By Russ Banham
They’re fresh-faced, smart, and headed your way. Gen Z, true digital natives born post-1996, are entering the workforce with skills and expectations that require rethinking current hiring and workforce paradigms.
For one thing, these entry-level workers are not all college graduates, as many Gen Z’ers are bypassing higher education to obtain prized internships and an early career start. The downside is their steeper learning curve due to their abridged educations, made more problematic by possible shortcomings in social skills, since technology has shaped much of their thinking and intellectual curiosity. As a recent Deloitte report stated, “a shortfall in highly cognitive social skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and communication (could be) evident.”
Companies are challenged to position this young talent in a workforce comprised of multiple generations, given postponed retirements for Baby Boomers and the continuing presence of Gen X’ers and Millennials. That’s a lot of generations with different mindsets, cultures, and technological proficiencies to manage, which requires new job and workplace considerations.
A good start is knowing what Gen Z’ers want. According to a 2017 Medium survey of 5,000 Gen Z’ers, they seek an empowering work environment with autonomy. Other studies, including a survey by Dell Technologies that spoke to more than 12,000 Gen Z’ers from 17 countries, indicate that 80 percent aspire to work with cutting-edge technology: Nearly all (91 percent) said technology would influence their job choice, and 80 percent feel technology and automation will help create a more equitable work environment.
Interestingly, they also appear to favor face-to-face communications in their work interactions, despite the stereotype that Gen Z’ers are antisocial. Still, who (or rather, what) they work for is important. For the most part, Gen Z wants employment at companies that are socially conscious, with transparent stands on the environment, social, and governance issues.
As employers prepare to recruit, retain, and retrain Gen Z’ers, here are five moves to consider.
1. Help Them Chart Their Career Paths
Gen Z’ers often have a singular set of talents, such as social media proficiency. However, softer skills are more difficult to tease out of a resume or glean from in-person interviews.
To nurture both skill sets, recruiters should consider the value of tools that combine neuroscience games and artificial intelligence (AI) to evaluate a job applicant’s cognitive and emotional characteristics. Such tools, like Pymetrics, which uses AI to match talent, not only ferret out these traits, they also match employees with tasks they can perform well now. This gives employers time to target appropriate on-the-job training and upskilling to fill talent voids.
At AXA XL, for example, the large global insurer recently developed a self-assessment data analytics tool to help employees chart their own career paths. “As part of the onboarding experience, we request new hires score their proficiencies, from one to five, in 87 distinct skills,” said Henna Karna, AXA XL chief data officer. “With that data, we’re able to glean skill set gaps and their motivation areas for career growth, which then informs the need for related training and upskilling.” (The new tool will be rolled out in 2019.)
2. Consider Shared Workspaces
As technology natives, Gen Z’ers are also adept multitaskers, able to monitor inputs from diverse sources simultaneously. Office environments that inhibit their independent use of technology to solve problems are thus a bad fit. In these regards, many employers are moving toward shared workspaces, or hot desking.
Rather than confine a Gen Z’er to a single desk, allow them to roam freely and connect their work to a set of free desks. By designing a workspace with workstations dotting the landscape and giving Gen Z’ers (and everyone else) the opportunity to grab an open desk, they’re able to work with others — or when inspiration strikes — on the fly.
“The cubicle was created in the 1960s, and it provides a functional purpose. But work has changed drastically. The management styles and tools we use have evolved,” explained Dawn Longacre, Dell’s global workplace strategist. “Work is much more collaborative today, so we need to break down the walls.”
Shared workspaces allow for more spontaneous engagement with colleagues, the option to secure advice and counsel, and perhaps the ability to align interests with unexpected mentorship opportunities.
At Dell, leaders have converted virtually every space into a communal work environment, overhauling building terraces with chaise lounges, patio seating, and Wi-Fi outlets to work outdoors and soak up some vitamin D. Indoors, company cafeterias are revamped with coffee bar tables, picnic tables, benches, lounge areas, two-seater booths for private conversations and WiFi hookups.
3. Offer Empathy Workshops
While Baby Boomers grew up in hierarchical, military-style “command and control” work environments, Gen Z’ers tend to flourish in environments where they can execute tasks and solve problems on an independent basis.
“Tenured managers often are used to telling the people under their supervision what they need to do, as opposed to listening to what they’re interested in and good at doing,” said Cecile Alper-Leroux, a seasoned economic anthropologist who is vice president of human capital innovation at Ultimate Software, a leading provider of human capital management solutions.
“Gen Z’ers, on the other hand, are extremely good at independently solving whatever it is that managers need them to solve; they’ve been doing this with their smartphones since they were kids,” she said. “What they’re really interested in is a collaborative relationship with their managers, where they can have an exchange of ideas and dialogue.”
These different styles require a fair amount of give and take across the generations, and that’s where empathy workshops come in. “Empathy or openness workshops, in which managers and staff share their career interests, challenges, and goals offer a way to bridge generational differences,” Alper-Leroux said. “They also present the opportunity for everyone to participate in open communication, furthering workplace relationships and the goal of a more engaged workforce.”
4. Develop a Unique Innovation Sabbatical
Given the interest among Gen Z’ers to have an equitable work-life balance, employers should consider the plusses of innovation sabbaticals, whereby employees are given time off from their regular jobs to develop other projects. Free from their daily constraints, independent-minded Gen Z’ers can generate out-of-the-box innovations, fueling their own desire to innovate and, perhaps, enhancing corporate performance.
While this may sound cutting-edge, innovation sabbaticals have been around for nearly a half-century. 3M, a conglomerate of health care, consumer goods, and other businesses, is credited with developing the concept in 1974, calling it the “15 percent program.” The title references the 15 percent of paid time given to employees to pursue (so-called) outrageous ideas. Google followed suit with its “20 percent program,” which hatched such breakthrough concepts as Gmail and Google Earth.
A similar practice is in play at BlackLine, a publicly traded provider of financial and accounting software automation solutions. “We encourage employees to identify projects outside of their core responsibilities to broaden their experience,” said Susan Otto, BlackLine’s chief people officer. “This not only widens their perspective of the company, it also increases their understanding of cross-functional dependencies, and allows them to work on initiatives important to them and the company.”
5. Promote Cross-Pollination
A successful way to flatten any Gen Z learning curve is cross-pollination — assigning them to different parts of the business to get a crash course in how everything comes together.
BlackLine is in the process of developing a work study-abroad program designed to provide short term international opportunities and expand global growth. “As opportunities are presented, we’ll look internally to offer employees the chance to step out of their current roles for a period of time, to take on a different job assignment in one of the 10 countries where we currently operate,” Otto said. “Not only can they absorb a country’s unique culture and business practices, they will acquire a better appreciation for the work their colleagues perform abroad, aligning everyone in a truly unified enterprise.”
Her last point resonates. With so many different generations and work behaviors crowding companies, employee alignment in pursuit of the business vision is crucial to long-term financial performance.
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated financial journalist and best-selling author.