Deloitte and PwC have felt the need to give their youngest staff extra coaching in the UK after concluding their years in Covid lockdowns and restrictions had left them less adept at networking and speaking up in meetings, the FT reported this month.
For those Gen Z members who entered the workforce after Covid-19 hit, “the pandemic turned their first jobs into a two-year video call”, frets a new report by Oliver Wyman and The News Movement, which paints a picture of a detached cohort more interested in their side hustles than their day jobs.
We are witnessing one of the working world’s periodic panics that its newest arrivals will decline to conform to the way things have been done. This time, that anxiety is heightened by a hunch that the pandemic years so disrupted normal university experiences that a Covid-scarred microgeneration is landing in workplaces without the usual social skills.
This fear is not consistently supported by surveys: a recent Conference Board study found that US workers’ job satisfaction has never been higher, while Oliver Wyman’s research found that Gen Z workers were more likely to be thriving at work than their elders.
Even so, it is powering many of the anxieties employers harbour about getting people back to the offices where their Gen X and millennial managers started their careers.
Managers are right to debate how often their youngest employees should be at their desks as they try to strike a balance between flexibility and “teaching moments”. But they should also think about what they are doing for Gen Z employees once they are in the office – and how often they are taking them out of it.
Melissa Swift, a partner at the consultancy Mercer, sees Gen Z as being “caught in a whammy between Covid and ChatGPT”. The pandemic left them “in the wilderness” as students and now artificial intelligence is upending much of the work with which early career professionals once learnt their trades, she says.
That said, she sees this group’s unusual needs colliding with the fact that their managers are so burnt out they have little time to spend training the next generation, or even noticing what their workplace experience is like. You can’t pin this all on Gen Z, in other words.
What, then, should Gen X and millennial managers be doing to improve Gen Z’s working lives?
Wayne Berson, chief executive of the accountants BDO USA, says his firm has, like PwC and Deloitte, rethought its approach to training. But it has also assigned mentors to all its recruits, and talked to its leaders about how to create more camaraderie.
That can mean anything from getting teams to work in collaboration rooms to organising a happy hour or a dinner, he says. Swift is also an advocate of happy hours, and is encouraged by the restaurant clubs and sports leagues she sees young employees forming.
Staff entertainment budgets were cut during the pandemic, but there is a case for subsidising the informal occasions where colleagues can learn from each other in a less forced setting than a training course. Much of what I learnt about my trade, and the places I’ve plied it in, I learnt not at my desk but during evenings, lunches and coffees with my colleagues.
Employers also need to give managers and new arrivals time to do this, understanding that time spent swapping stories and advice is not stolen from the working day, but a vital part of it. And while you’re dispensing the insights gleaned over your long career, spare a moment to ask what insights they have for you. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023