The next generation of professionals doesn’t have it easy. While some envision Gen Z—who officially surpassed the number of millennials in the workplace in 2019—as teenage TikTok influencers, many are young adults graduating college or entering a post-pandemic workforce that has largely gone remote, and it’s ultimately stifling their professional growth and impacting companies’ onboarding processes, productivity, and the ability to retain talent.
As a result, many Gen Z’ers may find themselves at a loss in their professional careers, as remote culture has had a major impact on all of us but especially on those who don’t have the benefit of hindsight and what “normal” workplaces previously looked like.
Gen Z’s relationship to technology
Born between 1997 and the mid-2010s, Gen Z grew up with technology at their fingertips and bring a wealth of creativity, technological skills, and entrepreneurial spirit to the workforce. When the pandemic hit, many were sent home for remote college learning or were immediately recruited for remote-only jobs after graduation. Now, this mostly-remote work culture is stifling professional growth that typically comes through in-person interactions.
This contributes to a rise in a very transactional nature in the employee-employer relationship and is likely one of the factors behind the Great Resignation.
When you come out of college and enter the workforce–there’s excitement about joining a team and being a part of something, figuring out office and professional dynamics, and professionally “finding yourself,” not to mention the allure of getting exposure to senior employees and leaders who provide so many “learn through osmosis” moments.
Now, employees are on their own, adrift on a lonely island behind another Zoom call, making it harder to proactively identify issues, mistakes, and even unhappiness. This increases the likelihood for issues and frustrations to fester and removes the ability to capitalize on “teachable moments.” These outcomes can eventually lead to even more individuals leaving their jobs at a time when the war for talent is still a focal point in the labor market.
While remote culture is likely here to stay, there are plenty of things companies can do now to fuel Gen Z’s professional development:
Emphasize in-person interactions
In the past, team members have learned a great deal through in-person interactions. Being exposed to collaboration, learning professional soft skills, identifying growth opportunities, and figuring out what they don’t know by watching others succeed and fail.
Post-pandemic, we’re gaining exposure through screens. In these spaces, you’re less likely to ask the “stupid” questions, notice if someone clearly understands thoughts and directives, and it’s much more difficult to experience the “collaborative mentorship” moments. In other words, we’re not showing our true selves and failures (that we ultimately learn from) nor are we obtaining meaningful feedback when we hold back.
Young professionals enjoy the flexibility of remote work, but have also stated they enjoy having the option to work in person. There is a happy medium even beyond stringent hybrid models that set an arbitrary number of days that employees have to be in the office. Instead of thinking about it quantitatively, think about it qualitatively. What are the key moments, meetings, or points in a project that will be more productive in person? Teaching and encouraging managers how and when to bring their teams together in person can help get things back on track if a project is going awry.
Identify the moments where in-person work makes sense, whether that’s to meet everyone behind the screens or to touch base on a project. In-person dynamics are difficult (and sometimes impossible) to replicate virtually. With a few in-person gatherings, Gen Z can gain exposure to the type of behavior, posturing, and skill sets that they can learn from and emulate as we did pre-pandemic.
Learn from past successes
Companies need to assess this macro side effect of the post-pandemic world and thoughtfully identify how mentorship, culture-building, and professional development happened in the past and learn from it. Next, begin to identify thoughtful, purposeful ways to provide professional development support to keep young employees engaged and feeling supported.
As a boutique advertising agency, we’ve always seen a lot of cross-departmental collaboration happen naturally in the office. As we think of ways to keep that alive in a remote culture, we have a focus on tangible cross skillset mentorship programs where managers are expected to come to company leadership meetings with a list of interests, passion points, or growth areas for each of their reports and a recommendation of who they can connect with to learn about those areas. This is a good example of how you can look at things that happened more naturally in person, and encourage those same interactions in a more guided way.
Introduce leaders to new team members
Exposing Gen Z to your company’s C-suite leadership can help make sure they understand the vision and mission of the business. Let them put a face to a name and understand how and why things are working. Additionally, presenting them with the company’s “why” including anecdotes can help them feel more connected to your values. Leaders can help explain the part they play within the company’s end goals and give young professionals an understanding of how their efforts contribute to the company’s big picture.
Identify teachable moments
As a manager, find out what you know that Gen Z doesn’t at this stage of professional development. This includes your capabilities as a manager and what gave you the chance to obtain your current role. Identify key moments to help them understand your thought processes by teaching them how to break down a problem, find potential solutions, and vet them for accuracy.
Remember, people management differs from process and deliverable management. You are here to foster the next generation of talent and “teach them how to fish” so they can continue to thrive in their future careers.
Lauren Nutt Bello is managing partner and president of Ready Set Rocket, a New York-based digital agency pairing data, design, research, and analytics to drive business outcomes for F500 brands and VC-backed startups.