How to manage a multi-generational workforce and prepare the world of work for Generation Z

“War! There’s a war in the workplace!”

Or at least that’s what listening to all the media hype would have you believe if you listened to it.

This was how I opened my presentation at the inaugural HPMA North East Roadshow event in Durham to over 100 HR and OD professionals on 2 October, when I was asked to talk about generations and the future workforce.

To be honest I’m not sure I completely buy into the generational differences relating to characteristics that we hear. I believe that there are two schools of thought and that we need to consider them both.

Firstly, that there are some true generational differences, depending on when we were born.  We are all raised under differing environmental factors such as war, pre-feminism and stay at home mums, swinging sixties, recessions or the digital age. These factors impact on us and will mean that we have a set of distinctive characteristics or ways of being. However, some of these generations span 15 plus years, so can we really say that they are that distinctive?

Secondly, the differences we see in the workplace are more linked to the career stages of someone and their age. If you’re just starting out at work or if you are at the end of your career you will have differing views, characteristics and behaviours.

Putting people into boxes with labels because of the year they were born is easy, the language we use is easy and it makes it easier to ‘manage’. However, we work with people who are individuals, so it’s important to treat people as such, with individual career aspirations. We should shift from talking about generations to thinking about different career and life stages.

People working in an open plan environment

They’re fragile, self-centered, overly sensitive and won’t cope in the workplace

Having researched common factors on Generation Z some of the key descriptors which emerged included; ‘overly sensitive, self-centred, fragile, unable to deal with opposing opinions, self-obsessed, no interpersonal skills, fragile, not resilient and they won’t cope in the workplace’.

Sounds like a great bunch of people to work with right? Race to the recruitment line, maybe?

But we know that this age group consume less drugs and alcohol than previous generations. That youth turnout at the 2017 general election in the UK was the highest in 25 years: they care! That unemployment in Britain in the under 25s is amongst the lowest in Europe and, most importantly for me, they are more likely to talk about their emotions, which can only be a big hurrah for mental health in the workplace surely!?

Global research of 16-24 year olds carried out by The Workforce Institute at Kronos and Future Workplace in April 2019 tells us that this group of people are hard to retain and more likely to leave their job – 88% before 2 years. That they expect to work harder than their previous generations; looking at how the world looks to them and what’s going on politically I’m not surprised by this.  They are the first true digital natives, so yes, they can’t remember dial up networks, or MySpace! They like challenge and varied employment experience; 75% want multiple roles in an organisation. A racially diverse workforce is the most critical issue currently, and a flexible and varied role is important to them.

Digital natives who prefer the personal touch

So, what do this group of people bring to the workplace?

Well they bring a blend of high touch and high-tech; they are digital natives but they also like people and face to face contact is important. They are likely to be multi-taskers. I only have to look at my eldest to see this; playing his Xbox, speaking virtually to his friends, texting them and posting on Instagram at the same time. They are likely to be able to quickly adapt and learn and will bring a sense of entrepreneurialism into the workplace. Because of all this I believe that they are the ones to speak to the future services and connect with them in a way we haven’t.

However, the biggest surprise for me from the research was this: Anxiety is the biggest barrier to professional success for this generation.

I was incredibly curious reading this. What could be causing this anxiety for a group of young people just starting out? I discovered this.

Are management skills more important than leadership skills?

The pre-preparation gap: This is the feeling of not being prepared at school/education for the world of work in key areas such as negotiation, networking, speaking confidently in crowds, work conflict and being managed by another person. This feels like pretty basic stuff here, so what as employers can we do to support them and help to bridge the gap. Is this where we focus our development at present?

Something else I discovered, which I wasn’t as surprised by, is that managers matter! Not leaders, managers! We all know that people leave managers and not organisations, yet day to day we don’t hear as much on management skills as we do on leadership. Maybe we need to shift some of the narrative from leadership matters and invest in good people management to create the right culture and environment to help anxiety.

Core qualities that emerged from the research that respondents wanted from managers and work were; supportive, trusting, caring, F2F communication, listening and real-time feedback.

It’s not rocket science is it, and don’t we all want these qualities in a manager, but do managers have time to do this? The rhetoric says they are all burned out and stretched, so how will they find time and the desire to do this.

Challenge, variety and diverse multiform working

So here are a few things I think we can do to support this generation of people just starting out in the workplace:

  • They’re digital natives but want face to face conversation and feedback so don’t assume an email will suffice. Meet them regularly and give real-time feedback.
  • Give them a challenging and varied role. Consider diverse multiform working, reinvigorate job designs, don’t replace jobs like for like.
  • Offer outcomes-based working which is flexible and agile, upfront at the start.
  • Development is key so build this into the offer, don’t see it as something they earn the right to.

Finally, when thinking about a multigenerational workplace;

  • Treat people as individuals and consider where they are in their career and life.
  • Don’t be fooled by stereotypes.
  • Focus on management as well as leadership.
  • Focus on diverse multiform working with real flex and agility.

I started this blog talking about war, but war is such a terrible metaphor for work, it conjures up images of conflict and descent. These are people just starting their careers, they are not just choosing a job, they are choosing who they want to be in life and how they contribute to society. Work is such an important part of who we are and our identity. The way we treat these people now will have a huge impact on the society we grow old in, raise our kids and grandkids in, so let’s make it the best that we can.

Kirstie Stott, The Inspiring Leaders Network