Gen Z in the Workforce: How the Pandemic Affected our Newest Employees

Have you ever been stuck in a revolving door? Or presented an opportunity that was stripped from you as quickly as it was offered?  That’s the experience of the last three years, especially for the group of people known as Gen Z.  Generally recognized as those born from 1997 to 2010, the first batch of Gen Z college graduates are now entering the workforce and frequently getting characterized as unprepared, too sensitive or disconnected.

A recent Fortune Magazine headline said “Gen Z is so lacking in soft skills after lockdown that Big 4 consultants are offering classes to help new hires fit in at work.”  The story goes on to say “Gen Z was robbed”. They were robbed of graduations, prom, college life, internships, and first jobs. Despite being the first truly digitally native generation, Gen Z’s inexperience makes them afraid of “looking dumb at work”.

Ouch!  I was born in 2000 and was a sophomore in college when COVID hit.  I actually contracted COVID in February of 2020 before we even knew much about this new disease.  Only later did an antibody test reveal that my terrible cold was actually COVID.

But like nearly 20 million American college students in March of 2020, I was told to leave campus.  Initially I was thrilled.  Extended spring break!  But it shortly turned into Where am I going to work? Where am I going to live? Can I even see my friends or family? When will things return to normal?

It’s three years later and it’s not yet “normal”.  Please let me share firsthand how my generation has been affected by the pandemic and hopefully give you some guidance on working with these new colleagues.  Probably the most important thing to remember about Gen Z is the desire to control our own narrative and for our decisions to mean something.  We made plans for schools and for jobs only to have the rug pulled out from underneath us again and again.  We want to commit, but so many commitments made to us have fallen through.  Can you blame us for being suspicious?  We were forced to operate on “screens” for two years and now we’re labeled as uncomfortable without our screens.

Here are my suggestions for getting to know and working with a Gen Z.  Let’s call it Elena’s Gen Z Survival Guide.

Understand Differences:  First, remember that while we Gen Zers may have similar experiences, we’re not homogenous.  We are still different people with different preferences, strengths and weaknesses.  It’s frustrating to consistently be lumped into one big tech-savvy, but apathetic group. Remember not everyone from the 70s was a hippie or the 80s was a preppie.  My advice is to try and connect with us personally.  Gen Z isn’t cut from a single book; they are all different and worth getting to know… they might surprise you with their interests and abilities.  And please don’t constantly remind us that we’re young.  Or that we’re Gen Z.

Be Direct: We prefer to be upfront with our expectations and would like others to do the same.   Don’t sugarcoat and don’t beat around the bush.  We’re pretty good at seeing through a smokescreen.  So set your expectations clearly for us in the workplace.  And give us feedback whether it’s good or bad.  We’ve been shielded from so many real opportunities for learning, we need to make up ground.

Share Your Perspective, but Ask for Ours: Once you know a bit about your Gen Z colleagues, show them who you are and what you prioritize at work and in life.  Inclusivity and sharing are common traits for our generation so we want to feel like we understand our colleagues.  But don’t be like my father and tell us how different or better things were in his day.  We – like every generation – prefer to be talked with and not talked at.  Don’t only involve us when you’re looking for the “young” perspective.

Provide Context for Our Work:  I feel like every generation comes of age wanting to make a difference and mine is no different. We’re eager to understand how our individual contributions relate to the business’ mission or even better to helping our customers and world.  Sure the job may involve running spreadsheets, doing data analysis or conducting research.  But let us know why it’s important and we’ll probably do the job better and certainly with more enthusiasm.

Emotions aren’t Bad:  We aren’t the only age group that has seen their lives upended from Covid.  We know that wars, recessions, crime and health crises existed before 2000.  But we’re the first generation to be daily witnesses to trauma via a phone in our palm.  The Pew Research Center says Gen Z reports the highest levels of mental health struggles of any age group.  Maybe we’re more depressed or maybe we’re more likely to talk about problems and the issues we face.  Our social networks – live and virtual – are much more extensive today and we have been confronted with images and experiences that are impossible to comprehend without sadness and stress.  We’ve become resilient and also emotional.  But I believe emotion is much better than apathy in an employee.

So now my peers are showing up in your offices, or at least on your computer screens.  Maybe they don’t dress like the veterans in the office or they aren’t very good at chatting in the elevator or lunchroom.  They might have a unique color of hair or a tattoo displayed.  They probably don’t have a briefcase or the daily newspaper under their arm.

They are happy to be there even if it’s not obvious to you.  Because despite of the obstacles they faced, they made it from Covid Kid to a working adult.  Too many of our friends haven’t yet made it.  Some never will.  Absolutely give them soft skills training if that’s what’s needed.  But first give them a welcoming handshake or hug and let them know you’re glad to have them as part of the team.  Be a role model.  Be a mentor.  Look at what they do have to offer, don’t just look past them because they’re missing part of what’s needed.  With your help, Gen Z can transition successfully.  And hopefully 20 years from now, they’ll be the ones looking skeptically at another strange new generation of professionals entering the workplace.