Gen Z is rewriting the rules of office work
The American workplace is changing before our eyes. The next generation has some thoughts.
Farewell, water-cooler gossip.
Life has changed beyond recognition over the past 2½ years. When the pandemic struck, millions of white-collar workers underwent a mass exodus from their office suites and began to work at home.
After years of complaining about the grueling demands of office life — long hours, poor pay, rigid expectations — these new remote workers found themselves in a different world. Ill-defined work hours, meeting fatigue, round-the-clock emails, Zoom “socials” and even employer surveillance presented a whole new set of challenges.
Understandably, many thought they had swapped one poisoned chalice for another.
“Office-based and remote work represent the opposite ends of an evolving work spectrum, and both have good and bad points,” said David Bechtold, Ph.D., associate professor of Management at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “But up till this point, employees have felt compelled to toe the line.”
However, a generation of young workers — and the students poised to enter the labor pool behind them — has emerged as a commanding new voice in the workplace. And as Bechtold said: “They seem determined to look out for their own interests and rewrite the old rules.”
Today, the American workplace is at a competitive crossroads.
Knowledge workers are pushing for better working conditions and seeking to retain some of the flexibility and advantages of the Covid-19 era. Employers, predictably, are trying to claw back lost ground. But they are finding a significant fly in the ointment.
“The pandemic and corresponding low unemployment rate have greatly empowered Generation Z employees, who are in crazily high demand,” said Bechtold. “And having realized just how much sway they have, they are now negotiating for new working structures in which the office is built around their lives, rather than vice versa.”
According to a recent survey by the job site CareerBuilder, Gen Z workers (ages 25 and under) are pretty clear about what they want: higher pay, a flexible schedule and better benefits, in that order.
Those priorities closely match the career aspirations of many students. Take Katlyn Pollard, who studies Communication Design at MSU Denver. “Any future job for me would absolutely need to have good pay and benefits,” she said. “But I also want a position that is fluid in its work schedule, as well as location, so I can work from home or even travel.”
Some MSU Denver students also have more aspirational goals. “My main priority in a future job is to feel a sense of purpose and excitement each day, in addition to working with others who share a common vision and goal,” said Demitris Padgett, an Entrepreneurship and Communications student. “For me, a positive company culture is just as important as other more traditional concerns.”
Fearless and worthy
There’s a good reason why young employees have so much clout in the workplace: They aren’t afraid to just quit and move on if they don’t like a job.
One survey last year (which presumably caused sleepless nights for many company bosses) found that more than three-quarters of Gen Z workers planned to find a new job “soon.” As digital natives, they simply know that more work is out there. And that gives them substantial leverage.
“Recently, we’ve seen several reports of younger employees returning to old jobs after being disappointed by their new ones,” Bechtold said. “But even under those circumstances, they often go back to more responsibility and better pay. So why not take the chance?”
Besides such fearlessness, young employees and college students appear to share another important quality: a keen sense of self-worth and personal identity.
“I’ll require any workplace to recognize that their employees have full, creative lives outside of work and not just within it,” Pollard said. “Plus, if I’m working 40 hours a week at a company and still can’t pay my bills, then I won’t be working there for long.”
Padgett shares those sentiments. “As younger employees, it’s critical that we should all know the value of our own human capital,” he said. “That means recognizing our own potential and refusing to be exploited by demanding employers.”
With the tectonic plates still shifting, a workplace power struggle seems inevitable. But who will win — the young workforce looking to gain better pay and flexibility or the employers striving to grind everyone back into submission (and the office) again?
“While unemployment rates stay low, Gen Z employees will retain a key advantage,” Bechtold said. “But once rates start to rise, some of their leverage will be lost.”
However, what most interests Bechtold is whether employers will realize that the new concessions they’re reluctantly offering make them stronger in recruiting and retaining talent.
“Over recent decades, workers have gone from being considered ‘costs’ to being ‘resources’ to becoming ‘talent,’” he said. “That simple verbal change says a lot about the growing power of workers and evolving company attitudes toward them.”
RELATED: What’s the future of work?
Bechtold is optimistic that more and more white-collar employers are coming to recognize the value of having and investing in a talented and committed workforce. And how, ultimately, that also makes them more attractive to employees.
“Wherever we end up in the future, I don’t think we’ll either return to the office-based past or stick with this current mostly remote model,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t know what will come next — but it’s going to be an exciting journey to find out.”