How to manage Gen Z: born digital and fluent in technology

Written by Ann Francke OBE Wednesday 17 March 2021
Have you thought about using SnapChat or TikTok for business purposes? Perhaps Gen-Z's point of view could help...
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

These are challenging times for Generation Z – the young people born mid-to-late 1990s – who are entering the workforce just as the global economy is reeling from the worldwide pandemic. They will need careful management. But first, we need to understand them. In our latest Better Managers Briefing, I spoke to CMI companion Bob Wigley who has just written a book, Born Digital: The Story of a Distracted Generation. Bob has spent a career in banking and currently chairs UK Finance, the industry body for the banking and finance sector. I was keen to find out what set him along this path of trying to understand better what motivates and drives this generation of “digital natives”.

Establishing empathy

Two years ago, Bob made a New Year's resolution to meet as many Generation Z entrepreneurs as he could; so far he has spoken with more than 200. “It is always the best hour of every day,” he says. “I am bowled over by their insights, enthusiasm, passion, social conscience and sense of purpose. But it has also given me insight into how that generation is living its life and, through technology, sees the world quite differently from the way my generation does.”

Surveys suggest young people are unhappier than they have been for a decade. Rates of anxiety, depression, sadly, self-harm and even suicide have been rising – all at a time when technology has become ubiquitous in our lives. Coincidence? Academic research, so far, makes no clear causal link. But in his book, Bob calls for greater co-operative effort by the big tech platforms, civil society and academia to find answers and solutions for tackling harms at source.

Technology, unintentionally, attacks the places where empathy normally develops, says Bob. “When you talk with someone face to face, you get visual cues so that you can see when they find something you say offensive or difficult to understand. But young people tend to message, not talk, and so don’t get those visual clues.” Other technology-impacted trends, such as hot-desking in the workplace or the decline of communal eating at home erode further the opportunity for face-to-face conversation. “That’s an issue because empathy helps bind society together and prevent polarisation,” argues Bob.

The UK government is already taking steps in the right direction, he says. Its online harms bill is the first attempt globally to address a comprehensive spectrum of online harms in a single and coherent way. Last year, the government introduced an Age Appropriate Design Code for online services and introduced specific relationship education to the school curriculum to explain the difference between online and offline relationships. And a dedicated Digital Markets Unit has been created to police a new code that will govern the behaviour of platforms such as Google and Facebook.

Creating digital workplaces

Gen-Z has never known a time when there wasn't Google, when they couldn't use a smartphone, when they didn't have a supercomputer and world-class film studio in their pockets. Their willingness to use technology will enable them to be more productive and efficient. But they will be more demanding of their employers in terms of their attitude to technology. “Think about the recruitment processes, for example. Generation Z don’t want to fill in application forms for hours and never get an acknowledgement. They want forward-looking recruiters like McDonald's which uses Snapchat to hire its servers or Goldman Sachs, which uses TikTok,” says Bob.

When it comes to onboarding, training, appraisals and employee surveys, Generation Z will expect snappy, punchy videos that are hyper-personalised – content on which they can “snack, graze and respond”, says Bob. It’s a generation looking for experiences, not jobs, and is motivated by benefits as much as salary. “It won’t be enough to just pay them a little more each year. They will be asking, ‘do we have a cool working environment, can I remote work, can I have flexi time? Can I have paid time off? Can I have access to my pay at any time during the month?’ They will expect from employers the same hyper-personalisation they get on the web,” says Bob.

Purposes, not profits

This new generation’s willingness to rent rather than buy, multi-task rather than focus, means they are less likely to see the appeal of a full-time job. “They also want the freedom to have a side hustle or be able to start a social enterprise,” says Bob, who argues that to attract, retain and develop the best talent, employers must convince Generation Z of their purposes. “For these young people, business must be about something more important than making money,” he explains. “In my sector, the financial services industry, that means we need to talk more about, for example, helping families buy their first home, or helping a business buy its new premises and employ more people – ultimately serving society in some wider purpose.”

To find out more, visit: Born Digital: The Story of a Distracted Generation by Robert Wigley. You can also watch our conversation in full here.

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