We’ve previously talked about how Gen Z is beginning to enter the work force in significant numbers and introduced a framework for understanding generational change in the workplace. The main takeaway was that managers need to understand how the workplace will evolve over the next several decades due to these changing demographics. Now, we turn to offer advice to managers who have (or will soon have) Gen Z employees… which is pretty much every manager.
Articles and media that discuss these sort of intergenerational topics often sound ridiculous, as if they were written for a textbook explaining how to communicate with a different species. I think back many years ago to content advising Boomers how to understand Millennials and laughing at how awkward it was. So hopefully that’s not the type of content I create here.
The overriding lesson is to remember you’re dealing with other people. Also understand that just because someone is from a certain generation doesn’t mean they will all robotically think and act the same way; they’re still individuals. Relating to co-workers or employees from other generations is mostly about making an effort to show you understand and respect them. It’s also about being flexible and accommodating to changing norms and preferences when possible, without getting pushed around, sacrificing the business, or shifting the burden onto your other staff. Difficult? Well, that’s management.
What GEN Z Wants in the Workplace
For reasons already stated, it may be a mistake to generalize this with such a broad brush. The best managers get to know their team members as individuals and find out what they personally value. Nevertheless, there’s still some trends that can be applied.
1. Shared Values. LinkedIn recently rolled out new tools to help job-seekers find companies that prioritize certain values which align with their own. Some of the values available in the tool are practical and focused on the core content of the job — like work-life balance or career growth and development — while others are more philosophical like DE&I. Corporate culture and values are a nebulous and tricky subject, and some leaders prefer to avoid the more philosophical topics all-together, but as I covered in a recent piece on ESG, that is increasingly impossible. As more of the workforce consists of Gen Z, expect these trends to accelerate.
2. Care for Employee Well-being. Gallup highlighted the importance of this back in 2021. Most every company says they care about their employees, but it also rings hollow in many contexts. For example, if management institutes widespread layoffs and then pays themselves a hefty bonus, you can’t turn around and credibly talk about how much you value your people. There was a time when that sort of behavior went largely unnoticed, but with the proliferation of the internet that’s no longer the case. Gen Z in particular is taking notice.
The last few years have produced a number of leaks showing detached (and in some cases, truly unhinged) executives treating employees poorly or going off on wild tirades, only to be subsequently ridiculed in the press and on social media when the leak goes viral. Corporate commentator Joshua Fluke has produced excellent material on some of the more noteworthy (or infamous) examples, which you can find on his YouTube channel, albeit scattered among other content.
It’s hard to come back from that kind of leak and the ensuing ridicule. It will likely be a perpetual hindrance in all their future efforts to attract top talent, especially if that particular executive is still around. The long and short of it is that leaders have to genuinely treat employees well if they want to be competitive in the talent market going forward, and if they don’t, it might get widely publicized and ruin their own careers and businesses.
3. Flexibility. A Deloitte survey from 2021 found that flexibility was the #1 characteristic of a successful business according to Gen Z. Despite the ambiguous phrasing of the survey question, it’s no doubt that Gen Z puts major value on flexibility at work. In the post-COVID world, remote and hybrid work has become a new way of life for countless people. This is the environment in which Gen Z began to enter the workforce in significant numbers, so that concept is firmly ingrained.
4. Money? Data on this is mixed. Gen Z grew up watching their Gen X parents and older Millennials struggle through the Great Recession, then came into the work force themselves around the time of COVID. They’ve undoubtedly noticed the value of financial security amidst an increasingly-chaotic global economy often more turbulent than anything seen since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, some sources indicate that Gen Z is less inclined than prior generations to view work as a core part of their identity. So this one is probably a wash, but it’s also naive to think that money isn’t at least a major factor in most peoples’ work decisions.
What Should Managers Do?
1. On Values. As mentioned, corporate culture and values are not a clear-cut subject, especially since in the truest sense it’s people that have values, not entities, and people value a lot of different things for different reasons. My aforementioned recent article on ESG and stakeholder capitalism covers the topic and a potential strategy for navigating it in much more depth. But suffice it to say that you can’t appeal to everybody on everything, nor should you want to.
We should also note that culture fit is not a new concept, so this really shouldn’t be a major revelation to anybody. Managers have long sought candidates who they believe will integrate well into their teams, and candidates always consider how well they’d get along at a new company. The renewed emphasis on shared values from Gen Z really just bring these things to the forefront, and the best strategy is to focus on your niche culture offerings and benefits.
For example, if your company is big into work-life balance and you offer a 4 day work week, remote option, or flexible hours, market your talent acquisition efforts on those points. If you’re more of a grind and hustle environment that offers high compensation opportunity for top performers but expects grueling effort, talk about that. If you have high tenure and prioritize a stable environment that people tend to stick around for a long time, use that angle.
You will naturally attract candidates who want those things and repel those who aren’t as interested, which is a win for everybody. It’s much easier to find a good culture fit than to transform a culture. Just don’t be inauthentic about it, because that will backfire.
2. On Well-being. Last year my Boomer dad retired from an almost 50 year career in the service sector. When I was young, he had climbed his way up to a fairly substantial leadership role, only to be manipulated by more senior management and eventually subjected to layoff. After recovering and finding a new job, a few years later he went through yet another similar experience. He then decided that he was done being in management and spent the last 25 or so years of his career voluntarily staying in a lower-level role where he could work more with customers.
Despite having good relationships with some top executives in the industry and various ultra high net worth individuals, he chose to keep to himself and plugged along until retirement, spending about 20 of those last years with the same company. What kept him at that one place in a role that was beneath his capacity? He liked what he was doing, and he felt well taken care of by the company.
So again, this is not exactly a new concept coming uniquely from Gen Z, but it’s probably because of Gen Z (along with the internet) that it will be cemented as a major factor in talent acquisition and employee retention going forward. This doesn’t mean you should try to imitate the ‘our company is a family’ bit, which rarely works in practice even if the intent is there. But it does mean the days of command-and-control management, inspired by the executives who incorporated military culture into the workplace post-World War II, are now coming to an end. Managers need to genuinely care about their employees if they want to attract the best talent, and always treat them with respect.
Employee wellness programs, a term that can encompass a number of different benefits, have also become increasingly common in larger companies and funded startups, though not everyone values them equally and many SMB’s may have trouble affording them. More important are things like doing your best to avoid layoffs, being transparent with your staff and not manipulating them, trying to accommodate when people are going through personal struggles, and investing in your team’s growth. A lot of this is just being a nice person, but it’s also good business.
3. On Flexibility. This is currently one of the most contentious topics in business: remote, hybrid, or return-to-office? And ultimately it depends on the job. Many jobs simply can’t be done remotely, so there’s no accommodation to be made in such cases. If a Gen Z applicant (or anyone else), for example, wants to work in a retail store or a warehouse, they obviously can’t work remotely.
But COVID plainly demonstrated that many jobs can be done remotely, and those who are taking a hard-line return-to-office stance will find themselves encountering a lot of quiet quitting in the short term. Long term, they will hollow out their institutional capabilities and be unable to attract and retain top talent.
Those who think the world is ever returning to a pre-COVID state of crowded offices and full cubicles are living in an absolute pipe dream, and the more they try to force it, the worse off their company will be. Flexibility is about giving people reasonable optionality. If the job can be done remotely, let people do it remotely. If it requires some physical presence but not all the time, offer hybrid. And for those who want a full-time office experience, you can offer that too (provided you’re not wasting money on real estate).
Scheduling is the other big element of flexibility, though in many ways it’s harder to accommodate, at least at lower levels. Most executives and other top managers are already used to managing their own schedules, but for people in many sales, service, and logistics roles, adhering to a firm schedule is often vital to the position. The best advice I can offer for those roles that demand a firm schedule is to set clear expectations up front. And for those roles that don’t, be as flexible as you possibly can. Learn to analyze those employees based on results, not time spent.
4. On Money. This is an evergreen topic in HR so there isn’t much unique to add here other than to say don’t try to nickel-and-dime your team. In fact, the best managers do the exact opposite: they are champions for their people, trying to pay them as much as they rightfully can. I say ‘rightfully’ because obviously when you’re shelling out top dollar, you’re going to expect results; nobody wants to give a raise to somebody who doesn’t produce. But paying top of range is a big part of attracting and retaining top talent.
If your company is used to playing games with people to pay them as little as possible, your business will suffer immensely as changing workplace dynamics overtake you. Get ahead of the game now and do right by your team, then expect them to deliver results.
A Brief Aside on Gen Z Communication
I almost removed this section because it’s so different from the rest of the article, but the subject matter is important enough that I decided to include it.
Whatever you do, don’t try to imitate Gen Z slang and mannerisms to make it seem like you’re fitting in. You probably remember older generations doing that to you once upon a time. It’s very obvious and rarely respected (and usually mocked once you leave the room). If you actually befriend a Gen Z co-worker or employee and they invite you into that culture in some way, by all means go ahead, but don’t try to force it.
Having said that, it is helpful to have a basic sense of what those slang terms and mannerisms are so you can correctly interpret communication and not inadvertently cause offense. This list from Reader’s Digest is a good place to start. While not comprehensive, it is helpful, easy to navigate, and devoid of unnecessary commentary. For emojis, since usage is continuously changing, just hang on to Emojipedia as a resource. It’s not specific to Gen Z but is broad enough to encompass it.
And as far as chat channels and text (where a lot of our business communication now happens), the most important thing to be aware of is that punctuating the end of a sentence can be interpreted by many in Gen Z as blunt or even aggressive. Does that mean you should completely change the way you write business texts and stop punctuating? No, especially since you probably also need to communicate with other colleagues who may view a lack of punctuation as sloppy or flippant. But if you know you’re speaking to a Gen Z colleague and you know they might interpret your writing negatively, then perhaps modify it slightly.
The takeaway lesson here for everyone, including those in Gen Z, is you need be contextually-aware of who you’re talking to and how they might interpret things, then adjust accordingly. And if someone who isn’t from your generation says something that offends you, stop and consider if they really meant it that way (usually they didn’t). After all, the challenge of communication is a human experience; we’re all learning over time.
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