Helping Gen Z Employees Find Their Place at Work
Gen Z is struggling with engagement at work. Many began their careers only to become furloughed or fired, and the Covid-19 pandemic worsened already growing income inequality. They’ve been influential in social justice movements against racism, climate change, and more, and are already shaping and influencing society in numerous ways. Their disillusionment with capitalism and the establishment is growing. Thus, Gen Z garnered a reputation for mistrust of the status quo, disconnection and impatience, demanding immediate action. To earn the engagement of this group, the authors suggest seven strategies managers can leverage to create a team dynamic of collaboration, commitment, and sustained motivation: 1) Increase information-sharing to alleviate fears of uncertainty, 2) show them paths to career progression to incentivize them, 3) explain how their individual contributions matter, 4) give them room for autonomy to keep them motivated, 5) provide specific, constructive feedback to demonstrate that you are invested in their success, 6) harness community and connection to engage and empower them, and 7) prioritize wellness and mental health to show you care.
Gen Z, born from approximately 1995 to 2010is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. This generation has also been influenced by, and is influential in, the macro social movements and systemic issues that have shaped who they are and what they stand for in the workplace and society. They’ve played crucial roles in movements fighting racism and discrimination, sexual harassment, gun violenceand worsening climate changeas growing income disparity makes the possibility of social mobility more unrealistic than ever.
All of this was exacerbated by Covid-19. The pandemic devastated the U.S. economy and stopped the longest streak of growth in decades. As Gen Z entered the workforce, many were quickly furloughed or fired. All of these factors, in combination, fueled Gen Z’s disillusionment with the establishment and capitalism. Thus, this group garnered a reputation for mistrust of the status quo, disconnection and impatience, and for demanding immediate action around issues it cares about.
Despite their turbulent transition to adulthood, Gen Z is already shaping and influencing society and the workplace in numerous ways. The results of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections revealed Gen Z’s collective power as its political choices swayed election results. In addition, Gen Z employees are bringing their values and priorities to work, particularly their desire for transparency around recognition and rewards, and have started to make a significant impact. However, research shows that Gen Z may be struggling with engagement at work. According to a 2022 Gallup Poll, 54% of Gen Z employees, slightly higher than any other generation, are ambivalent or not engaged at work.
As such, it is essential for managers to support their Gen Z employees and earn their full engagement. Here are seven strategies you can leverage to create a team dynamic of collaboration, commitment, and sustained motivation.
1. Increase information-sharing to alleviate fears of uncertainty.
Gen Z is the first fully digital native generation, having grown up with extensive access to information in real-time. Having experienced economic uncertainty driven by a global health pandemic, Gen Z had to contend with what the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is calling a youth mental health crisis. The result is a working cohort that is experiencing a lack of control and uncertainty about the future and is “reporting higher rates of anxiety, depression, and distress than any other age group.”
Thus, to build trust and a stronger connection with this generation, you must prioritize transparency and shift your managing and communication style from a “need-to-know” policy to an “open-access” one. This is true even if the news or information you are holding back is meant to “protect,” such as when business performance is not meeting targets, supply chain issues are on the rise, or you may need to cut their budget. Access to information will alleviate Gen Z’s anxieties and allow them to process and feel in control.
To think about how you can improve, start reflecting on the following questions and discuss them with your team:
- Do I currently have a two-way dialogue with team members across multiple communication mediums? Confirm with your team which communication methods they prefer and align on a realistic frequency of consistent interaction.
- Have I made room to share and discuss the team’s strategy and impact on the organization? Does the team know how their role impacts the strategy? Discuss with your team what assumptions need to be true for them to meet their goals. Do they feel empowered to succeed?
- Do I leverage our team meetings to discuss results, performance, and future outlook, given the impact of new information? Discuss openly and honestly your outlook of the future and what is impacting the business. Ask your team if they feel empowered and supported to achieve their goals.
- Do I regularly ask the team for feedback about where we need more transparency or clarity (i.e., clear roles and responsibilities, expectations, etc.)? Make the necessary adjustments and acknowledgments to make team members feel seen and heard.
2. Show them paths to career progression to incentivize them.
Gen Z is pragmatic and concerned with job security and advancement. According to the Pew Research Center, “half of the oldest Gen Zers (ages 18 to 23) reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a cut in pay because of the [Covid-19] outbreak.” Thus, understanding performance metrics, what good looks like, and how to overdeliver is key. These employees want to know what is expected of them to advance and how they can be in control of their future. Thus, be sure to explain to them what it means to succeed as an individual contributor and future leader. If your company has a matrixed organization, for example, explain how relationship-building, influencing, and team collaboration impact overall performance, as success is not just results but also how the work is done and the impact on others.
Pay equity is also a priority for Gen Z. Conduct group discussions about salaries so this hypercognitive generation sees the organization’s commitment to it. For example, with 1.1 billion views and nearly 21 million likes, TikTok account Salary Transparent Street features people from different U.S. cities sharing their profession and salary. As Gen Z are sharing the salary information openly with one another, they expect their employers to share the information more openly and affirm organizational commitment to pay equity. Having conversations about salary and career progression in the open will go a long way with Gen Z.
3. Explain how their individual contributions matter.
McKinsey research confirms Gen Z is a purpose-driven generation. Their desire to know how their individual contributions and role in the team help support the organization’s mission differentiates them. They make career choices and purchasing choices driven by the impact these make in the world. Thus, managers should consider setting up sessions to speak about the team’s vision and impact on the organization. We all need to understand our roles and responsibilities to do our jobs, but Gen Z needs to understand how and why their role matters. Here are some steps you can take to facilitate these discussions:
- Invite each team member to briefly share their unique skills, capabilities, and growth areas with the rest of the team. Also, ask each team member individually for their suggestions and ideas on how to best contribute and obtain opportunities for development.
- Create a dialogue about how each person uniquely contributes to the team and its overall impact. This exercise will be beneficial to Gen Z to visualize how their efforts play a role in the greater good.
Moreover, take time to explain how the broader organizational goals have a positive impact on the world. This will help overcome the perception that business prioritizes their own agendas over the good of society, with no ambition beyond making money.
4. Give them room for autonomy to keep them motivated.
Having grown up with unfettered access to information, Gen Z seeks to make informed decisions on their own. They need room for experimentation to prove themselves. Thus, in order to keep them motivated, flex your management style and give them greater room and autonomy to explore and figure out improvements in work processes. They might surprise you with a better outcome.
Create opportunities for these workers to lean-in on their strengths such as leveraging technology, social media and their desire for connection. It’s a new way to enroll them in your vision while driving engagement.
5. Provide specific, constructive feedback to demonstrate that you are invested in their success.
Annual feedback is a great recap of what happens in the year, but often does not create an opportunity to learn, optimize, and pivot to make an impact on the outcome in real time. Look to provide continuous, clear feedback with real-life examples of what is working or not working, and action steps that increase your Gen Z team’s self-awareness. Take this as a coaching opportunity and provide them with prompt questions that allow them to reflect and explore different outcomes.
Here are three questions to provide your Gen Z direct reports:
- What does success look like in a given situation?
- What are you learning from this particular workstream or project?
- What has been challenging for you on the team and what suggestions do you have for improving?
Also, support them by elevating their situational awareness. For many, this will be the first time working in person, getting direct constructive feedback, and building professional relationships. They might not realize the impact of their actions on the broader team. Consider having a group discussion or training on how to build resilience and emotional intelligence to succeed in the workplace and how to approach feedback as a life-long self-improvement journey.
6. Harness community and connection to engage and empower them.
NYU Stern Professor, social psychologist, and author Johnathan Haidt said: “The more connected a generation is, the more lonely it is.” While this is the most connected generation with technology, social media, and smartphones, Gen Z is also among the most isolated. The Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index found that“Among workers aged 18-22 … 73% report sometimes or always feeling alone.” Most Gen Z employees only know remote or hybrid ways of life. Thus, they haven’t had as many opportunities to forge deep professional relationships that are often created in person over a period of time.
As a manager, you may consider giving them location work autonomy to choose their desired hybrid/remote working structure. Autonomy of choice has been proven to increase employee engagement. However, you must also create opportunities for in-person interactions that will create connections and camaraderie such as team building activities, project kickoffs, team celebrations, and state-of-the-business discussions. Creating shared team experiences like these will help develop stronger bonds. And while in-person interactions are ideal for team building, intentional remote activities will also help. Two examples include scheduling a virtual “coffee chat” during busi ness hours when team members can drop in and connect with colleagues informally, or making a plan to recognize a contribution of one member during a team meeting.
You may also consider supporting this generation by creating a mentoring program with Millennial and Gen X employees to bridge across generations and to boost meaningful collaboration across age cohorts. In addition, create a peer or buddy program where you pair Gen Z team members together so that they always have someone to contact for support. This is mutually beneficial, as Gallup research reports that having a best friend at work is key to employee engagement and job success. It is “strongly linked to business outcomes, including profitability, safety, inventory control and retention.”
7. Prioritize wellness and mental health to show you care.
Mental health struggles are a crucial factor impacting Gen Z employees. Many experience anxiety and depression, which affects their work performance. In fact, Gen Z’s top wish for their leadership is that they care about well-being and mental health. As a leader, it is your shared responsibility not just to elevate the team’s performance but also support their well-being to perform at their best. Thus, organizations and leaders must create a culture, practices and resources that support Gen Z’s mental wellness.
To start, ask your team members how they are doing. Lead by example and share your emotional stateworries, and coping mechanisms. Empathy goes a long way to create a shared connection and open up avenues of communication and deeper conversation. Then, work to create a team culture that allows for vulnerability, open communication, and makes time for mental recovery. Addressing what impacts the team will improve their overall effectiveness and allow you to manage timelines and priorities around mental wellness just as you would for physical illness.
Next, you can implement benefits and practices that help the mental health of Gen Z. For instance, LinkedIn started offering their employees additional time off to address burnout amongst their workforce. Similarly, there are a number of technology companies and start-ups that are offering, or even in some cases mandating, mental health days off for their workforce.
Another opportunity is to offer and support mental health-related employee resource groups (ERGs). When supporting Gen Z employees from diverse backgrounds, it is critical to offer culturally responsive resources as some cohorts, such as Black and Hispanic members of Gen Z, tend to underutilize these resources. To empower yourself to have these rich conversations, ask your organization to provide you with training opportunities to learn about mental health-related benefits and policies or communication tools with which you can effectively discuss mental health issues.
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The global pandemic and the macro social movements that have shaped Gen Z have changed the rules of the game in the workplace. More than any other generation, this cohort is looking to those in positions of authority to prove themselves with transparency and follow-through. You can support them in their professional development by demonstrating your investment in their success, flexing your management style, and communicating inclusively. After all, for Gen Zers, “actions speak louder than words.”