As Gen Z becomes a significant portion of the global workforce, companies that fail to understand the nuances of their aspirations, risk talent retention and growth.
- Eva Mattheeussen, Head of HR, Middle East & Africa, DHL
- Shireen Mistree, Head of ESG, VFS Global
- Stavros Stavropoulos, Head of Network Development & Training, Mercedes-Benz AG, Fuso & Freightliner
- Mohammad Ali Meraj,Head of Academic Professional Services and Quality, Middlesex University
- Moderator: Eleni Kitra, Founder & CEO, KITRA Inclusive Leadership Partners, Co-Chair TBL Committee
Eleni Kitra: Do we really understand Gen Z?
Mohammad Ali Meraj: What are the major events that have impacted this generation? This generation has witnessed conversations around race and inequality come to the forefront after 9/11; and movements like “MeToo”; and struggled through the 2008 financial crisis. And they’ve seen technology make exponential strides.
Stavros Stavropoulos: They live in very dynamic times, and there is no constant. Things are changing all the time, from working remotely during the pandemic to being called back to the office by many companies. These are confusing times for this generation as they make their way through career paths.
Eleni Kitra: What are the special skills that Gen Z possess?
Eva Mattheeussen: The most predominant is their digital skills and how easily they use different platforms, and able to adapt and be adept at preparing presentations on the move, live on their mobiles. They are also very well educated, have many soft skills and organizational abilities. They are also unafraid to speak up on sensitive topics, for example, they ask why we don’t have statements about the regional conflicts.
Shireen Mistree: They bring a sense of dynamism about anything they are tasked with, and what to know the how’s and whys. It is an age of deference and gone are the days of authority being accepted without questions. They do require training to find a middle ground, as they work in global organizations with multiple generational peers and colleagues.
Mohammad Ali Meraj: Knowledge of the internet has been completely democratized, so university life for this generation is all about the experience. And this needs to be shaped based on personal values that integrate student voices in our decision making. We have student representation on our academic board who review and validate new programmes.
Due to the intrinsic social media influence where there is no hierarchy; anybody can have an opinion and comment on anybody else, and this translates back into their expectations in other scenarios as well. Our leadership theory is constantly challenged and evolving with concepts such as ‘servant leadership’, where you serve your employees enabling them to perform their best concepts of cross-functional teams, agile teams, intrapreneurship, etc. Hopefully, this leadership training will be carried over into the professional world as well and help break down any challenging hierarchies. From a governance perspective, some level of right hierarchical structure is needed.
Eleni Kitra: How do you see technology play a role in defining Gen Z as a strong group for hiring?
Stavros Stavropoulos: For corporations to be efficient and save costs, technology plays a big role. And Gen Z, as digitally native, is very good at implementing technological advancements within our organization. For example, we have one young person implementing an RPA robotic process automation system, and we give him the space to do this by himself, so other less knowledgeable don’t hamper the process. However, for this level of trust, you need a good leader who has an agile mindset and creates the right culture in the company that motivates the younger generation of employees.
Gen Z are very tech savvy, and it’s their passion, and unlike others, are unthreatened by the possibility that AI could make their jobs redundant.
Shireen Mistree: Our company is an administrative service provider, that relies on technology to help governments make decisions, and the trend is that the entire process is going to be automated. Our younger employees bring solutions and resilience to the invasion of technology. They are a resource group in the organization, as they understand tech intuitively, know the latest trends, and can help absorb digital transformation more easily and even make us future-ready. Furthermore, because they are purpose-driven, they are aware of different upcoming regulations that will help society and businesses.
Eleni Kitra: How do they navigate their career path progression?
Eva Mattheeussen: Feedback, recognition and development are important to them, and so organizations do need to be more forthcoming with these aspirations to hold on to younger talent. When they want to grow in the company, they express it and are unafraid to say what they want. Career paths are less rigidly defined, and they can go in different directions.
However, it is still important to manage expectations, because sometimes they go to other functions and need to really start again from scratch. This makes it a little complex to determine compensation. We have a young talent programme with existing employees, where they can work on different projects, with some level of guidance.
Eleni Kitra: How does academia support Gen Z in a way that they can understand the real-life business ecosystem?
Mohammad Ali Meraj: We find that many of our students choose “exciting” jobs over “boring jobs with higher salaries”. They don’t want to do repetitive, non-growth, admin kind of jobs, and would prefer and be better at jobs where they have access to and experiment with technology solutions.
Technology is beyond the communication interface with consumers and social media. And when we had to suddenly switch during the pandemic, to online education, many employees found it challenging.
The world of work itself has become very dynamic. A recent report called for more Gen Z and Gen Alpha to think of themselves as the ‘Renaissance’ figures, because of the expectations from them. These are individuals who have multiple interests and skills in diverse fields. For example, someone could be studying computer science, but as their side hustle, they are great at graphic design, doing an automated Instagram Shopify business, or moonlighting as a videographer or DJ in the evenings. They want to wear all those multiple hats. They want to be a programmer, DJ, entrepreneur side by side, and perhaps volunteer for community needs. So, as academia, we’re challenged to think about how do we prepare these Renaissance figures with these multiple skill sets?
Eva Mattheeussen: We do have many requests for flexibility as one of their top asks, since they do want to do other things, whether it is to improve their skills by joining learning programmes, or side hustles. It is still at an experimental stage for us, as we are working through the various options of remote and office working days.
Shireen Mistree: We haven’t discovered the secret sauce yet, but the effort is to find a sweet spot between what will work and where the world is going, without discounting what has been happening traditionally in different industries. It’s a journey. Any change must be done gradually, keeping in mind all the different aspects of the business. Flexibility is great, but it may not work for the role of a visa processing officer who is required to sit in person, in office and stamp the paperwork for the applicant.
Stavros Stavropoulos: Real flexibility is more about people in the organization willing to better understand and make space for the expectations of the different generations. Flexibility means agility. Breaking frameworks and silos resulting in transformation and innovation. Instead of focussing on their expectations, we should find out and focus on their needs and then bring the right support into the organization.
Eva Mattheeussen: Their slogan is YOLO – you only live once. Some of the things they think about are how they can get the best out of the job, how do we do it in a purposeful way? Do I add value here to the work, etc.
Mohammad Ali Meraj: In this hyper social media world, there are genuine concerns about mental health, well-being, and meaningful connections. In that context it would help to look at how to help with social interaction in the work environment – do they need to be plugged into a team, understand the company values, understand the common objectives and how they can contribute, etc.
Eleni Kitra: How do you ensure that the D&I strategies are sustainable and reflect the needs of Gen Z?
Eva Mattheeussen: We need to bring the more passive people in the organization to become real allies. And Gen Z play a key role, as they are keen to drive this agenda.
Shireen Mistree: We are undergoing an entire mind-shift journey at different levels of management. And we advocate a level of basic respect and acceptance for everyone that you are interacting with. You don’t need to conform or align to certain preferences, but you can agree to disagree respectfully. This is important to for the next generation of employees. The D&I strategy is not just box ticking exercise for them and so they expect the company to be held accountable beyond numbers and PR.
Stavros Stavropoulos: Learning and development is essential to Gen Z, as well as face to face social interactions. Blended learning, with some classroom time combined with e-learning, is the best way because you need to have face to face sessions. We need to help them move out from isolation.
In the context of learning, though this generation is tech savvy, they need to learn more traditional human skills, such as how to handle difficult discussions, manage conflicts, etc.
Mohammad Ali Meraj: This generation does not accept tokenism. And inclusion is quite critical. Regarding diversity, in terms of both physical disability and neurodiverse individuals, there is a need to create a business ecosystem that works for them.
We have a student in a robotics programme, creating arms for physical tasks to handle equipment, etc. Another student has a severe condition of cerebral palsy, which means his hand motor movements are not coordinated, but is brave enough to take this program. Now our goal is to find employers who will see this as an advantage, not as a disability.
Eleni Kitra: What’s the one action item you would take back to improve the integration of Gen Z in your workplace?
Shireen Mistree: I love the idea of blended learning. The something that I’m going to reflect on and see how it can be integrated into the organization.
Stavros Stavropoulos: Employment for Gen Z needs to be seen as a solution with access to learning, people, wellbeing, purpose, education, and tools.
Eva Mattheeussen: Regarding integration, we need to also look ahead at the next Gen Alpha, to make our organization more adaptable and agile. It’s less about age and more about mindset.
Mohammad Ali Meraj: Understanding and articulating the needs of Gen Z better, and how they are different in various regions of the globe.