It started with what was thought to be a cluster of cases of pneumonia in China in early January 2020. Three months later the United States declared the coronavirus a national emergency and California became the first state to issue a stay-at-home order. Only essential workers reported to work, and people only shopped for essentials. Within a span of weeks companies that previously claimed it would be impossible for their people to work from home were handing out laptops and setting up Zoom meetings. The federal government adopted a “maximum telework” policy. The virus fundamentally changed the workplace and showed Gen Z a workplace disruption can force change.
A generation’s world view is shaped by key issues during members’ formative years (ages 10-25). Baby Boomers grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, so their worldview includes the idea that success comes from sacrifice. Gen Xers were latchkey kids during the dot-com bubble; they believe that success should be immediate and focused on the individual. Millennials saw tragedies like the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Columbine shooting bring the country together. Social media platforms gave them unprecedented connections. There was an app for everything and an online group for every niche. Their worldview was shaped by technology that adapted to them. They expected managers to know them as individuals, give work schedule flexibility and provide immediate feedback on everything.
Today we welcome Gen Z to the workplace. Their worldview will be partly shaped by the pandemic and how it changed the workplace. Change, or rather the resistance to change, underlies most workplace generational friction. The pandemic showed Gen Z a new tool for forcing workplace change: disruption.
In 1979 The Washington Post published an article entitled “Working at Home Can Save Gas,” and it popularized the idea of telework. But three decades later, the federal government—a proponent of teleworking—only had 100,000 employees (about 5% of those eligible) teleworking at least part-time. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, organizations quickly adopted telework. The call centers of companies like GEICO moved swiftly to issue laptops loaded with proprietary software allowing their service agents access to vast databases of customer information from home. Many spent the next year or more working from a home office, spare bedroom, or the kitchen table. Gallup reported that by April of 2020 70% of U.S. employees were working from home some or all the time with one-third working from home exclusively. A survey by the Office of Personnel Management found that 59% of federal employees were working from home daily at the height of the pandemic, an increase from just 3% before COVID-19 hit.
Gen Z saw the largest organizations switch to telework nearly overnight when they needed to do it. Previous generations were resigned to the wheels of change turning slowly. Gen Z entered a workplace that was in the process of rapid change that worked. They saw a disruptive force compel change, and that will forever shape how they see the workplace. The pandemic is not the only disruptive force they’ve seen change an entrenched status quo.
The #MeToo movement gave women the courage and support to speak out against sexual harassment and sexual assault. That perennial problem had been driven underground by men who convinced women they would damage their own reputations by coming forward and they should just accept it as part of getting ahead. Similar advancements are being made for African Americans as the spotlight of social media focused on the prevalence of African Americans being detained, shot, and killed by police. The LGBTQ community saw the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy repealed and the Supreme Court strike down state bans on same-sex marriage in the last 10 years. These positions saw little movement in the decades prior. But disruptive acts, fueled by social media, forced long overdue change.
Gen Z seems to have shifted from the Millennials’ “you only live once” (YOLO) mantra to something more akin to “live your best life.” The pandemic has caused many to look for alternative employment opportunities. They work gig jobs driving for Uber or DoorDash, selling hand-crafted goods on Etsy or Shopify, or monetizing YouTube and Instagram accounts. But they don’t seem to be willing to take jobs that don’t pay a livable wage. They will quit—or not apply for— jobs rather than take a job they feel takes advantage of them. A retired 3M employee of 30+ years told me that when Millennials entered the workforce his plant had to employ 1,200 people to get the same production levels 900 Gen Xers and Baby Boomers delivered for years. Millennials weren’t willing to be pushed to their limits all day every day. Similarly, Gen Z is not willing to be undervalued.
In many ways, Gen Z is leading by example. They jumped to fill the ranks of inequality protests, they pay more for environmentally sound options and they want to make a difference. They do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. The pandemic created a volatile stock market, uncertain employment and general anxiety making mental health issues ubiquitous. The Kaiser Family Foundation explained the number of adults reporting anxiety or depressive disorders quadrupled from one in 10 to four in 10 during the pandemic. Gen Z is destigmatizing mental health issues.
Last September I spoke with senior members of the FBI about generational friction. One of the things they told me they noticed was when Gen Z and younger Millennials needed psychological counseling, not only did they seek it out on their own, but they were not shy about telling their bosses. While a Boomer might just “push through” and a Millennial might call in feigning a stomach bug to see a therapist, Gen Zers would call in and say, “I am really struggling. I need to take a day for my own mental health and talk to a therapist.” Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that when we compare suicide rates of adults by generation, the generation with the lowest suicide rate is Gen Z and the highest is the “Builders” who are now 75 and older. They are a generation that simply didn’t talk about mental health issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed our workplaces overnight. Fortunately, we already had the infrastructure required for the change. Most households had computers and Internet access. Companies like Zoom and Google had video conferencing and file sharing systems in place. Millennials had lobbied to use these for years. But the working world was reluctant to adopt such changes en masse. The pandemic disrupted the workplace and forced that change. Gen Z saw that, and they have undoubtedly learned a lesson: Disruption can force change.
Theoretical physicist Max Planck proposed that a new scientific discovery doesn’t come about by convincing opponents of its validity; rather the opponents eventually die off, and a new generation grows up familiar with it. This is the basis for generational friction. A new generation, growing up in a new world, sees a new way. Despite previous generations’ best efforts to change the workplace, attrition is what led to change. But Gen Z has seen mass disruption force immediate change. They have another tool to leverage change and they will likely force change and ultimately make the workplace more responsive, more agile and more effective.
Todd Holm teaches professional communication at the Expeditionary Warfare School for Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va.
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