Courtesy Maia Ervin

Generation Z is relatively new to the workforce, but is having an outsized impact on the preoccupations of many managers. The expectations of this generation—sometimes defined as anyone born 1997 onward—often loom large in conversations about the future of offices, the Great Resignation, and how much businesses should speak out on societal issues.

To explore why, we reached out to Maia Ervin, chief people officer at JUV Consulting, a Gen Z digital marketing agency. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:

How would you characterize the attitudes and expectations of Gen Z toward work and the workplace?

The attitudes toward the workplace from Gen Z are definitely reflective of how they want their actual reality to be. We see that in a lot of the conversations that they're encouraging managers to have around what equitable policies look like and what a company's mission actually means outside of sales goals. This generation is pushing organizations to really shape to how they would want their reality to be.

Some surveys suggest that twentysomethings are the age group with the least interest in working remotely. What do you make of that?

It's not that we don't have any interest to go into the office at all. It's just that we view the reasoning for going into the office differently than previous generations. Asana released an amazing survey in June about what Gen Z is really looking for in the workplace. One of the statistics was Gen Z viewing the need to go into the office strictly as collaborative. I want to go into the office based off of who's in there, who's gonna be in there this week, who does it make sense for me to have meetings with in person. I want to go because of the connections that I'm going to make. Because I started working in a pandemic and I'm working from Zoom, but don't necessarily believe that I have to go into the office just to be productive. It's simply switching the perspective of why that generation wants to go into the office and catering to that.

Research suggests that people might have fewer strong workplace friendships since work has gone remote. Are workplace friendships an issue for Gen Z?

It is absolutely up to us to acknowledge that working remotely definitely does impact day-to-day interactions. That is absolutely true. But it also has been up to the manager and the organization to create opportunities, like being intentional about why we're coming together in person or touching base more frequently than you would if you are operating in person with one-on-ones to help facilitate and build that camaraderie. Unfortunately this generation does miss out on some of those small day-to-day office interactions because of starting a big portion of your career during a pandemic.

What is the state of Gen Z mental health in relation to the workplace, and what should employers and colleagues do about it?

This generation is experiencing imposter syndrome at higher levels than any other previous generation. I believe the national average is around 55% and 76% of this generation is experiencing imposter syndrome. What this says about this generation is that we actually value structure. A lot of people think that we don't, but what that structure does is allow us clear expectations—OKRs and other metrics clearly define for us, okay, I am actually doing my job. I am actually capable of doing this because I'm meeting all of these expectations that were clearly outlined for me. Or folks who are unsure about whether they're doing the right things to get to the place that they want to in their career, having those career trajectories and growth pathways are super helpful for them to know. In order for me to get to where I wanna be in life, these are the ambitious metrics that I have to meet. That's one way that organizations can tackle how mental health is affecting Gen Z in the workplace.

We spoke recently with a group of managers who said emphatically that they felt young employees today were more challenging to manage than in the past. How would you respond to that?

I think that it's true. I don't think that we should act like it isn't difficult to meet the many demands that were not demands before. A lot of companies do have to get used to the fact that mental health sick days are something that folks may be asking for. Or things like, I'm having a period and I really don't feel like coming into work today. Those are conversations that some organizations are genuinely new to having, and it would be unfair to say that it isn't difficult to have those conversations if you never experienced it before. But what we have to realize is that every generation that came into the workforce shook it up and we're just shaking it up in a different way. Of course, it will take a minute for folks to adapt. But they do know that they have to adapt because that's where the workforce is going and you want to retain a young talent. Unfortunately you have to hop on the wave. It absolutely is difficult, but you be honest about what you can and cannot do with the resources that you have. That's something else that's super important. Don't overpromise based off of what you think that they want to hear. Be realistic about what your organization can do and can provide for the workers.

To be more specific, the managers we spoke with cited their perception that young workers are less focused on doing the work required, more reluctant to put in extra effort and hours to advance themselves or their company, and more distractable by what managers view as internal debates and considerations. What do you make of that?

This generation wants to be involved in a lot of things, especially as it pertains to their job. They fundamentally approach work differently than previous generations. With previous generations, it was definitely about sitting down doing the work, doing as you're told, and you don't ask questions. This generation absolutely is going to ask, 'How is what I'm doing related to the overall company mission?' Which is going to require extra time and an extra conversation. But actually engaging in those conversations will encourage retention. It's showing these Gen Zers who often do want to see how their work is contributing to the overall role of this company in a larger sense, showing them the way. Breaking it down for them shows that you're invested in their personal development because you're increasing their understanding of how the business works,. But it also shows that you're invested in their professional development because obviously the role matters to the organization. So absolutely Gen Z is certainly a bit more challenging. A part of that is due to how every generation is shaped by the political realities and the things that happen during their time. This generation asks a lot of questions, given our political reality. But it's also an opportunity for professional development by the managers.

To step back, how would you summarize what Gen Z is looking for in workplaces and how that's different than what other generations?

Let's start off with how they're similar, because each generation is similar in the fact that great compensation is something that everybody wants. Everybody wants stability and a flexible work environment is becoming more and more of a non-negotiable for folks. Mental health resources are also becoming a non-negotiable for folks. Gen Z fundamentally has a different approach to work where they believe if I'm investing this amount of time per week and per month and per year. I also want to see that investment back into me as an individual. I also want to know that this company actually cares about me as a person, not just how well I'm completing a task or how well I'm meeting a goal.

47% of Gen Zers said that they don't believe that their companies actually care about their wellbeing, which is a pretty big number. So one of those differences is the investment back into them. They want to have opportunities for that professional development as it pertains to their career, but also give them opportunities to develop as a person and to develop skills that may have nothing to do with their role and may have something to do with their passions and their interests. The second thing that we see more and more is who you are as a company. Social impact departments are obviously super important, but it needs to now exist outside of that one department. That social impact and purpose is something that needs to fundamentally exist within your company and make it make sense to your company mission and your brand. But this generation wants to know that you actually are standing for something. They want a company whose values are aligned with their personal values.

What advice do you have for colleagues and managers of Gen Z workers?

Transparency. It's not about putting on the facade that everything is perfect, that everything is together because obviously that's not realistic and we're all people. Mentioning what you can do with the resources that you have really does go a long way instead of maybe not even trying to have that conversation at all, trying to avoid the elephant in the room. Instead let's address it, let's be honest about what we can do given the resources that we have in the department or in the organization. The other thing is, do not be afraid to tap into Gen Z as thought leaders. If you're young or new to a role, obviously there's some hesitation about tapping into you and giving you a level of agency. But this generation has proven themselves as leaders in other realms like politics and being behind a lot of the movement during summer 2020 and social media natives—that puts us in a unique position that we can definitely be utilized in a lot of different areas of organizations where we may not be.

What are common mistakes that colleagues and managers of Gen Z workers make?

A one-size-fits-all approach. Everybody's different. Everybody is motivated by different things. Fundamentally we get too stuck on trying to change what people are motivated by instead of changing ways that we could motivate them based off of what they're motivated by. We often tack on labels to this generation, like 'lazy' or 'not wanting to work; or 'not wanting to work hard.' But it's really about what are they actually motivated by. Have you tried to have that conversation with them and have you tried to make any adjustments based off of those things?

The second mistake is not remembering what it was like for everybody else to be 20. How ambitious was everybody else when they first got into the workplace? At 22 years old, I remember how ambitious I was and I'm only 26. There definitely is a need to level set sometimes that folks may be missing out on because of remote work. So find the opportunities to have those conversations. Don't shy away from it. Don't say it's too difficult because they're too young and they don't get it. Instead, say 'Let's have the conversation, break it down to me. I'm more than open to discuss it with you.'

Some researchers believe that the relevance of generations is limited and the life phase you're in is more important for understanding your preferences than the cohort of people you happen to born in same time as. Do you agree with that?

That certainly rings true. When I think about internal programming that we do at our company, we have non-Gen Zers that work at JUV. We call them our resident millennials. Our internal programming that we cater to our twentysomethings around health benefits is going to be completely different information compared to what we may offer our fortysomethings that have a wife and kids already and already are understanding what premiums are and already understanding what copays are. Life phases has a role to do with folks and how they engage in the work environment as well, and how we also approach it.

There are a fair number of business leaders who are either trying to avoid talking about societal issues such as reproductive rights or define narrower lanes for themselves where it makes sense for their company to speak out. In the context of Gen Z workers, do you have any perspective or advice?

I fundamentally think that every business has the duty to stand for something because of the access that we have, whether that be access to capital, whether that be access in terms of networks and media—we all have different access to different things. But I fundamentally believe that it is the duty of us as organizations with this access to stand for something that pushes this world into a better place. It shows that this generation who is a little bit more left leaning than the rest are requiring the places that they work to also address these personal values that they come into the workplace with. It's important to note that what is different about this generation— I talk about this in my mom all the time—is that I'm bringing my full identity into the workplace.

For me as a Black woman, my identity is politicized. That is coming with me into the workplace. That also means that I'm carrying the trauma, the happiness, the joy, the laughter that comes with those identities as well. So to expect me to live in this world—and for Gen Zers, that world is a pandemic, summer 2020 and the murders of a lot of unarmed Black people, the revoking of Roe vs. Wade—and come into work and not have any emotions or opinions or concerns about any of those issues that all affect my identity is absolutely unreasonable. It's unfair for organizations to believe that. So whether it is you deciding to stand up for a political issue specifically, which I definitely think that organization should do, the least you can do is provide the resources to help your employees that are battling those political issues. My personal opinion and advice would be to stand for something because it matters and because we have the opportunity to make a difference.

When you say provide your employees with resources, what does that mean?

Mental health resources, transportation to reproductive services—whatever you're capable of doing you should be doing.

Are there unique training and development needs of Gen Z workers and what should organizations do about them? Especially since with remote work there have been fewer internships, less mentoring, less formal training.

The answer is yes. There is something to say about in-person day-to-day interactions. I'm not in a formal meeting with, for example, the director of finance, but us working together, sitting next to each other in the office and potentially hearing what he may be working on is helpful in my development and understanding of the business. That's just one small aspect that we lose in remote work. We're missing the opportunity for folks to really get that in-person experience and breakdown of how organizations work. We at JUV definitely had to brainstorm what our professional development programming looks like for folks who have no reference, because that's what we're really working with. Instead of faulting this generation for it—because it's not our fault that we're entering the workforce during a pandemic—provide us with the resources to give us that context. And to give us that reference point. There is a lack of that, and that's something that we have to make up for in programming and in investing in their education,

What do Gen Z workers make of the idea that there is a workplace culture that remote work might have frayed?

This generation may not have experienced it. They just know what they hear of what the workforce is like or what the work culture is. A lot of those critiques that they have of it are actually true—like critiquing work culture in terms of burnout, in terms of working ourselves to the bone or working every day, just to only retire at whatever age and only have like 10 years of retirement left or whatever the case may be. Those are all valid critiques that they have picked up on based off of their parents' experiences of work culture or their grandparents' experiences of work culture or whoever the case may be. But I also feel like you don't know what you don't know.

So also not being able to experience that work culture in itself means that you also don't know how impactful it was to be in the office day-to-day. I missed the happy hours after work when everybody just grabbed a beer and just like sat right back down to continue to work, but kind of chit chatted in between. That was super fun to me. I developed a lot of friendships like that at my last jobs. But again, that's something that we can't fault this generation for, but provide an opportunity for learning because they didn't experience it and it's not their fault that they live in the world that they live in. Some of those traditional aspects of work culture may still be helpful today and I absolutely think that the generation will be open to it. We ask a lot of questions. We want to know the why, we're not going just do it just because you say that it's good to do. They're definitely going to want to know why. But, more often than not, we're always willing to try it.

How will Gen Z shape work and workplaces for the future?

I love that question. I really feel like this generation will encourage organizations to reimagine what workplace culture is, even though everything that we are asking for and demanding can seem a bit overzealous at times. I do think that it's important for us to do that, to encourage conversations to be had. We have different organizations in Europe, for example, doing the four-day work week, testing out to see if that's actually productive and if that improves retention and showing that folks are actually willing to work long hours so they can enjoy their four-day work week. This generation is going to encourage folks to begin to dabble in exactly what we want workplace culture to look like. As I mentioned before, this generation wants workplace culture to look like the world that they want to live in. Having these tough demands and these tough conversations is pushing us in the right direction, even if it can be a bit difficult at times.

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