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Generation Z in the Workplace

How to Maximize the Unique Potential of the Current Generation

By Dr. John “Hub” Powell

Is the current generation—often referred to as Generation Z or the iGeneration—really that different from previous generations? While there are some commonalities, the members of Generation Z (sometimes referred to as “Zers”) see themselves in ways that are different from their millennial predecessors. According to a study conducted by Utah State University, Zers see themselves as responsible, open-minded, thoughtful, loyal, entrepreneurial, compassionate, and interactive. Conversely, they see themselves as not being particularly spontaneous, conservative, focused, or creative. The same study noted that they have a fear of missing out (“FOMO”) and may use their electronic devices to make sure important things don’t pass them by. In another study conducted by Vision Critical, Zers see themselves as happy, confident, excited, motivated, and optimistic. Finally, they see education not just as a period of intellectual enlightenment, but more as preparation for careers and financial success.

Like millennials, Zers are fully connected to the internet and are able to use it to solve problems, but—according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)—84 percent actually prefer their human interactions to be direct. While millennials tend to communicate via electronic mediums, Zers actually prefer face-to-face encounters (even while being unafraid to use technology). Interestingly, video chat, in the minds of some Zers, is viewed almost as positively as in-person conversations. And face-to-face communication, even when virtual, is preferred to written communication (including text messaging and email). Finally, they consume entertainment voraciously, but rarely watch actual televisions (one in five don’t watch TV at all, preferring streaming services like Netflix and Hulu).

For Zers, there is also a downside to the constant use of technology, in particular the use of cell phones. Zers’ attention spans have dropped from the millennials’ 10 minute norm to about 6 minutes; one study by Vision Critical noted an attention span of just 8 seconds when consuming media. This will create communication challenges between Zers and those used to lengthy meetings and conversations. However, with 23 million Zers entering the workforce during the next 15 years, the workplace will need to evolve in order to unlock the amazing potential this generation can bring to organizations where they are valued and allowed to contribute.

Zers were coming of age during—and significantly impacted by— the “Great Recession.” And they do not like unexpected change (especially if it is negative) because of the uncertain world they faced as children, not only due to financial concerns, but also the 9/11 attacks and subsequent concerns about domestic terror.

Managerial Tip: Be prepared to mentor Zers to better understand the nature of change in organizations. Not all modifications are carefully planned out with time for understanding and acceptance. Leaders must train Zers to understand this organizational reality so they can get more comfortable with it. After all, change is a constant in the business world.

In contrast to millennials, Zers see work opportunities in a more pragmatic fashion. Work needs to be financially rewarding, and they have expressed a willingness to pay dues and be loyal to an employer for many years if the career path has the potential to offer financial success.

Zers also tend to appreciate leadership and co-workers who engage with them. As noted earlier, they are very face-to-face oriented and subsequently are highly relational. Feedback from others (leaders and co-workers) will be needed for Zers to “stay in the game.” SHRM also advises managers to clarify value and meaning for Zers’ work. They need to understand how their efforts are making a difference. My experience teaching Zers supports this line of thinking; they are willing to engage in difficult projects and assignments if they can understand the value. This requires an explanation of not only what a project entails, but why it is important, what skills it will help them develop, and how they will be strengthened for future work. If they can see the benefit of engaging, they can do so quite well, but the link between work and beneficial outcomes—beyond simply earning a grade or receiving a paycheck—should be made clear.

Managerial Tip: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Zers want to understand the big picture. They want to feel valued. Explain the “why” well, and Gen Z employees have the ability to deliver incredible results for your organization.

An additional retention strategy actually goes back to the old- school line of thinking concerning career planning. Being highly visual, Zers need to physically see what their careers might look like. Providing them with written information in this area will not be well embraced; Zers like visuals to help them understand career direction opportunities (i.e., charts, graphs, diagrams, etc.). The more quickly management can embrace this change in presenting career options to Zers, the more successful their retention efforts will be.

Managerial Tip: Foster their loyalty by showing them attainable career paths that exist within your organization. Talk about their goals and mentor them. Gen Z thrives on relationships and they like to see where their careers may take them.

According to SHRM, managers need to understand that Zers are not acclimated to the use of email, which is a central form of communication for many organizations. Zers tend to favor social media for much of their communication. Thus, training Zers in the use of and email may be important if that is how information, direction, and insights flow internally in your organization. The need to help Zers transition to using organizational email is an important retention issue. If Zers miss essential communication because they are not familiar with or oriented toward email use, problems may follow. This can be avoided if Zers are trained and encouraged to adapt their electronic communication habits to what organizations (and thus the Zers themselves) need.

Managerial Tip: While your organization may heavily rely on email, email has its own limitations. Consider what types of information may be better to share with your Gen Z colleague via an alternate medium. In its heyday, no one predicted a fax machine would become obsolete in the workplace. Likewise, look for opportunities to adapt business practices to the best meet the needs of your clients and the employees in your organization.

Leadership researcher Simon Sinek believes that Zers, due to their long-term use of smartphones, have developed systemic impatience. And their continuous ability to access information may make it harder for them to adapt to situations that require waiting for answers or insights. Teaching Zers what patience looks like and how to practice it is something management may find themselves needing to do. Ironically, recognizing this issue could be an exercise in patience for organizational leaders themselves. Why? Those with experience have had to learn patience and may naturally expect others to have it, as well. Training Zers to be patient could seem like a waste of time when it really is not; practicing patience increases efficiency in the workplace, thus helping Zers to better adhere to beneficial behavioral practices.

Managerial Tip: Urgency and impatience are two different traits. Channel Zers’ natural inclination for instant information into projects that capitalize on their need for quick results and information. Their aptitude for finding information through online resources is nearly unrivaled.

In addition, Sinek believes that Zers, again due to the long- term use of smartphones and social media, may be addicted to dopamine, the chemical associated with reward-oriented behavior. If this proves true—and many believe the hypothesis of dopamine addiction is accurate—future Gen Z employers face a unique challenge. Dopamine addiction can result in depression, which in turn may lead to a clinically diagnosed need for chemical treatment or therapy. Depression in the workplace is a significant issue and can pose not just an organizational challenge, but a societal one as well.

Sinek advises that organizations create cultures of trust, cooperation, and safety to combat this issue. As a college professor, I would add to this list a need to create a culture of communication. Deep Patel, a Gen Z blogger for Forbes magazine, refers to this as developing a “connected culture.” Frequent feedback via regular communication will enable Zers to develop a sense of belonging within their organization. This should strengthen retention, thus creating an even stronger organizational culture over time.

Managerial Tip: Giving feedback during an annual or bi-annual performance appraisal isn’t sufficient for most employees, and this is especially true for Gen Z. Weekly one-on-one check-ins, end-of-project debriefs, and in-the-moment reinforcement will help develop trust and ensure you and your Gen Z employees have the chance to communicate openly and effectively.

Finally, as previously noted in the Utah State study, Zers tend to have entrepreneurial tendencies. If given entrepreneurial opportunities within organizations, Zers will generally commit themselves to the endeavor. Opportunities that could lead to engagement and subsequent retention include: solving problems, new product creation, exploring new market opportunities for existing products or services, and social media endeavors that could benefit the organization and create opportunities to creatively give back to the community.

Managerial Tip: Many Zers may enter the workplace having already tried their hand at an online business of some sort. Those who have engaged in an entrepreneurial venture may bring that same opportunity- creating mentality to their employers. Managers who are willing to listen and adapt will be able to tap into Zers’ unique way of approaching business opportunities.

Like every generation before them, Generation Z’s entrance into the workplace presents unique challenges and opportunities. If managers can recognize and work with Zers’ unique traits—a willingness to prove themselves, a lack of comfort with unplanned change, a desire for communication and mentorship, a desire for timely feedback, an entrepreneurial spirit—they can unlock Generation Z’s potential, perhaps revealing one of the best equipped generations ever to enter the workplace. Their unique combination of a strong work ethic, technical capability, and a willingness to learn could make Generation Z the most productive generation since the WWII “Greatest Generation.” Whether or not they achieve that kind of success will be up to all of us. ■

Dr. John “Hub” Powell is the chair of the Business Department at Montreat College.