What Your Youngest Employees Need Most Right Now
The long-term toll of the coronavirus is unknown, but its effects on our health care system and the economy have already been catastrophic. And while the immediate concerns of skyrocketing unemployment and a stalled economy must be addressed today, employers also need to begin considering how to rebuild for the employees returning to the workforce — or entering it for the first time.
This includes Gen Z, the youngest members of the workforce and those currently in secondary school or college. Many who were just beginning their career journey have been furloughed or fired. Those in school were suddenly confined to their homes. Collectively, they are experiencing the greatest national trauma since the Great Depression and World War II.
Ultimately, for the workforce to be equipped to move forward and thrive, employers will need to address the fallout resulting from Covid-19 on their youngest — and future — employees.
How Events Shape Generations
As the Pew Research Center notes, looking at world events and other formative experiences through a generational lens helps provide an understanding of how people’s views of the world are shaped. Young people who grew up during the Great Depression and defended and supported the nation in World War II were coined “The Greatest Generation.” Once past the traumas of these extraordinarily difficult years, this generation shared characteristics that included a patriotism manifested by reverence for American ideals, a belief in the wisdom of government, and a frugality born of severe want.
For Millennials, the horror of 9/11 and the global economic crisis that began in 2007 were calamitous events that were life-altering for their generation. As many were sitting in classrooms, word of airplanes crashing into buildings spread through their school; frightened teachers, family members, and friends were unable to offer their usual reassurance that everything would be okay. The chaos that followed became the touchstone for a future where potential terrorist attacks were an ever-present theme in the way Millennials interacted with the world around them.
As they later began to make their way into the workplace, the economy collapsed. Job offers were rescinded, full-time opportunities became part-time without benefits, and many new hires were the first fired. A generation with an undeserved reputation for disloyalty had to change jobs frequently simply to keep up with basic bills and crushing student debt. Together, these experiences contributed to a profile of a generation more likely to seek order in their world and meaning in their work.
Today, even as the coronavirus has been merciless in its impact on people of all ages, the long-term effects on the Gen Z cohort of adolescents are likely to be particularly severe.
For the rest of their lives, the time the world stopped will be seared in Gen Z’s collective memory, a generation-defining moment that instilled deep fears about their uncertain future. Overnight, they lost their daily interactions with the teachers who trained them, coaches who mentored them, clubs that fulfilled them, and friends who sustained them through the painful ordeals of youth. Milestones such as proms, plays, athletics, and the ritual of graduation can be crucial to social and emotional development, each experience serving as a rite of passage to the next stage of life. These lifecycle markers of adolescence that were nervously anticipated and excitedly shared swiftly vanished.
How Companies Can Support Gen Z Employees
It will be years before sufficient data exist to quantify the full impacts of this experience on Gen Z. Existing research, however, can help employers learn what they should expect and how they can best manage their Gen Z employees, today and in the future.
Research in three areas offers a good start for this analysis: skill development, stress management, and building emotional intelligence.
Gen Z’s learning has been disrupted in a way that schools were unequipped to manage. Some converted course work to online formats, often implemented by teachers and professors untrained for such a platform. Others minimized direct instruction, urging students or (depending on the grade level) parents to turn to independent projects and digital resources.
In most instances, learning has been attempted in the presence of entire families similarly house-bound and juggling multiple responsibilities — environments that are not conducive to instruction without any preparation. Grades have been converted to pass/fail, tests have been abandoned, and deadlines extended.
These options may be right for the moment, but likely will have costs. Research shows that Gen Zers already experience a difficult cultural transition between college and the professional world that can leave them feeling disoriented and confused. Now that their structured learning has been upended, employers and employees may need to develop greater patience with Gen Z’s adjustment to the professional world and a greater focus on intergenerational mentoring and support.
Employers should consider thoughtfully designed programs to ease Gen Z’s transition by, for example, rethinking orientation programs, early assignments, and mentoring focusing on the development of expertise. For example, orientation programs generally consist of a short-term introduction to manuals, computer systems, and other basics of the workplace. A more comprehensive approach could extend orientation throughout the first-year work experience, offer rotations throughout the organization, and include programs to help new hires integrate into the culture of the workplace. Programming can also address substantive job requirements, offer strategic career support, and provide training on the organization’s goals and objectives, allowing employees to appreciate where they fit and why they matter.
Mentoring, too, can be a powerful way to leverage generational diversity. Research demonstrates that, properly coached, new professionals will develop faster because their learning has been enhanced and guided. To maximize the opportunity for a successful mentorship program, employers should ensure managers understand the benefits of strengthened intergenerational relationships, dispel negative perceptions that could weaken engagement, and provide the needed time and resources. One way to accomplish such buy-in is by including reverse mentoring programs where young employees help senior workers improve their skills in technology and social media. For members of Gen Z, such mutually-supportive relationships can enhance their expertise and ease their transition into the workplace, offering employers the added bonus of a stronger multigenerational culture.
Of course, the most significant and potentially enduring adjustment that workplaces had to make during this pandemic has been the implementation of remote working arrangements. The sudden shift was forced on employers by a crisis, but workplace experts have long advocated for greater flexibility based on changing gender and age demographics, globalized businesses, and technology improvements. As businesses begin to rethink how they open their doors, they should also consider building new transition and learning opportunities into the culture of flexibility that younger workers are seeking.
For more than a decade, researchers have noted an alarming trend: Gen Z reports higher levels of anxiety and depression than other generations. Studies also tell us that childhood exposure to significant stress can impact brain development and affect mental and social development. If Gen Z’s baseline already shows high levels of stress, what will the impacts of this pandemic be when it comes to their work and careers?
Most companies are aware that unaddressed employee stress and anxiety can also result in absenteeism, turnover, and lowered productivity. Recent data estimate that the annual cost of job stress to U.S. businesses exceeds $300 billion. But too few firms have developed effective programs to help their employees with mental health struggles. In fact, studies shown that an effective stress management policy operates at the employee, workplace, and organizational levels. In particular, organizational approaches lead to more sustainable results than interventions solely directed to individuals.
Further, because Gen Zers are starting their careers with higher levels of anxiety exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, employers can adapt existing research and best practices to create customized programs for young workers. This could include early-career affinity groups that encourage open conversation in a supportive environment. In addition, coaching interventions can boost an individual’s confidence in their ability to succeed and reduce anxiety, helping to keep minor performance challenges from becoming career-damaging incidents.
Emotional intelligence. Research demonstrates that emotional intelligence, consisting of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills, is a critical element of effective leadership — and can be taught and learned. Employees who develop emotional intelligence can provide a foundation for a respectful work environment and a talent pool of future managers. This area of research offers both challenges and opportunities for Gen Z employers.
In having to cope with a shut-down of life as they knew it at such a young age, many Gen Zers have experienced a massive interruption in their ability to discover what motivates and fulfills them. Because of this, they’ll need more time in their young adult years to undertake this self-exploration. Employers can help fill this gap by offering programming that helps build emotional intelligence from the outset of their careers — not several years down the road. One note: I would recommend eliminating the phrase “soft skills,” a term that actually denigrates the importance of training and development in these important areas.
Employers are likely to benefit from the likelihood that Gen Z enters the workplace with a greater level of empathy and adaptability, qualities that are critical components of emotional intelligence. Having experienced both the significant disruption to their own lives and the pain and sorrow felt by friends and loved ones who suffered during the pandemic, Gen Zers are likely to be vigilant to the emotions of others at work.
Companies have the opportunity to help members of Gen Z become the Next Great Generation of leaders. Having been tested at a very young age, they will bring a special blend of resiliency and humanity to the workplace. Employers can take advantage of these unique formative experiences by providing structured support to their younger employees that will smooth their transition and ensure their place as valued members of the workforce.