Why Gen Z workers are starting on the back foot

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Having only known virtual work settings, some young employees lack exposure to the workplace norms that set them up to succeed.

In some ways, Gen Z employees are thriving in the new world of work. They’ve entered the workforce at a time when flexibility is commonplace, digital communication is ubiquitous and employees have the leverage to ask companies for what they want.

At the same time, however, some experts are concerned that remote and hybrid work arrangements are already leaving some early-career workers behind. Many of these worries revolve around the absence of workplace intangibles: a lack of the casual conversations and informal observations that traditionally teach young employees how to act. Amid virtual settings, some experts believe entry-level workers are missing out on picking up vital cues that guide behaviour, collaboration and networking.

“It’s particularly centred around communication,” explains Helen Hughes, associate professor at Leeds University Business School, UK. “It’s things like understanding norms, values and etiquette: Who should you call? How should they be contacted? Are some people out of bounds?”

These sorts of questions were once promptly answered in face-to-face settings – a desk drop-by, or quick tag in the office kitchen. Navigating office politics would also be intuitive, based on subtle but tangible cues: fixed seating arrangements tend to indicate hierarchy; body language suggests when colleagues are most approachable. “Social comparison is harder in a remote or hybrid environment – you can’t see everyone around you and get a sense of how you’re doing,” says Hughes. 

But with so many young employees now working either remotely or hybrid, a once-natural encounter has now been replaced by an additional layer of outreach, which is inherently more complicated.  

Hughes says this makes even mundane work tasks harder to accomplish. “Miscommunication is easy in a virtual environment; for example, incorrectly inferring tone from an email. There can be a lack of understanding of when to set up a meeting – whether it’s appropriate to wait and build a list of questions, or set up a call each time something is needed.”

Some experts say that without face-to-face interaction, Gen Z are missing subtle cues that can teach them how to communicate and behave at work (Credit: Getty Images)

Some experts say that without face-to-face interaction, Gen Z are missing subtle cues that can teach them how to communicate and behave at work (Credit: Getty Images)

Without being able to glean behavioural cues from colleagues in offices, young employees can find it hard to strike the right balance between appearing either overeager or idle, says Hughes. “They can have broader anxieties around how visible they should strive to be. In a hybrid or remote environment, it can be too easy to fall off the radar and find their work goes unnoticed.” 

The result, says Hughes, is that many early-career workers prioritise the impression they make at work – leading to behaviours like presenteeism and procrastination – rather than their actual job performance. “They may ask too many questions to appear keen, or they might not ask anything at all because they’re worried how they’ll be perceived by colleagues.”

Ultimately, says James Bailey, professor of leadership development at the George Washington University School of Business, based in Washington, DC, chance encounters with colleagues help build trust, fostering an environment of risk-taking and innovation. “Serendipity is a big part of face-to-face office life that can’t be replicated online,” he says. “Some of our best ideas come from watercooler chats with colleagues – if you want to replicate those casual conversations on Zoom, you have to set up an appointment in someone’s calendar.” 

Bailey says that unless the previous model of face-to-face learning can be updated for the new age of work, alongside their current challenges, some Gen Z employees may lack leadership qualities needed for the future. “They may not struggle with executing a specific task independently, but they may be left with underdeveloped cross-functional skillsets that are required to take a strategic view across a whole organisation – the role of a leader.” 

Of course, it’s not the case that every young worker who is at least partially remote is struggling. But for many of these inexperienced employees, virtual work settings can exacerbate new job stress. “Many of these issues are still anxieties for new employees in a typical office environment, but remote working seems to accentuate the transactional aspects,” says Hughes. 

This lack of osmosis learning has left experts concerned Gen Z employees won’t feel the true cost of these circumstances until later in their careers.