Gen Z

Preparing the workplace for Gen Z

First demographic cohort raised on devices expected to drive return to design basics
Thursday, March 31, 2016
By Michelle Ervin

If organizations want to be ready when Generation Z enters the workforce five years from now, it’s time to start designing with this next demographic cohort in mind, says Kay Sargent, director of workplace strategy at Lend Lease. Sargent, speaking in an AgilQuest webinar, recommended a return to design basics as members of this cohort, the eldest of whom are now 15 years old, prepare to embark on their careers.

This preference for simplicity comes as a product of the overstimulation Gen Z faces as the first demographic cohort to be raised on devices. The director of workplace strategy cited the telling statistic that among two to five-year-olds, 70 per cent know how to use a computer mouse, while only 11 per cent know how to tie their shoes.

Sargent cautioned against confusing generational preferences based on life stage, which are prone to change, with preferences based on shared experiences that typically occur in the formative years. For example, much has been said about urbanization, or the return to city dwelling, by millennials, but she mused about what will happen in the next few years as members of Gen Y begin families.

“We’re starting to see companies like Facebook and Google for the first time start to address their employees that have kids … and how they might be able to deal with and/or assist them in those endeavours,” she said.

Although members of Gen Z are currently making their way through their formative years, a couple of common traits have emerged among members of this demographic cohort, Sargent noted. They are social media-savvy multi-taskers who don’t compartmentalize their personal and professional lives. They may also struggle with interpersonal relationships when they arrive in the workplace, having not had to rely on face-to-face communication as much.

While the role of technology in Gen Z’s upbringing is clearly integral to their identity, so too is the role of their Gen X parents, who will be stepping into leadership positions as their kids launch their own careers. Parents tend to want for their kids want they never had, explained Sargent, which in the case of the “latchkey kid” generation is security and stability.

She pointed to the Strauss-Howe generational theory, which characterizes members of Gen X as nomads. The theory essentially posits that the moods of eras are cyclical, with each demographic cohort taking on the persona of one of four accompanying archetypes.

There are the heroes who come together in common cause (most recently the traditionalists of the WWII generation); then come the artists, who revel in a renaissance following this new high; next come the prophets, who start to question the status quo (baby boomers); and last, come the nomads, who enter adulthood during times of crisis. According to this theory, the so-called “me, me, me” millennials are next in line to become heroes and Gen Z, artists.

There are hints of this artist persona in the demographic cohort’s maker culture, Sargent said. Ultimately, though, members of Gen Z want to make an impact. This may explain why opportunities for career growth topped the responses in a survey of what was most important to young professionals among options including flexible schedules and higher salaries.

The director of workplace strategy expects well-being, a major issue today, to remain a challenge as this next demographic cohort enters the workforce. She raised the finding that approximately 70 per cent of employees are not engaged, 18 per cent of whom are so disengaged that employers would be better off paying them to stay home.

What’s more, the ranking of the largest lifestyle risk factors in the U.S. workforce today has shifted dramatically over the last few decades. Whereas in the 1950s and 60s smoking was widespread, today stress, followed by obesity, lack of activity and poor nutrition, rate highest.

With stress so prevalent, Sargent suggested that the complex layouts and “explosion” of colours, materials and patterns of today’s workplaces will overwhelm members of Gen Z, who are already inundated with information. Instead, the demographic cohort will be seeking balance, choice, clarity, order and simplicity.

Nonetheless, she highlighted the fact that the various generations that co-exist in the workplace not only have differences but commonalities. With its Gen X parents, who are expected to experience eyesight issues as they age, Gen Z shares a preference for ease of navigation. As for the Millennials, Gen Z is forecast to exhibit similar job-hopping tendencies.

“We’re designing for a variety of workers today and so we have a variety of work styles that we need to plan for,” said Sargent. “The next next generation is on the doorstep. The Gen Zs are coming, and we need to start planning for them.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

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