Nearly two decades ago Workforce published the article, “Ready or Not, Here Come the Net Kids.”
The story highlighted the entrepreneurial exploits of several youthful tech whiz kids including then-17-year-old Michael Furdyk, who had already co-founded and was about to sell his first dot-com, mydesktop.com, before starting up his second company, buybuddy.com.
Furdyk was one of many faces among this new breed of tech entrepreneur. He was also among those christened as the “Net Kids,” although that term didn’t stick long. They soon became widely known as Generation Y and today they’re the millennials, arguably the most researched generation ever.
They heralded a new generation entering the workforce, bringing their technical acumen and entrepreneurial spirit, and they developed a reputation — deserved or not — for craving attention and being team-oriented. They’ve since grown up (Furdyk is now 36) and like generations before them now own homes, have families and run companies.
And like their predecessors, Generation X, the millennials are giving way to the next generation of “net kids.”
Also known as Digital Natives and the iGeneration, it’s time to welcome Generation Z to the workforce.
There are some 74 million so-called Digital Natives in the United States. Going by the Forbes definition of a Gen Zer as being born between 1995 and 2010, the oldest among them turns 24 this year and the development of their career paths is already underway. Leadership should be prepared to manage this new generation of young adults who, much like the millennials, are set to change the face of the workforce.
Due to their proximity to the age of the internet, some of the characteristics of millennials and Gen Z can blend into one another. However, one of the aspects that makes them most similar is also one of their key differences. Millennials had to acclimate to a new technological landscape as the World Wide Web took root in the early 1990s, while Gen Z was born into advancements like the internet, Wi-Fi, search engines and social media already at their fingertips.
Vina Leite, chief people officer of online advertising company The Trade Desk, described Gen Z as “digital-first.” Leite has two decades of experience with HR leadership at tech-based companies including Cyclance Inc. and QLogic, and was managing employees as millennials entered the workforce. Leite foresees that more tenured, traditional companies and HR teams will have to undergo a huge transformation in order to attract, retain and engage this new generation.
“HR teams need to think beyond the traditional definition of HR,” Leite said. “That means doing everything from changing training, onboarding and communication programs, to constantly evaluating social media policies to reflect rules that give Gen Z the autonomy to post but give them a lot more guidance.”
Incorporating more advanced technology into the operating model is already to a company’s advantage, and social media is a part of that. When it comes to social media, Gen Z has proven to be expert. Millennials might have ushered in the age of the “influencer” as they pushed their digital skills toward entrepreneurial efforts via social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube, but Gen Z has taken that foundation set by millennials and built upon it. As new tools become available, Gen Z will naturally adapt more quickly. This will be both an advantage and a challenge for people managers. Gen Z will be able to present new tools for companies to use in the digital world, and they will expect their companies to be just as up to date.
Leite said that The Trade Desk has already begun incorporating tech into more traditional areas of the business, such as training. Now, training includes making podcasts and YouTube videos. “Far from traditional training,” Leite said, but changing to accommodate a new generation isn’t a new concept in Leite’s experience.Leite thinks that Gen Z is even more engaged and confident in the workplace than the generation before them, with different expectations surrounding their opportunities to grow. They aren’t going to be a workforce that shows up, does the job, and goes home.
They are going to meet and exceed the example set before them by the millennial generation as they bring a higher level of autonomy to the workplace. Leite expects Gen Zers to crave a wider employee experience that allows them to dabble in other areas of their organizations. In order to drive that autonomy, Leite wants to create an environment where young employees can participate in leadership training and spend time in different areas of the business.
“It offers a little more than someone with limited experience would usually get,” Leite said. “It’s a challenge, but here we have an environment where we can easily create these programs to motivate and retain the next generation.”
Pros and Cons of Always Being On
Besides being highly autonomous and digitally skilled, Barbara Fisher, chief operating and people officer of Aduro, sees that Gen Z is interested in work/life balance and what it means to them. Before joining the employee wellness company, Fisher had 20 years of experience as vice president and CHRO of talent management with tech giant Intel. Fisher said that Gen Z approaches work/life balance a bit differently than previous generations. She said that Gens X and Y had a clearer balance between the workplace and home life, but technology has muddied that boundary for Gen Z. With the abundance of technology at their fingertips 24/7, they’re always on and plugged in.
“They’re always connected. We talked about it with the millennials and it’s dialed up for [Gen Z]. They just grew up with it,” Fisher added.
Part of Aduro’s work is to elevate corporate culture and improve employee wellness; this also applies to their own employees. Fisher urges younger generations take a pause from tweeting, using Instagram and texting.
Being plugged into the internet and fast-tracked communication with social media isn’t all bad. Fisher described a generation that is more sensitive to current events and more globally aware. The plus side of this is that Gen Z will offer up a larger understanding of different populations and geographies, which is a breeding ground for diverse ideas.
“But they also get to see some not-so-good things, too,” Fisher said. “How does that affect them and how does that weigh on them?”
Gen Zers might feel as if they carry the weight of the world in their pocket through their smartphones, which will weigh them down when they come to work stressed and anxious. Fisher said that being constantly plugged into technology will be a challenge to overcome in order to achieve workplace wellness.
“One of the things that I focus a lot on is trying to help [Gen Z] find that more balanced ground of almost: Disconnect and go back to you, and focus on making yourself the best ‘you’ you can be,” Fisher said.
Now might be the time for people managers to look at their wellness programs to see if they include self-care and stress management for this generation of employees.
Finances will also be a source of anxiety for the young generation. The American Psychology Association rates money as one of the leading causes of stress among these individuals. Their financial worries are going to affect the way that they approach higher education, banking and future career paths. Fisher said that offering both financial and career stability is going to be key in attracting and retaining Gen Z.
“That doesn’t mean that they are money hungry or that money is the only thing that matters,” Fisher said. With rising costs of higher education, Gen Z is graduating with massive college debt into a highly competitive workforce. Compared to Gen Z, Fisher said millennials were more concerned about their purpose within a company and corporate giveback to the environment. What will be most valuable to Gen Z is a clearly defined career path that offers them financial security and stability to alleviate the stress of paying off their loans.
They want to know that there is a development path. They want to know that you’ve thought that through,” Fisher said. She even described that using a 10-year career path template would help illustrate to Gen Z candidates their options within a company.
“They love that you thought it through.”
Fisher and Leite emphasized that Gen Z will be a highly independent, purpose-driven workforce that seeks to be challenged in the workplace. They are curious, hungry learners who will offer companies new and different ideas.
More importantly, “They want to have a voice and they want to be heard,” Fisher said. Not only does this mean allowing these young adults to express their thoughts and ideas, it also means offering them transparency throughout the decision-making process. That’s not to say that leadership ought to involve them in every decision. Rather, Fisher said that leadership should be aware that Gen Z craves strong, transparent communication.
“They definitely want that partnership, communication and collaboration as decisions are rolling out,” Fisher said.
The Net Kid: Then and Now
Since his days co-founding internet start-up companies, Furdyk has appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” presented at TED Talks, and in 2000 was named one of Teen People’s “Twenty Teens that will Change the World.” Today he serves as director of technology at TakingITGlobal alongside co-founder and Executive Director Jennifer Corriero and is a member of several nonprofit boards such as Pollution Probe, Better the World and Reinventing Schools Coalition.
Workforce caught up with Furdyk to muse upon the new generation and how they compare to the expectations of his generation when they were entering the workforce.
Furdyk appreciated how times have changed for young entrepreneurs. He thought back on the challenges that he and mydesktop.com co-founder Michael Hayman faced. “The challenge continued to be access to capital [and] being 17, in high school, getting an investor to take us seriously,” he said. “Now, that’s not such a crazy idea.”
Furdyk noted that the change in attitude comes from people like Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, among others, who started some of the world’s largest online businesses while in their late teens and early 20s.
“Things are quite different now with a lot of the young people that are starting to do major enterprises,” Furdyk said. For one, access to capital has been revolutionized for young entrepreneurs through crowdfunding forums like KickStarter, Patreon and GoFundMe. Nowadays, anyone can gather thousands of investors for business ventures.
Furdyk expects for Gen Z to carry their highly ambitious and challenge-hungry spirit to the workplace, which people managers can turn to their organization’s advantage.
“One of the things that I have seen, from an employer point of view, is creating opportunities for them to bring an idea to life. Be entrepreneurial within the scope of an idea or a task,” Furdyk advised.
For a workforce as independent and autonomous as Gen Z, offering opportunities for them to take the reins means making room for their voice and ideas. Furdyk said that this is something Gen Z will be challenging their employers to do. Creating an atmosphere of shared ownership in the workplace will motivate Gen Z to seek out a purpose-driven experience within their organizations.
Feeding With Feedback
Furdyk said that constant feedback will be another motivational factor for Gen Z. It makes sense if you think about a generation that thrives in social media and offers instant satisfaction through likes. The Trade Desk’s Leite, Aduro’s Fisher and Furdyk all agree that feedback will be key to a healthy working relationship with this generation, and that means offering it more frequently as opposed to the traditional quarterly or annual basis.
This is where tech and data tools will come in handy for people managers. At TakingITGlobal, Furdyk and his teams utilize employee engagement software 15Five. The name gives away the tool’s use: Employees spend 15 minutes a week sharing with their teams what they’ve achieved, their future goals and where they might be stuck while managers spend five minutes a week offering feedback. This tool offers a transparent communication, which as Fisher noted will be valuable to this workforce. Furdyk said that it will satisfy those hungry for frequent feedback and offer support for those who might be struggling.
“They want to feel appreciated,” Furdyk said.
Furdyk also expects Generation Z will want to use their voices in the workplace, especially in the decision-making process. He proposed that these opportunities can even be offered in small and inexpensive ways, but ultimately, they are creating space for Gen Z to speak up and out.
“I think that will create a more motivating environment,” Furdyk said. When it comes to making those decisions, he said that Gen Z will want to look at the data before making a move. They will want to collect and analyze data that will better inform the decision-making process which can be done with smart tools at any organization.
Leadership will need to be flexible as Gen Z enters the workplace. As always, challenges lie ahead, but challenges also offer room for growth. Gen Z appears willing to adapt and grow within an organization, according to Furdyk. They are creative, confident, intellectually curious and ready to be engaged.
To them, Furdyk said, “Keep pushing [and] keep experimenting.”