Helping Gen Z employees succeed in the higher ed workspace
When I walked into the student services department, I noticed four young employees huddled together. One greeted me and asked if I needed anything.
But she never looked at me. She greeted me verbally while doing something on her phone. Her voice tone was pleasant; she was dressed professionally and had a clean workspace. Yet the lack of eye contact threw me off.
I shared the name of the person I was waiting for and took a seat. I continued to observe the four young employees. They carried on a conversation with one another, aloud, while never making eye contact. This Gen Xer was baffled. Curiosity consumed me.
"Can I ask you guys a question? How can you carry on a conversation with each other without ever looking at each other?" I asked.
One of the employees looked up from his phone briefly and considered my question.
"I guess we're just used to being on our phones so we can do both," he noted. He shrugged and returned to his digital activity. The group continued chatting verbally, fingers swiping rapidly. Part of me pitied them for what seemed to be digital obsession and for the in-the-moment interactions they may be missing. The other part of me felt a little encouraged, observing their ability to carry on a conversation while engaged on their phones.
I've had multiple interactions like this over the years, having worked in higher education as a faculty member and career services director. I'm comfortable with Gen Z and thoroughly enjoy helping them learn and grow. However, I know many leaders, managers, and higher ed employees who are not comfortable managing Gen Z or collaborating with them in the workplace. Many Gen X and Baby Boomer leaders struggle to understand Gen Z and feel frustrated trying to manage digital natives.
This article was first published by HigherEdJobs. Read the original.
Here's a spoiler alert: higher ed leaders and managers are better positioned to recruit and retain great Gen Z employees than leaders in other industries. Let's explore the reasons why, but first, let's dig into understanding more about Gen Z and their workplace tendencies and preferences.
Gen Z: Who they are
In order to appreciate, support or manage employees, you must first understand them. Understanding Gen Z can feel like a social media relationship status update: "It's complicated."
But as with any relationship, understanding Gen Z is crucial for employers; Gen Z already makes up 24% of the workforce. As Baby Boomers continue to exit the workforce through retirement, and Gen Z graduates seek employment year after year, learning to manage Gen Z will become even more critical to ensure collaborative, productive, harmonious workplaces.
There are several factors which combine to define Gen Z. These professionals (born after 1995) are considered the most diverse generation ever, with only 52% identifying as white. They're more comfortable with diversity and more likely to expect inclusivity.
Gen Z has never known a world without internet access at their fingertips; thus, they are often referred to as digital natives. This generation is not intimidated by technology, adapts quickly and acquires new technological skills with ease. Because of Gen Z's daily exposure to ever-changing software programs, apps and social platforms, they expect change and roll with it quite well.
Growing up with constant internet access impacts Gen Zers in other ways, according to BBC, which may lead to issues for those who lack strong soft skills. In one respect, this can help Gen Z save time and increase productivity and self-reliance. However, those who more heavily and exclusively rely on digital devices for knowledge and support tend to struggle with asking colleagues and employers for help; they're more comfortable Googling and YouTubing it. In the workplace, this creates the illusion of competence and independence, but it can also lead to repeated errors, lack of confidence and a sense of overwhelm for Gen Z.
Secondly, instant feedback via the internet has produced a generation of professionals who have never had to wait for long periods of time to acquire information, get answers or test hypotheses. In the workplace, this can be problematic for managers who cannot respond instantly to messages and requests. Lastly, in many cases, spending excessive time online has caused Gen Z's soft skills to atrophy. Without intentional effort to maintain face-to-face interactions or channel rich means of communication, Gen Z loses opportunities to practice soft skills, including communication, collaboration, conflict management, and more.
In addition to internet reliance issues, to their detriment, recent college graduates and entry-level Gen Z employees have most likely gained work experience in the midst of a global pandemic. With the exception of the Silent Generation, whose parents lived through the flu pandemic of 1918, no other generation — except Gen Z — has collective experience learning to study, date, marry or work for the first time in the midst of a pandemic.
We have yet to discover the long-term social and emotional impact of the pandemic experience on Gen Z, but one thing is certain: It is impacting them now. According to Pew Research, 50% of Gen Z reported that they or someone in their household lost a job or suffered reduced pay during the pandemic, the highest rate of loss reported. Living during uncertain times on multiple fronts impacts Gen Z's attitudes toward work, their mental and emotional health, and their professional and personal priorities.
In spite of the difficulties Gen Z has faced while learning as students and seeking employment, they're surprisingly optimistic and genuinely interested in finding meaning through service to others.
Higher ed: The perfect workplace for Gen Z
Managing Gen Z can feel as difficult and complex as understanding them. Many managers in higher ed and other industries admit they're struggling. However, higher ed is perfectly positioned to meet the career needs of Gen Z employees. Higher ed is already saturated with Gen Z students and has been evolving its teaching methods, retention efforts, and marketing/branding campaigns accordingly for over a decade.
A recent survey by ThoughtExchange revealed that 80% of Gen Zers prefer jobs with continual growth and challenges rather than positions utilizing only one set of skills. These young employees prefer a holistic work environment, with 79% desiring supervisors who care as much about personal development as professional development. Lastly, 85% of Gen Zers seek to work for organizations with great missions they can support.
Satisfying these workplace preferences is difficult for every industry. However, higher ed naturally rises to the challenge. Almost every role in higher ed requires employees to wear multiple hats or utilize multiple skills. Working with Gen Z college students means the workspace is continually evolving, too, so this satisfies Gen Z's desire for continual growth and challenges and utilization of multiple skill sets. Also, what industry has a better mission than higher ed? Teaching and training students to prepare them for lifelong career success and fulfillment is a tall order and a heartfelt mission. Higher ed leaders have always risen to this challenge and fulfilled this mission and will continue to do so, in spite of multiple challenges. Who better to encourage flexibility than a group of professionals who gain a whole new set of clients (students) every four years?
As you kick off 2023 with your division or department, encourage them by sharing this article. We all need to know we're doing work that matters and making a difference. In higher ed, these things are a given, and with agility and patience, higher ed leaders will prove they have what it takes to lead Gen Z employees to complete career fulfillment and success.
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