance your workers will desire going forward. And, given the Gen Z worker’s need to create and “own” their work environment (see Bullet #1), employers would be wise to consider offering a menu of options employees can choose from to best fit their own conception of what the work environment should look like in order to meet their needs, the needs of their department, and the needs of the consumer.

There are steps every organization can take now to strengthen the culture of respect that the youngest generation of workers expects. Respect in the workplace is fundamental for an organization’s success as it is a driving factor in keeping and attracting top talent! Grow your team’s commitment to diversity, inclusivity, civility, equality and authenticity with our workforce learning that fosters a culture of respect – something every generation of worker wants to be a part of!