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Opinion Here’s what Gen Z wants employers to know about how they work

Gen Z’s distrust of institutions puts it on a collision course with management “An increased expectation that work should have positive impact and meaning.”

The majority of Generation Z have little to no memory of what office culture was like before the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve not had much opportunity to socialize or acclimatize, given dramatically shifting norms and an increase in remote work. Social activism, political polarization and hyper-transparency have shaped Gen Z attitudes amid a broad reckoning over culture and leadership.

While Gen Z does not have a monolithic perspective, they do have an increased expectation that work should have positive impact and meaning, and that workplaces will adapt to an individual’s needs and not the other way around.

To respond effectively, employers should take care to distinguish Gen Z’s long-term expectations (such as taking greater responsibility for environmental impacts) from its peculiar adaptive difficulties (oversensitivity to criticism). Here’s what to expect:

1. Gen Zers are more socially aware, and expect institutions to respond to their demands: While less experienced, Gen Z anticipates that leaders should and will respond enthusiastically to the ethical judgments and concerns they express.

This thirst for meaning focuses on an employer’s core commercial and strategic decisions. For example, young employees might expect their company to refuse to work for certain clients or customers on ethical grounds.

Company leaders must understand that they can never satisfy the full range of beliefs held by a multigenerational workforce without conflict. One sound idea is to emphasize individual voice and participation in the democratic process. Encourage employees to have a personal life and become engaged with their communities, rather than trying to impose values or control speech. Of course it is fine to place some restrictions on employee conduct, but be clear about these before, not after, a crisis.

2. When Gen Z employees broadly align with millennials on social issues, significant intergenerational tension should be anticipated: While young people are sometimes characterized as progressive or “woke,” the reality is more complex. Broadly speaking, Gen Zers still display strong, bipartisan alignment on issues such as diversity, inclusion, and environmental responsibility, and they support more government intervention in social services.

Younger millennials concur. Where alignment is clearest, the two will be poised to bring intergenerational tensions to the fore. Under a corporate leadership that is disproportionately white and male, conflicts around power, opportunity and inclusion are certain. This is not the time for companies to back away from DEI programs, but rather to make them more genuine and less legalistic. The point of diversity is for an organization to benefit from a broader range of perspectives and more accurately reflect both its customers and employees.

Older employees may see the onset of a more diverse workforce as likely to spur conflict and inefficiencies; younger employees may attack the willful blindness of those defending the status quo. What is needed is a nuanced understanding of the focus on social identity and the misunderstandings it can create among the workforce. Equipping employees with skills to negotiate and resolve conflicts can help channel energy productively.

3. Gen Zers are the first ‘digital natives,’ and this will intensify risks in the new dynamics of corporate transparency: Gen Z’s intuitive relationship with technology is impossible for older generations to fully grasp. The oldest Gen Zers were accessing social media by middle school. As the first members of Gen Z were becoming teenagers, the rise of a hyper-transparent environment began undercutting corporations’ traditional reliance on confidentiality. More and more employees leak confidential information to the media in efforts to open internal company matters to broader commentary and judgment.