How to Best Manage Gen Z to Create a Productive and Successful Workplace

Summer Salomonsen

Head of Cornerstone Studios at Cornerstone OnDemand

This article was originally published by Thrive Global.

Gen Z is making its way into the workforce. And, while generational discussions often risk arbitrarily putting people into groups, Gen Z is different from other generations thanks to one important distinguishing quality: They’re the first group that has never lived in a world without the internet—and therefore, the first true digital natives.

That fact gives them a different perspective, and a greater level of digital fluency than even their millennial counterparts. In fact, it makes Gen Z an asset in workplaces, which is itself in the process of incorporating new technology at a faster rate than ever. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be easy for Gen Z to assimilate into the workplaces of today. In fact, quite the opposite: Many will chafe against what they feel like are inflexible work schedules or a lack of a work-life balance. They might struggle to adapt to office norms, questioning the status quo in favor of more nimble, digitally progressive workflows.

Companies can be proactive and address some of the challenges Gen Z will face through generationally-specific onboarding courses. But to help foster and retain Gen Z talent long-term, companies need to provide managers with targeted learning resources so that they are ready to welcome, lead and empower this rising class of employees.

Welcome: Managers Must See Beyond the ’Z’

I’ve mentioned that the workplace is changing thanks to technology—and that’s true more than ever in the midst of COVID-19. For managers, adapting to these changes can be jarring and even frustrating at times. Add to that a new set of employees who call into question tried-and-true office processes and procedures, and you can imagine why a manager might feel defensive, or perceive Gen Z as obstinate.

But Gen Z are simply trying to find their way in a system that hasn’t found a place for them yet. They’re entrepreneurial and eager to grow, so approaching them in opposition will give them the sense that the manager is trying to hold them back—and they’re likely to move on.

Managers need to learn to interpret the way their Gen Z employees communicate and approach problems with this lens rather than the more personal instinct that ’they don’t value what we do, or all the work we have done.’ Instead approach Gen Z as an ally and say things like: Here’s the value I see you bringing. Here’s the passion I see you bringing. How do you want to use those tools for the betterment of our organization?

Lead: Help Gen Z Navigate the Digital Divide

Gen Z has a great deal to offer the workplace thanks to their digital fluency. And in fact, they’re drawn to tech roles: a recent Deloitte survey found 51% of Gen Zers rated technology as a top industry in which to work. They’re better able to adapt to new digital tools than generations before them, and as a result, are of value to workforces in need of upskilling their employees to adapt to the rise of AI, automation and more. Managers should look to their Gen Zers to support technology adoption at these companies to not only drive adaptability, but also to foster Gen Z’s sense of influence and purpose.

But while Gen Zers have this exceptional digital fluency, they might struggle to understand norms around existing workplace tech. For example, what should be a Slack conversation versus an email versus an in-person conversation? While the use of these channels might vary by team, managers need to be prepared to explain the advantage of each platform and why they use it for a particular purpose.

And in some cases, it’s important to help Gen Z overcome their digital dependence. Most of the Gen Z team I work with has had an easier time adapting to remote work than other generations. However, I had one of my Gen Z team members miss a virtual meeting because their phone failed to alert them. It was a great teaching moment about how always looking to technology can have pitfalls. Instead, I remind my team that they alone are accountable for their time management, and while tech can make this easier – they need to be cognizant of their schedule beyond alerts and programmed reminders.

Empower: Managers Foster Gen Z’s Growth

A host of studies have shown that the number one thing on Gen Z’s priority list is a path for growth. They’re a highly entrepreneurial group: many have had side hustles since they were 15 using platforms like Etsy, and are self-taught through YouTube videos. So there’s a feeling of dissonance—and even disillusionment—when they come into the workplace and we give them limits: this is your desk, this is your job, this is what you do.

One of the ways Gen Z tries to find their way, then, is by looking to advance quickly — something that’s fostered by a lifetime of instant-gratification on social media. And as managers, again, there’s an emotionally-driven pitfall that can drive a wedge between the manager and their Gen Z employee. That’s because if a Gen Zer comes to you and says "when am I getting promoted to manager," it feeds a manager’s insecurity. Those managers are likely to have an emotional response and feel like: "You want my role? I just got this role!"

With training, managers can help foster Gen Z’s drive and instead say: "Okay, what do you want to learn next? What do you want to accomplish while you’re here?" Help foster a sense that as an employee, advancing doesn’t always have to be "up." Sometimes, lateral moves are equally valuable in terms of experience, impact and opportunity.

Finally, while Gen Z is unique in many respects, all generations do seem to have (at least to some extent) this feeling of beating their head against a wall trying to make change. As managers guide Gen Zers it’s sometimes helpful to remind them of the larger context they’re operating within:

Sometimes, change happens faster (as in the case of the recent pandemic) and sometimes it happens slower. No matter the generation of your employee, help them understand that their impact can resonate beyond the speed of change. Help position them to influence their team, the company, and even the world in the long run.

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