Are Gen-Z the new benchmark for workforce changes and can the people profession keep up? 

Gen-Z might seem like a scary alien invasion but turns out they’re probably a good barometer for changing workforce requirements. So, here’s how HR managers can keep everyone happy without breaking (too much) of a sweat.

Abbi Melville • 
Are Gen-Z the new benchmark for workforce changes

Change is never easy for human folk.  

Change is risk.  

Change is danger.  

We should either flee from change or fight it.  

Or so says our amygdala—a small but mighty set of brain nuclei, responsible for periodically hijacking our emotional state. When we’re faced with unexpected change the amygdala triggers a fear response. It sends out chemicals that divert bodily resources from our brain to our body in preparation for fight or flight.  

And when changes that affect us feel completely outside our control, that response becomes even stronger.  

Out in the wilderness, where change can be life threatening, that’s great.  

But if you’re an HR manager being bombarded with workforce changes, and your CEO is asking you, “how do we get ahead of this?”, and your amygdala has your brain in a choke hold, while your body gets ready to either hit the boss or hit the road—well, that’s just inconvenient.   

So, let’s all get our brains back in the driving seat and get to grips with some of today’s strongest forces for workforce change. As well as how we can prepare our organisations to embrace the inevitable.  

And the first big change isn’t a what, it’s a who.  

The zoomers have landed 

An incoming wave of the new generation into the workplace is a bit like an alien invasion, isn’t it?  

Do they come in peace? (To be determined.)  

Will they respect our ways? (That’s a hard no.)  

Will they make things better or worse? (Depends on who’s asking.)  

Will they make us obsolete? (One day.) 

Say ‘sup to Gen Z, aka the Zoomers. They’re the first workforce who are digital natives, meaning they were born clutching an iPhone. So, they’re very proficient with technology and all the advantages it can offer. That’s great news for employers. In fact, this generation of workers might know what your organisation needs and how to get there before you do—and they’re not afraid to tell you—’cos who needs a university degree when you’ve got TikTok, brah? (Don’t worry, I won’t do that again… I don’t think… I might do it again). 

This young workforce considers technology to be an extension of themselves, and that technology has always connected them to the whole world rather than a tiny subsection of it.  Which means, inclusivity and diversity are expected, not optional. Because that’s the world they know. And equality and wellbeing are expected, not optional. Because that’s the world they want.  

The world they’re less familiar with is the physical world of work because their careers started just before, during, or after the worldwide lockdowns. So, they love the novelty of real-life experiences and connection. And that means they favour workplaces with good cultures, personalised solutions, beautiful spaces, and great locations.  

And as natives of the fast-paced digital world, they’re not used to standing on ceremony or waiting for results. Alex Durrant, cofounder of the dating app Jigsaw, says of his workforce, that it’s the junior members, in terms of age and role, who are the boldest. “Generation Z challenge frequently — as much, if not more, than millennials,” he says. “That would sound pretty shocking, described to an old-school corporate person, who expects the founders to just make decisions, and what they say goes.” 

They also demand that organisations live up to their promises. And unlike earlier generations they’ll have the power to enforce those demands. That’s because they know how to mobilise an online army. Just ask Bill Michael, who is no longer the chair of KPMG because he got on the wrong side of his most junior staff members. Or the 33,000 and counting French students who have pledged to only work for environmentally conscious companies. Or the 20,000 workers who walked out of Google offices across 50 cities to protest sexual harassment. They even stood up to Goldman Sachs—and that’s ‘Eek’, with a capital ‘E’. In other words, not only are they more likely to quit a job if it doesn’t live up to their expectations, but they’re not afraid to burn bridges. Heck, they might even burn the whole town and get YOU fired for it. RIP Bill Michael. Or as a New York Times article put it, the 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them. 

They also grew up being entrepreneurial. Unlike earlier generations they didn’t rely on pocket money from their parents or weekend jobs. They sold their old clothes on Depop, earned money as influencers, mastered arbitrage selling, started podcasts… in short, they learned to be self-reliant, and they aren’t afraid to put themselves out there or ‘take the L’ (‘L’ being loss, and sorry, couldn’t resist that one). Which also means that they value their own employability above the security of long-term employment. One study showed that over 90% of Millennials and Gen Zedders want lifelong learning, so the opportunity to learn new skills is a major factor when weighing up job offers.  

Outspoken, bold, political, subversive, pushy, and passionate. Gen Z will choose workplaces where they can be themselves, work autonomously, level up, enjoy flexibility and wellbeing, get paid well, and feel good about what they’re doing.  

As Gabe Kennedy, co-founder of Plant people puts it, you think that you’re just making tomato sauce, but to Gen-Z “these are political tomatoes. This is political tomato sauce.” 

So, if you can get your organisation ready to cater to all of that, then “It’s all Gucci” (OK, that’s the last time, I promise).  

And if you’re thinking that you can just wait it out—see if the incoming workforce will change their ways to fit in with the status quo—then I’ve got some bad news. It’s not just the Gen-Zedders who are demanding more. And, as it turns out, Gen Z are a good benchmark for cross-generational workforce changes. 

Turnover contagion 

Between 2020 and 2021 we all spent over a year in lockdown with a little yard time here and there. But when we changed out of our dressing gowns for the last time and came blinking into the light, everything looked a little different. In the UK alone, 43% of workers admitted that they now put less importance on their career. It seems that there’s nothing like a global pandemic to make you question your life choices.  

The media dubbed it “The Great Resignation,” because far from being grateful to be back in the secure arms of their employer, people started handing in their notice. A lot of people. According to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index, 41% of people surveyed were considering leaving their jobs at the time of the report. And that rate was even higher for the UK, with 55% of workers planning on looking for a new role in 2021. But it turned out to be more complicated than that.  

People weren’t just quitting. Some were leaving their professions too, with 22% of workers saying they’d like their next job to be in a different industry. Others were ‘boomeranging’ back to previous workplaces. Some were coming out of retirement to go back to work, while others were taking early retirement. Turnover figures were higher than usual across the board. And the trends aren’t letting up.  

Anthony C Klotz, who coined the term “The Great Resignation”, says it all points to the fact that “people are looking for a change coming out of the pandemic or they’re not afraid to completely switch to a new chapter of their career.” Kristie McAlpine, professor of management at Rutgers University School of Business – Camden, US, agrees, saying, that people are “looking for some connection and meaning in what they do”.  

That means that people managers need to make onboarding and offboarding effortless and unforgettable for all the right reasons, including thoughtful recruitment, pre-starter, and alumni experiences. With a workforce that’s on the move you need to impress them before they walk in the door until long after they’ve left.  

And to retain people, they need to make sure employee experience is good too. That includes being clear and consistent about the company culture. As well as overall goals.   

Working towards occupational wellness 

While the primary reason for working is still to earn a wage, we’re all increasingly looking for a sense of fulfilment and happiness in our work lives. According to the SenseHR 7 pillars of wellbeing wisdom, that means finding the right balance between financial, environmental, cultural, physical, and mental wellbeing, connectedness and a good work-life balance.  

People professionals must look for innovative ways to support the wellbeing of their workforce and monitor the impact of any wellbeing initiatives. This shouldn’t be something that leadership decides on without the input of the people who work for them. It’s an iterative process that will need everyone’s involvement and support to succeed. And don’t worry, nobody gets it right the first time, so be open and be humble.  

New ways of working  

New ways of working have been slowly creeping into our workforces over the last decade. But when Covid19 forced us all to go home, flexible hours, flexible workers, and remote working smashed through all the traditional barriers to become the new normal.  

And they’re here to stay, because people want that flexibility. 

When it comes to flexible hours, remote working, and flexible contracts, people don’t necessarily want one thing or the other. They want the flexibility to choose what works at the time and the freedom to be able to negotiate with their workplace without artificial barriers. So, it’s important that HR departments have the systems in place to deal with all contract types and working schedules gracefully, making it easy for them and their people to be more agile.  

But without fixed 9 to 5 office hours, people mangers need to be aware of burnout and productivity paranoia. 54% of workers say that they’ve felt burned out in the last 3 months. And data from Microsoft Teams supports that finding, with the average number of meetings per week having gone up by 153%, time spent in meetings has increased by 252%, double-booked meetings have increased by 46%, after hour activity is up by 28%, and weekend work is up by 14%. 

At the same time, 85% of leaders are concerned that employees aren’t being productive enough. But 81% of employees say they need clearer guidance to prioritise their workload —only a third say that they’ve ever had such guidance. Likewise, 74% of people managers say they need more guidance on prioritising work and goals too.  

So, it seems that the people profession must establish or integrate systems and procedures that make it easier to set and track work priorities.  

Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion movements 

#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and the plethora of connected and emboldened diversity, inclusion, and equality movements have had both domino and lightbulb impact across the globe.  

Not only have multiple studies shown that DEI boosts workplace creativity and innovation, but it improves overall wellbeing as well. And according to research by McKinsey and Company, “companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians”.  

In the US, millennials and Gen Z are the most diverse generations so far. Only 56% of millennials are white, compared to 72% of baby boomers. And 67% of jobseekers consider it an important factor when weighing up employers. While companies with more women in leadership positions consistently outperform companies with less than half of their leadership positions filled by women, including 34% greater returns for shareholders.  

To fulfil organisational and social obligations for DEI, HR managers need to organise regular DEI training, collect, and analyse good-quality data on their people, and build a holistic and coordinated strategy for improving DEI.   

A focus on learning 

Where people used to resist learning—after all learning is a form of change—they’re starting to embrace and even demand it. And with remote working and flexible roles, as well as technology that seems to change by the week, learning on the job is no longer optional. Organisations have already begun to be hubs for learning during the pandemic pandemonium. But that’s set to continue and even grow.  

But instead of the burdensome, linear, and sequential learning of yesterday, technological advancement will allow intuitive, just-in-time, bite-sized, and personalised learning experiences. And in a bid to take advantage of all assets, organisations will support peer-to-peer learning and start to invest in personal digital assistants (PDAs) with AI powered user profiles.  

Reskilling and upskilling resources and support will help organisations to retain and develop talent. And deep-data profiles, coupled with self-service features, will help employees to understand when and how they work best. That way, people can access and be ready for new opportunities as they appear, empowered to manage their own career paths, wherever they may lead.    

Tech revolutions 

“Within the next two or three years, I predict most virtual meetings will move from 2D camera image grids… to the metaverse, a 3D space with digital avatars.”  

That’s taken from a recent blog post by Bill Gates.  

Great! And we were just getting used to Zoom.  

But that’s the lightspeed of the tech revolution. And it’s not slowing down for anyone.  

Offerings like Meta’s Horizon Workrooms and Microsoft’s Mesh will allow team mates to feel and act like they’re in the same room, regardless of their physical location.  

AI is transforming recruitment, allowing automated sifting from a wider talent pool, bias-free job posting, video screeding, and chatbot support for interviews and enquiries.  

Advanced communication, feedback, and employee engagement tools, mean that HR managers can keep a finger on the pulse of the workforce, in real-time.   

Workforce optimisation tools based on data-driven metrics mean that teams can be built based on their abilities, interests, and historical success.  

And that’s not even scratching the surface.  

How SenseHR can help 

Nobody really knows what will happen next, except that change is inevitable and increasingly common. And with workforce changes on this scale, it’s not how you weather the storm that’s important, it’s how elegantly you ride the tides.   

And to deliver the demands or a changeable workforce—not only managing but also benefiting from the changes to come—HR managers need an HR software that can: 

  • Be perfectly tailored to the workforce you have now, as well as the workforce you might have next year, in 5 years, in 10 years from now.   
  • Flex and grow with the unknown changes to come. 
  • Build a data profile, not only of each person, but of organisational systems, practices, policies, culture, and how they all interact and change, to better support the demands of the workforce.  
  • Deliver a seamless employee experience, no matter where they are, what device they’re using, or the strength of their connection.  
  • Support learning, career development, and employee engagement with self-service features.  
  • Integrate emerging technology.  
  • Store the files and media that support a next generation HR system, at no extra cost.   
  • Deliver a first-class onboarding and offboarding process that can support pre starters and alumni.  
  • Provide unparalleled customer support, including implementing feedback and feature requests.  

Or to put it another way, HR Managers need SenseHR.