My Virtual Career: Generation Z and the Shift to Remote Work

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May 27, 2020
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.

As organizations rapidly switched to working from home in response to COVID-19, many tools and resources surfaced to help leaders effectively manage distributed teams. These offered guidelines for establishing a home office, using technology, and balancing the demands of work and home life. But what if some of your employees are in their early twenties and living with roommates in a 500 square foot apartment? You need to not only enable them to work from home but empower them to navigate their first career steps without the benefits of having coworkers nearby or a manager at the end of the hallway.

Gen Z is one of the most connected and creative forces in the current workplace. Managed effectively, they have a unique opportunity to reimagine work and drive innovation with lasting impacts on business and society. Understanding and engaging Gen Z through this crisis will pay dividends on their contributions today and will go a long way toward keeping them engaged as well as retaining them when the crisis is over. And with companies needing to quickly make the shift to remote work, understanding the perspective and experiences of their digitally inclined employees might hold the key to some surprising insights.

I had a conversation with Mei-Li Thompson, a Senior Business Analyst in Kearney’s New York office. At 23, Mei-Li is part of our valued Gen-Z workforce; she and her generational cohorts are those born between 1997 and 2014. On the whole, during the pandemic, this group has been largely overlooked, with most of the attention focused on a few bad actors disregarding social distancing guidelines. But this does not accurately reflect the majority of Generation Z, most of whom are highly valuable to the organizations trying to manage through this crisis.

We often assume that everyone already has a home office, with privacy, space, and supplies. But for people of a younger generation, this is simply untrue – they have to start from square one. Gen Z’s apartments are typically small, shared by multiple people, and these spaces must serve increasingly varied needs. While some Gen Z-ers have opted to return home to live with parents during quarantine, Mei-Li and her sister chose to remain in their tiny apartment in Manhattan. Mei-Li explained how many Gen Z-ers have gone about creating their ad-hoc “home offices.” Mei-Li’s home office required converting her kitchen table into a shared desk during working hours. She told us that her peers have had to make do with dressers, countertops, or lap desks, some even buying chairs for the first time. Creativity, Mei-Li told us, is the name of the game. For important phone calls and video meetings, Mei-Li and her sister try to coordinate their calendars so that they aren’t both presenting at the same time, which helps them to focus on the meeting at hand.

As relative newcomers to the working world, members of Gen Z must now learn and develop their professional selves in new ways, at a physical distance from coworkers. Mei-Li explained how this looks for her: “Our firm moved a lot of training online with short recorded and live sessions. I complete one of these every few weeks to continue learning outside my project work. I also have regularly scheduled feedback conversations with my manager and mentor to discuss my overall goals and progress despite not being in the office together.” To help focus on the right priorities and develop tools for working efficiently at home, she and her coworkers now have short but more frequent check-ins, where they once had less frequent but longer meetings. They also communicate over the phone rather than by email to increase the speed of results and reduce the risk of miscommunication.

As to the more social aspects of work culture, Mei-Li’s team has incorporated informal social interactions into their normal meetings by spending the first few minutes checking in with one another on a more personal level. She emphasized how this introduction helps set a collaborative tone and makes it easier to contribute during the rest of the time. And internal groups such as the Women’s Network have also moved online, with digital gatherings creating opportunities to connect informally and share work-from-home tips. In fact, Mei-Li told us she is inspired by the new ways in which we can digitally socialize. As a member of Gen Z, she is often more familiar with these than her colleagues, and she loves sharing tools and apps with her coworkers to help them connect with their friends and families, as well.

Of course, these are trying times for everyone, and Gen Z-ers are under stress just like the rest of us. Mei-Li is fully availing herself of Kearney’s efforts to prioritize employee wellbeing, with virtual volunteering and a focus on mental health. While her generation is often known for its openness to discussing mental health, Mei-Li points out that these are valuable offerings for people of all generations, which she hopes will continue to be available after the pandemic is behind us. Today’s circumstances have made it apparent how important it is to recognize and discuss how concerns such as health, job security, social isolation, stress, and anxiety can affect individuals and the workplace. Mei-Li’s practice has included daily yoga in the living room; a friend of hers has re-envisioned her building’s stairwell as a gym.

For herself, Mei-Li has learned a few new things from this time. The need to carry out one’s work and personal life in the same space has led her to be more focused, dedicated, and creative with her space and her time, a practice she intends to lean into moving forward. Working from home, while difficult at times, also has its benefits. Rather than spend time commuting to work, workers at home inherently have more flexibility in how they allocate their work and personal time while still committing the same number of hours to the workday. This flexibility is something Mei-Li hopes will continue into the future.

Overall, it’s clear from Mei-Li’s perspective that Generation Z brings experiences and opinions that differ from those of other generations. How they are approaching social distancing, from creative repurposing of space to collaboration with others, along with their awareness of and comfort with new technologies and issues such as mental health awareness, can perhaps bring new hope to today’s circumstances.

This article is part of a series called Remote Work.
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