Preparing for Gen Z: why companies must adapt

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Preparing for Gen Z: why companies must adapt

A new cohort of 17 to 25-year-olds, dubbed ‘Generation Z’, is the first to enter the workplace having grown up in a digital world. Marcus Buckingham, New York Times bestselling author and global talent expert, explores how companies must adjust to attract them

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What key things can organisations do to appeal to Generation Z?

One thing that’s truly critical to this new generation is teamwork. In many ways, it’s a reaction to the world of social media, which actually doubles down on our need to not feel lonely. Also, electronic gaming, such as eSports and Fortnite, which have experienced incredible growth and popularity among this generation, relates directly back to playing as a team, working as a team, and having partners around you.

This trend needs to translate into the workplace. Our organisation, the ADP Research Institute, carried out a study across 19 countries. A major finding was the paramount importance of teamwork to Generation Z. When they start a job, one of the fundamental emotional questions they are likely to ask is: ‘Can you show me the six people who have my back?’ Companies that can answer this are immediately in the right space. The data backs it up, showing that employees working in teams are twice as likely to be engaged as those working in silos, hierarchies and other structures.

This generation doesn’t want to be put into the middle of a machine, or into a box on an organisation chart. They want to be part of a team. That can also be a virtual team; it doesn’t necessarily have to mean being physically co-located. In fact, that’s not a prerequisite at all.

After teamwork, what other generational differences should organisations take into account?

Give Generation Z attention, not feedback. They don’t want feedback. Companies need to demonstrate what I define as frequent attention: ‘show me you know me’ is what this group responds to. Conversely, they will run away from feedback as fast as possible, and the idea that they’re driven by ratings is a complete misdiagnosis.

Take Facebook and Instagram. We’re seeing that people don’t want to be judged all the time; this generation has had enough of it. That’s why platforms like TikTok and Snapchat are rocketing in popularity as they are non-judgmental.

This view runs counter to some of the thinking that’s been around until now, but it’s an absolutely critical change in my view. In fact, the best-selling business book in the USA for the past two years was all about giving constant feedback and ratings, and Silicon Valley also jumped onto this feedback-based app mindset too. Moving forward, it’s not for this generation. The data on them is unequivocal: they don’t want, need or grow through feedback.

Companies that identify this change, that can find ways to show this generation attention will remain ahead of the game. It can start with something as simple as how you recruit and select people. Show that you are interested in discovering someone at their best. If your promise in the talent market is: ‘We’re really interested in you’, for example, then that will cut through. There’s a lot of mileage in this. It’s really underexploited at present.

What kind of career is this generation looking for?

They want to do something they love. For Generation Z, a job needs to be more than transactional. It has to be either directly in a field or area of interest they love, or it has to offer them the chance to find love in what they do.

Their fundamental desire is likely to be: ‘Does this job enable me to do something I care about?’. They’ve been raised to think and feel that way, to care about issues and to nurture passions. The idea that they could simply shut all this off the moment they start work is inconceivable. Companies need to talk about passions, emotions, issues – and they need to do that well.​

What about offering career development and supporting future goals, how important are these messages?

Companies should move away from laddered, sequential career progression models. That’s finished. Make careers more akin to a scavenger hunt in the vein of ‘we will facilitate your development, but there’s no set path’. This generation wants to be empowered to explore the things that elevate them and their sense of worth, but on their own terms. The last thing companies should do is to attempt to tidy them up as people.​

Are mentorship and leadership still key?

Trust in a team leader is critical. It’s been shown to increase employee engagement by up to 12 times. This stays the same whatever the demographic, and this generation isn’t any different. They absolutely want a team leader who covers for them.

Remember, this is a very anxious generation, one that needs trust and attention - not judgement. This doesn’t mean motivation should be ‘soft’, however. It can still be challenging and highly expectant of someone, just presented in a different way. The workplace needs to become a place that’s super-curious about someone, not super-critical.

Completely. Dump all these ratings and all these feedback apps. Human Resources (HR) needs to adapt too – and fast. It will become deeply unpopular if it just becomes the face of these tools. This generation wants HR to be curious about them, not constantly rating them.

This isn’t about giving people an easy ride. It’s about empowering the individual within the company. Generation Z feels strongly that responsibility lies within them. The belief that they can make a difference is very powerful and deep-seated. Most companies, however, tend to centralise their decision making within the company. It’s in a welter of tools from performance management to succession planning. Any company that can instead pass this power down to the individual, so that they feel they can make decisions and deliver impact, is going to be incredibly appealing.

Which sectors and professions do you think will thrive in this new era and which need to up their game?

Any role that relies on the uniqueness of people will do well, such as sales. Sales is all about asking the employee: ‘How do you get someone to trust you?’ That’s a beautiful start to a recruitment conversation.

Hospitality is another area that I predict will resonate with Generation Z. Again, it’s about emotional experiences, and the hospitality industry knows that people are critical to delivering these. In contrast, financial services have tried to automate and AI their way around it, and they’re going to struggle to appeal to this generation as a result. Replacing human faces with automation was the wrong path to choose. Banking also needs to fix itself to realise that authenticity is at the heart of the customer relationship.

Healthcare is in trouble too. Hospitals have become factories, a process line without teams. The whole structure is anti-team, and that will make it hard to appeal to this generation and their desire for team-based workplaces.

Several studies list factors such as entrepreneurship as important to Generation Z. Is this putting traditional careers and traditional companies under threat?

Our 2018 Global Study of Engagement showed that people who do ‘gig’ work are more engaged than those who work full-time. We found that the key drivers were factors such as: ‘I like the opportunity to set my own schedule’ and ‘I welcome the chance to do the things I really want to do’.

So, the final question and the final challenge for companies is: can they make full-time work more like gig-work? Can they integrate more flexibility and autonomy into what they offer? Doing this successfully could be the last piece in the jigsaw when looking to attract Generation Z.


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