As the first generation to graduate from college and hit the workforce during the Covid-19 pandemic, Gen Z has spent its time working in pajamas.

Gen Z, the 24-and-unders who prefer to text rather than talk on the phone, who came of age during the era of the participation trophy and made the world aware of the term “safe space,” began office work without ever having gone to an office.

They’ve never sat next to co-workers or gotten live feedback from bosses. Or, uh, even gotten dressed up.

But that soon may be changing. Will Gen Z be able to handle it? Will the office?

Yes, the office. The place made famous by The Office’s Dunder Mifflin and where for the last 100 years or so, workers gathered in cubicles or smaller sub-offices to perform tasks they’ve now proven they could easily perform at home, and complain — via private Slack channels, at the water cooler or over lunch — about the jobs they’ve now come to appreciate.

Some Gen Z workers are looking forward to the human contact and networking capabilities that office life affords. Others are not. In any case, human-resources departments are gearing up for their arrival.

Toronto-based Paula Allen, senior vice president of research at LifeWorks, a global consulting company specializing in the mental and physical well-being of employees, stresses there will be tough times ahead.

“This younger cohort is already at high risk for mental-health issues,” she said. “They have less optimism, more depression, more anxiety. It’s a vulnerable time of life, and then when you add the pandemic on top of it, it makes it worse.”

Social connection is “of the utmost importance” for Gen Z, Allen added.

A desire for in-person contact

Alexa Heller, a recent Gen Z graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is looking for a job in political communications, says that friends her age “tend to favor jobs that allow remote work at first, in order to have time to save money and find adequate living situations.”

But they don’t want to stay at home forever.

“It is easier to foster relationships with coworkers and contribute to company culture in an in-person environment,” Heller said. “I think that jobs that allow for remote work with an in-person component are most desirable for people my age.”

Alex Lewin, a 2021 Northwestern graduate who spent the summer searching for her first job, agrees.

“When looking toward my post-grad career, I knew I wanted to work in a teamwork-centered space,” she said. “Since the pandemic, human connection has become something so sought after, and between online classes and online socializing, I knew that I wanted to work in a space that had in-person meetings.”

Still, Lewin ended up with a job that’s fully remote and has to make the best of that reality.

“In some ways this gives me a lot of flexibility in where I live, my hours and if I want to travel,” she said.

She’s hoping some type of shared workspace can allow her the freedom of working remotely but also provide the opportunity to be around other people.

“The biggest thing for me is not feeling alone but rather independent, and that line can get a little blurry when working remotely,” she said.

LifeWorks’ Allen notes that even though many workers — especially Gen Z workers — like working from home, “at the time of life when you’re starting a career, external feedback is very important. You don’t know how you’re fitting in. Some in Gen Z have never met their co-workers,” she said.

Ambivalence about remote work

In addition, Gen Z — or any workers new to the workforce — are less likely to have positions with a lot of meetings and more likely to work by themselves. That makes them less likely to be suffering from Zoom fatigue, while they may be envious of those who attend meetings because that’s how they could meet their co-workers.

“Those meetings can be tedious but they connect you to other people, LifeWorks’ Allen said.

So why do so many people want to work from home?

“Just because people have proven they can work from home doesn’t mean it’s the best thing,” Allen added. “We often want things that are not good for us.”

“In remote work, there’s a certain safety,” she said. “You can be yourself. There’s no commute. And exposure to others is also scary. Since this is all the Gen Z workers have known, anything different will create some anxiety.”

Allen emphasizes that bringing older workers back to the office and new people to the office for the first time is going to require support and understanding.

“It took adjustment to leave the office and work from home, and now it’s going to take an adjustment to return. If people return to work but there’s no support, there’s not going to be any value in returning to work,” she said.

Higher engagement = higher productivity

Regarding the workforce in general, Allen notes it will be essential for employers to create community and engagement.

“If you engage people in a psychologically safe way, you’ll get higher productivity,” she said. “But none of this will work if companies don’t invest in their managers. Managers don’t always need to manage work or their staff, they need to create an environment. And training to do this can be very inexpensive.”

Old-style top-down management “with a disengaged workforce compromises mental health,” she said. “It has to change.”

For the Gen Z worker, even more has to change.

In order to attract new college graduates, Allen adds that larger companies are going to have to take part in the emerging conversation about ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance).

“How you behave to your workers is more important than ever before,” Allen said.

Not only because Gen Z job seekers are concerned about fair treatment, but because companies that develop a reputation for treating workers poorly may lose access to both human capital and actual capital: new workers won’t want to be employed there and venture capital firms won’t want to invest in companies Gen Z dislikes, experts say.

Allen offers these final remarks to attract Gen Z workers:

  • The company’s values must feel authentic to its employees.
  • Gen Z won’t stand for demeaning environments.
  • Gen Z prefers dialogue to confrontation.
  • Employee well-being is very important to Gen Z.
  • Companies will have to do what matters for the Gen Z group, or they won’t attract Gen Z workers.
  • Managing as companies have done in the past will no longer work.

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