Bring Your Human to Work: Examining the Gen Z Workplace

By David Ryan Polgar, Contributor

While a lot of focus has been spent on deciphering what Millennials want in their jobs, it is Generation Z that is set to disrupt the notions of an ideal workplace. Generation Z, defined as individuals born after 1996, is now entering the workforce and is arriving with a perspective vastly different from Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers.

Gen Z’ers were born after the advent of the smartphone, yet emerging research shows they seem to want a workplace that is both tech-driven and human-centered. A new study by Dell Technologies found that 80 percent of Gen Z wants to work with cutting-edge technology, but 75 percent also expect to learn from coworkers and other people on the job.

Erica Keswin — an executive coach at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author of the bestselling book, “Bring Your Human to Work: 10 Surefire Ways to Design a Workplace That Is Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change the World” — has spent a good part of her career delving into just what these expectations might mean for employers.

Here, Keswin shares ways companies can curate connection with all of their employees, while adjusting to the unique qualifications, ideas, and side hustles that will emerge with this new and powerful young workforce.

We often think of twenty-somethings as glued to their smartphones and uninterested in face-to-face communication at work. Have you found this to be true in your observations?

Erica Keswin: I have found that Generation Z wants to use technology when it makes sense for them because there are certain uses of technology where it is more efficient and effective. But what I’ve also seen is that it behooves managers and leaders to create systems and protocols and processes to curate [in-person] connection with this generation. This generation may not realize or be able to articulate that it’s important to them, but if they don’t have it, they will leave.

Just think about it in terms of compensation: You can match someone’s salary, but that person can leave and get a job across the street. People stay when they feel connected, mostly to their manager, but also to the greater purpose of an organization.

What do you think Gen Z wants when it comes to employment?

EK: Generally speaking, they want to work for a company that has purpose and meaning. They want to work flexibly — they don’t need to work at home or at [a coffee shop] all the time, but they do want the flexibility to be able to do so if they need to for personal reasons. The last thing that they want, and really demand, is development. They want to grow on the job. And it’s hard to have them grow on the job if they are not connecting with their managers or other people in the organization.

It behooves organizations to figure out ways to get their people to connect. The data shows very clearly that those connections lead to higher performance, more innovation, and higher levels of productivity.

Seventy-five percent of Gen Z expects to learn on the job from coworkers, according to a new study by Dell Technologies. What can companies do to allow for this learning environment?

EK: My approach is what I like to call, “take professional development personally.” It’s not about that off-the-shelf, “we’re going to take that class and give it to everybody” approach. That’s not going to cut it with Gen Z. Leaders need to have real conversations with people asking, “What do you want to learn?” You might sometimes get the eye-roll when you say this to leaders, but it’s the truth. Gen Z wants to be asked what’s interesting to them.

Really progressive companies not only provide development opportunities for people within their current job — some of them are also training people on their side hustle. Making an investment in an employee as a person, even if they may not use [that training] in their exact job, to me, is very smart.

Is there a new skill set that needs to be built among managers to better handle the expectations of Gen Z employees?

EK: If you’re a good manager, you are connecting with people in a human way. So let’s say you’re having a management training, it’s about making these managers aware of how important development is to their team. Even more than compensation, it is really important managers make employees aware of all of all the development opportunities at their disposal.

What’s your go-to tip to prepare leadership for the workplace of the future?

EK: My mantra is, “Bring your human to work.” Honor relationships with your colleagues, with your clients and customers, but also with yourself. What I mean by that is, going back to your first question, leverage technology for all of its greatness — use it to connect, to work, to do what you need to do. But then make sure that you identify how, when, and where to put that technology in its place and connect on a higher level, on a deeper level, on a different medium. Whether that is picking up the phone, walking down the hall, or getting on a plane.

My biggest advice for people is that before defaulting to that technological response, pause. Map the message to the medium. Think about what is the best communication medium to best honor that relationship. It’s not anti-technology — it’s saying, “Let’s think more strategically about which medium is right given the situation.”