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How to Speak Gen Z in the Workplace

By Liam Etti

Columbia SPS Strategic Communication lecturer Jenny Fernandez, along with co-authors Julie Lee and Kathryn Landis, published an article in the Harvard Business Review about shifts in working culture as Gen-Z (people born between 1995-2010) enters the workforce. The article shares methods for engaging and motivating younger employees in the face of generational challenges and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Professor Fernandez is Vice President of Marketing at Loacker USA, a start-up advisor, and adjunct lecturer at Columbia University. She teaches Content Strategy, Digital Communication Strategy, and Marketing Management, helping to shape a new generation of business leaders. Fernandez and her co-authors share the following guidelines for managing Gen Zers. Some highlights:

Increase information sharing 

In light of economic and social uncertainty caused by the pandemic, young people are facing increased levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. Building trust with this generation requires more transparency in all areas, as access to more information gives younger generations a greater sense of control over their position. Prof. Fernandez suggests transitioning communication styles from a “need-to-know” model to an “open access” model to ease anxieties with information. 

Show paths for career progression

Showing Gen Z employees exactly how they can progress improves retention and incentivizes employees. Open communication with employees early on about career pathways and salary progressions can help alleviate the financial anxiety caused by the pandemic and keep organizations committed to pay equity. One example is holding group discussions on salaries to maintain accountability.

Demonstrate the meaningful contributions of employees

Gen Z is a purpose-driven generation, so they want to see how their contributions support an organization's mission. To motivate employees, try inviting them to share their unique skill set with the larger team. This creates a dialogue about how each team member contributes to the greater goal. 

Provide room for autonomy 

Gen Z has always had easy access to information. This accessibility has encouraged them to find answers on their own. Giving employees enough space to leverage this capability not only improves motivation but also can encourage unexpected and creative solutions from Gen Z employees.

Give constructive feedback 

Provide specific, constructive, and honest feedback to keep employees improving and engaged. Fernandez and her co-authors provide these three questions to drive these conversations. What does success look like in a given situation? What are you learning from this particular workstream or project? What has been challenging for you on the team and what suggestions do you have for improving?

Harness community connection

Gen Z employees are likely to only have professional experience in a remote or hybrid context. Providing the option to work remotely or in a hybrid setting increases employee engagement; however, it is important to provide opportunities to network and socialize in person. Try organizing project kickoffs, team celebrations, and state of the business discussions to build camaraderie. 

Prioritize wellness and mental health 

Recognize the importance of mental health and wellness for employees. Providing resources and support for employees can include forming an employee research group on mental health. Another effective strategy has been to lead by example, asking employees how they are doing and sharing personal details about your emotional state to build

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