Gen Z and Return to Work


After almost two years of remote work, businesses are planning to return to their office spaces. Work from home has been challenging for most people, but there are some whose experience of work itself has been defined by the remote world. Loosely described as Gen Z, people who started their careers during the lockdown or just shortly before are looking at things very differently compared to those who have long years of experience working in a brick and mortar world. 

For those of us who have worked for ten or twenty years, the pandemic years have been a temporary phase, either something to wait out or treat as an opportunity for a reset. The most progressive of us have even embraced this change and look forward to a “new normal”. But for those who started their careers working remotely, life is quite different. This is not temporary – it just is, with perhaps a vague picture of what in-person work life could look like. It is not a “new normal” for this group. It is just “normal”!

If you have a relatively young team who are returning to work or perhaps even coming in to an office for the first time, they are likely looking forward to meeting their employers for the first time and are also looking for guidance and support from their leaders. 

Here are four important conversations to have with them to create greater engagement and alignment. 

Conversation 1: Vision

When we work remotely, a lot of the effort happens in individual bubbles, and one of the hardest things has been keeping everyone clued in to the “big picture” and where their work fits into the larger scheme of things. Here are a few strategies to discuss the vision and connect the dots for individuals and teams:

  • Talk about the value chain on a regular basis – how does what the employee is working on reach or benefit clients? Each team member needs to have a clear picture of how the organization generates value and the role that the team plays in it
  • Use a lot of storytelling – tell stories of impact either on customers or on society at large or even on individual successes within the organization. Strong narratives about purpose and standards of performance are vital to alignment
  • Discuss the organizational structure with your team – tell them about other departments and teams and where they are relative to those other teams. This is akin to a map in a mall or a public space saying ‘you are here’ – very comforting for someone who is feeling lost

Conversation 2: Autonomy

Post-millennials are people who have been brought up on Google and YouTube. How they take in and process information is unlike earlier generations. When thinking of their onboarding, we will have to account for this. All this while, in remote working arrangements, they enjoyed a great degree of control over their work and leisure hours. The structured linearity of an office is a very different ballgame. Data from the Indeed survey shows that a majority of job seekers consider flexibility a key aspect of their job: 83% want remote-working options available to them. They want to work and they want to learn – but at their own pace. Some ideas for negotiating this space:

  • Clearly set out expectations and the why and how for being in a common office space – conversations need to not only be about goals and milestones but about how work will get done, how people need to coordinate with each other, and what they can rely on each other for
  • Lay out a roadmap to independent working – at the start of a career journey, people likely need a lot of support and coaching. But think about how they can ramp up their performance so that they can contribute a whole and meaningful piece of work without constant supervision. Then run this plan by them
  • Consider flexible work schedules – there may be non-negotiables that people need to work by, but at other times if they have more freedom to decide how they want to work, it will go a long way to increasing engagement
  • Adjust leave policies to go with the times. Old policies that prescribe so many days of Casual Leave, Sick Leave etc. assume a parent-child relationship between employer and employee and were crafted to protect employee rights in another era. Allowing more flexibility here shows that you trust your people

Conversation 3: Values

Zoomers are not just well-read, they are incredibly aware of social and ethical issues and look for value alignment in the work they do. Most of them are better educated than their parents were and are conscious about issues like global warming, social justice, and informed consent. 

They are consciously seeking to work with companies with a purpose and call it a top priority. It may be worth a conversation while we welcome new talent. Some ideas:

  • Ask what is important to them. Is it personal achievement that drives them? Or working for a social cause? What role does this job play in all of that?
  • Find avenues for them to express their values and concerns at work – informal clubs, interest groups, and discussion boards are a beginning
  • Talk about what the company is doing for society and the planet – if there are measures taken to save paper, chat about it; if the company’s CSR programme is working to support underprivileged children, share those stories
  • Tie up with programmes that allow employees to contribute their time and initiative to social causes like literacy programmes etc. And then support them to actually participate.

Conversation 4: Psychological safety

The pandemic has been mentally trying for everyone. Gen Z is at particular risk of isolation since they have left behind their old college and school networks and not yet had the chance to really consolidate relationships at their new work. Many of them may also be living alone. They may have the language to describe their concerns about mental health, but may still find it hard to know when to seek help. A few ideas to reinforce psychological safety for your team:

  • Regular Check-ins – By making it a habit to check in with your staff, you indicate that you care about them as individuals. This simple step can make team members feel more comfortable speaking up since they know you value them as a full person, not just their work
  • While some employees may feel at ease offering their opinions in a meeting, others may prefer additional time to consider their comments. In addition to in-person meetings, encourage team members to give comments using email or online collaboration platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams
  • Failure can be frightening, but as a leader, you can help your colleagues cope by owning up to your mistakes and recognizing setbacks as lessons learned. Ask staff on a regular basis what they’ve done that hasn’t gone as planned and what they’ve learnt from those experiences. Team members will understand that they won’t be punished if they make a mistake and they can get into a working rhythm more quickly.

The Hybrid Work Model is here to stay. Leaders are working hard to build relationships with Gen Z hoping they will stay too! This is a tricky challenge that requires creativity, patience, active learning, and a deep interest in knowing the young people behind the talent. Try these conversations as a way to open up channels of communication and step into the new world together!

About the Author:

Vrinda Malhotra has a background in the performing arts. Having trained in acting and theatre-making from Drama School Mumbai, she has done her B.Sc from the University of Delhi. At TAQ, she works on content development and delivery of workshops.