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Digital leaders are working hard to transform their companies to meet the needs of an increasingly demanding customer base. Equally important, however, is building a digital workplace that meets the shifting needs of its employees.
That’s why CMOs, CIOs, CHROs, and CDOs are currently turning their attention to their youngest hires: Generation Z. In the U.S., the 61 million members of Gen Z will comprise some 20% of the workforce by 2020. So digital executives charged with future-proofing the enterprise are considering the impact this latest generation will have on the future of work.
“To lead successful transformations, digital leaders must understand the similarities and differences of different generations in the workplace: their expectations for how work gets done, their readiness for change and adopting new technologies, and their employment value proposition preferences,” said Lauren Smith, vice president for Gartner’s HR practice, in an interview with CMO.com.
First Thing’s First
This first generation of digital natives will arrive with a different outlook on business norms, an appetite for innovation, and a desire for continuous learning that can energize digital transformations.
“Gen Z provides digital leaders yet another great opportunity to bring new work styles, creativity, and fresh perspectives to the work in this arena,” said Antonia Hock, global head of the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. “This generation is fascinated with virtual, online, and offline convergent experiences, and that’s a great opportunity for digital leaders to think big.”
However, digital leaders will have to provide the kinds of work experiences and technologies this young talent expects in order to recruit, retain, and deploy them effectively. “Planning ahead to consider cultural nuances and work preferences will allow leaders to tap into the unique experiences that Gen Z will bring,” Hock told CMO.com.
There’s no question that digital leaders will be charged with that task.
“We’ve had a definite rise in questions around employee engagement: How do we build to it, what are the technologies that need to support it, and how do we satisfy those expectations from people coming into the workforce?” said Chris Marsh, research director of workforce productivity and compliance for 451 Research. “The reality, though, is that digital leaders will ultimately be the ones that embrace it, and build, and plan towards it.”
The good news is that digital leaders are uniquely suited to meeting Gen Z halfway and incorporating their specific expectations and singular experiences into digital strategy.
“Digital leaders are exactly the right people to embrace what I call a ‘gentelligence’ mindset—an intergenerational curiosity. They have already shown an interest and willingness to embrace change in the traditional ways of leading,” said Megan Gerhardt, professor of management and leadership at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University.
Gen Z’s entrance into the workforce represents a “great opportunity for intergenerational learning and collaboration,” she told CMO.com. “Gen Z brings with them an inherent talent for digital that can push us to consider new ways to use technology, but even more than that, they share the Millennial desire to make a meaningful impact early in their career.”
‘We Don’t Blink’
Lydia Laramore, a Spelman college sophomore and 2018 United Nations Academic Impact Millennium Fellow, explained just how accustomed her generation is to swiftly moving—and often tumultuous—change, during a Think Tank event hosted by Adobe earlier this year. (CMO.com is owned by Adobe.)
“My favorite thing about Gen Z by far is that I think we don’t blink. We grew up in the middle of the Great Recession right after 9/11, and so that kind of instability has always been a part of our childhoods and our lives,” Laramore said. “And so, even though we understand that the world is a very chaotic place, and obviously it feels like it’s getting more unstable every day, we don’t flinch in the face of that.”
Gen Z wants to move fast, said Evan Sharp, consultant in the Chief Marketing Officers Practice at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA). At the same time, they will question corporate norms more than other generations have.
“Gen Z has grown up more independent and increasingly skeptical of corporate norms and perceived bureaucracy. They are seeking entrepreneurial, agile, fluid environments,” Sharp told CMO.com. “Digital leaders need to create opportunities to drive impact in these ways if they want to recruit and retain Gen Z talent.”
Digitizing For The Natives
Each generation entering the workforce brings a new perspective. And every generation can learn from one another.
“Businesses are wise to really try to capture those things,” said Chris Hall, vice president of customer experience at Adobe, during the Adobe Think Tank event. “The whole key is making sure that there’s bidirectional learning across [the organization]. I think the pairing of Gen Z and other generations of workers is [important because] we all have something to learn from each other. I think we just have to be open to it.”
Gen Z is defined by the fact that technology has always been central to their lives. “We get asked a lot about how they’re embracing technology,” said Ronette Lawrence, who leads product planning and user research for Microsoft Office. “It’s not a question of embracing. They don’t know a world that’s any different.”
That’s a plus for digital leaders who can enlist this generation as change makers. “They are unencumbered by the past, and so they have this fresh new outlook,” said futurist Brian David Johnson, at the Think Tank. “It allows them to have mental models and ways of thinking about technology in a really different way. If we can tap into this, the dividends on productivity are just going to be amazing.”
But as college sophomore Laramore pointed out, Gen Z expects all technology to make life easier. That will require providing the right tools at the right time, particularly around digital collaboration. Gartner’s Smith agreed. “Collaboration continues to rise in importance, and Gen Z expects organizations to have the tools, structures, and technology to enable this for professional and personal outcomes,” she said.
Those kinds of digital tools will also be critical to tapping into Gen Z’s experience. “We now have five generations in the workforce at the same time,” Microsoft’s Lawrence during the Think Tank. “For business leaders, the big challenge is how to bring out the super power of every person that you have in your workforce. And really, technology can empower them, enable them, have their voice heard in a way that is comfortable for them.”
Artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities will play a huge role in this regard. “For us, AI has to manifest in a way that assists the user and helps them get their job done,” Lawrence added. “We expect intelligence to not only help me be more efficient, but for a group to work better together with people who have different styles [and] are from a different generation.”
Notre Dame sophomore Maeve Miller, who also took part in Adobe’s Think Tank event, said she envisions a future work environment where man-machine interaction is the norm. ”There will be this duality between AI and the workers involved,” she said. “You can really cut out the noise and get to actually making those effective decisions.”
That won’t happen overnight, though.
“Forward-looking companies have to find a way to meet the consumerized needs of Gen Z while maintaining the core and legacy systems they use to run their business,” said Tim Minahan, CMO at Citrix Systems, at the event. “The secret to bridging the gap between all the generations in the workplace lies in digital workspaces where companies can serve up personalized access to the systems, information, and tools their employees need to be productive anywhere, anytime, on any device, and create a highly personalized and curated experience similar to what Gen Z expects.”
Generation On A Mission
Technology will be critical not only in fostering collaboration, but also in connecting Gen Z workers to business outcomes—something experts say they value as much as pay or benefits. However, they don’t just want to understand the organizational mission—they want to co-create it.
“We’re not really fans of top-down structures, strict leadership roles, or very formal spaces because I think it hinders creativity and makes it really hard to be collaborative,” Laramore said. “The biggest change would be a switch from very formal top-down roles—where leadership is defined rigidly at the top in specific roles—to a very bottom-up approach—where leadership [is defined by] how much you’re contributing to innovation and creativity.”
Jonah Stillman, an entrepreneur who graduated from high school in 2017 and co-authored “Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace” with his father, David Stillman, said his peers are not only hard-working, but hypercompetitive. “Yes, there’s this gigantic push for collaboration,” he said, “but our competitive spirit also has us saying, ‘I need the ability to work very privately because I’m looking to get a leg up. I want to be better than the rest.’”
Miller agreed that personal goals and aspirations are important to her contemporaries. “In order for a company to really attract those people, I’d say to listen to those goals,” Miller said. “Instead of imposing projects or restrictions on the employees, give them the freedom to find their own path.”
Digital leaders can support this go-getter generation with technology that enables them to design their own work processes.
“Historically, process creation, process management, was done by centralized teams of process specialists that had a certain expertise around doing that,” 451 Research’s Marsh said. “What we’re seeing now is those same kind of capabilities being addressed by nontechnical specialists—people who aren’t necessarily technically savvy having the autonomy to create impactful types of work and to design that work that will deliver to those outcomes.”
The Importance Of Face Time
For all the talk of technology’s importance to Gen Z, there’s another interesting paradox at play. They value personal attention and—gasp—face-to-face communication.
“I think a lot of leaders try to dazzle us with technology. They add all these different programs when in reality we’re only going to use technology if it makes our day-to-day life easier. It’s too hard to dazzle us,” Stillman said. “I would encourage people to not assume that texting and email is the most effective way to communicate with us [because] we do like face to face to some extent.”
Gen Z is notable for its expectation of openness and empathy in the workplace—specifically from their managers.
“If leaders don’t provide this, the Gen Z workforce will find other opportunities,” said Chris “Mitch” Mitchell, principal at human capital advisory firm FMG Leading. They also demand ongoing—and real-time—feedback. “Gen Z members have a strong desire for a higher frequency of meaningful conversations—not just in an annual review cycle, but as part of a more open relationship with their managers,” he said at the Think Tank.
They’ll want to provide their own input to management, as well. “One key consideration is that Generation Z has grown up in the era of Yelp, such that they expect to be able to offer constant, and even public, feedback in nearly all situations, including work,” Mitchell said.
Continual Change And Continuous Learning
Ultimately, the pace of change in digital business is only going to continue to accelerate—and the integration of Gen Z into the workforce will fuel that. “People will have to skill, reskill, expect to move into roles that don’t exist today, and really be able to embrace change as opposed to fighting it,” Adobe’s Hall said.
Gen Z gets that, and will actively seek ongoing upskilling.
“The Gen Z candidate understands innovation and change are the new orders of the day, and becoming an irrelevant or outdated resource is a key risk to mitigate as they take their first steps in their careers,” Gartner’s Smith said. “This underpins the importance they place on having a range of development opportunities and exposure to new experiences in their day-to-day work.”
Digital leaders can support Gen Z by implementing new approaches to training and development.
“The kind of learning environments that people really need look more like just-in-time learning, not just-in-case learning—‘just in case you need to know that, we’re gonna teach this in a classroom,’” Lawrence said. “Learning is going to be more on-the-job. It’s going to be more immediate. It’s going to need to be accessible for people at the moment that they need it.”
Investing in this new generation and its development will pay significant dividends not only to overall business performance, but in the ongoing development of the future workplace.
“That sets up a win-win situation—by asking for their ideas and help, we as leaders benefit from their natural gifts with digital technology, and they feel valued and appreciated even as young and less experienced employees,” Miami University’s Gerhardt said. “This also creates a connection between our youngest employees and our most experienced ones that can open the door for two-way mentorship and guidance—with Gen Z leading the way on digital transformation, and our older generations showing them how to get traction on their ideas and providing experience and context to help those ideas have the greatest impact.”