An Interview with “Gen Z @ Work” Author and Generational Expert David Stillman

For more than two decades, author David Stillman has been researching, writing, consulting, and speaking about generational differences and their impact on the workplace. He has co-authored three best-selling books on generational differences at work, including When Generations Collide and The M-Factor: How the Millennials Are Rocking the Workplace.

Stillman's new book, written with his Gen Z son Jonah, is called Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation is Transforming the Workplace. Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2012, is 72.8 million strong and currently entering the workforce in droves. The NCMM caught up with David Stillman to discuss this young generation and what middle market companies should expect from it.

Why should middle market company leaders care about Gen Z in particular and generational differences in general?
Stillman: The data shows clearly that each generation behaves and acts in specific ways and companies that understand these differences, and how they impact the workplace, do a better job of recruiting, retaining, managing and motivating their people. Gen Zers, for instance, are not like millennials: it’s a common misconception to look at someone under 30 and assume they’re all the same. Terrible idea. If we lump them together or treat them the same way, it will backfire on companies and hurt productivity.

How do you see Gen Z impacting the workplace?
Stillman: A few of their main traits will definitely impact the workplace. They’re a driven generation, and know the world is a competitive place. Millennials may believe that as long as we’re doing cool work and working as a team that’s what matters most. It’s nice to bring “meaning” to the job, as millennials want, but I think Gen Zs are just more competitive, driven, and results-oriented. Baby boomers, also a competitive and results-driven group, are going to love Gen Z.

Technology is another area of impact. Millennials are obviously digital pioneers. They were all about, ‘we need to use more technology.’ Now Gen Zers will come in and say, “Big deal, so you’re using technology,” we just assumed you were because for every physical aspect there’s been a digital equivalent. But Gen Z are going to help companies make sure they’re using technology the right way, are going to question the knee-jerk use of tech.

What are the challenges that Gen Z confronts in the workplace around digital distraction, like maybe they’re focusing too much on social media?
Stillman: Everyone thinks Gen Zers have no attention span, that they’re going to do something, get bored, drop it, and move on to the next thing. It’s not that they get bored and don’t want to finish, it’s that they want to be working on a bunch of tasks. They’re savvy at “task switching.”

The risk is in giving them one assignment to finish versus giving them multiple things to switch between. Even if you give them one task, break it down into smaller chunks so they can see there’s different things that they can do. Prioritizing is going to be a huge thing they’re going to need help with.

How should middle market managers communicate effectively with Gen Zers?
Stillman: Seek their input first, and offer them space to do things their own way. The outcome should be clear but “how” should be open for discussion. Gen Zers are very open to coaching and mentoring conversations. Gen Z are also used to getting tough love more than millennials. They’ve heard from mentors that “there’s winners, there’s losers. More often than not you’re going to lose.” What we’ve found with millennials, as soon as they get some tough love, they don’t like it. Gen Z expects some of that tough love.

We also found that 82 percent of Gen Zers said their preferred mode of communication is face-to-face. I was shocked. I think the mistake is to assume that every interaction with younger employees needs to be technology-based: send them a text, send them an email. But most Gen Zers crave that face-to-face interaction and coaching.

How can employers deal with all the “side gigs/” other jobs that so many Gen Zers do?
Stillman: Expect Gen Z to have side hustles. Part of it is survival mode, to make an extra dollar. The other part is that it’s gotten easier to start your own business. When my son Jonah wanted to start his business, he got an LLC formed, an 800 number, business cards, and a logo in two days.

This new Gen Z is different. For them, it’s not either I work full-time or I start my own business. It’s both. If someone has a side hustle, you want to talk with them about it, to have a conversation about what’s in-bounds, what’s out-of-bounds. At the end of the day, if they’re getting the job done that you’ve hired them to do, that’s what matters most. If you’re okay with their side hustle, you may even retain them long-term.

What else should middle market leaders know about Gen Z at work?
Stillman: If nothing else, they’re not millennials. They offer companies a huge upside if you’re willing to offer the hyper-customization they want, to tap into their competitive drive, and cater to their independent nature. They came of age during the recession, so they’re open to tough love messages and they’re willing to pay their dues. Seventy-six percent of Gen Z’s said, “I’ll start at the bottom and work my way up.” Sixty-one percent said, “I’ll stay at a company for 10 years.” If we’re willing to invest in them, they respect dues paying and loyalty.

Millennials often come across as, “this company is so lucky to have me.” Well, Gen Z feels lucky to have the job. And in terms of hiring the most talented members of Gen Z, middle market companies may have a leg up, because small to medium businesses allow employees to wear a lot of different hats. For Gen Zers, that’s a plus. They can say “wow, I’m not going to miss out on anything. I’m doing a lot of things.” Versus a big company that has you in one position within one department filling a specific role. You very quickly feel, “This is all I’m doing?"

Listen to "Author David Stillman Talks 'Gen Z @ Work'" on Spreaker.