Human Resources

How to Effectively Communicate With Gen Z in the Workplace

Sep 1, 2020

Some preferences and tendencies among the youngest workers are what you’d expect, but others will surprise you.

Brian WestfallPrincipal Analyst
How to Effectively Communicate With Gen Z in the Workplace

Just as businesses finally got a handle on millennials, here comes Generation Z: the group of people born after 1996 who now make up nearly a quarter of the global workforce.

On the surface, millennial and Generation Z workers share a lot of similarities. They’re both diverse, they’re both digital natives, and they both care a lot about how their employer contributes positively to society. They also place a premium on communication. A study by Bellevue University found that millennials and Gen Z employees both list “being a good communicator” as their top preferred quality in a leader.

That being said, millennials and Gen Z define what a “good communicator” is in radically different ways, and companies can get in trouble if they assume Gen Z wants to be communicated to in the same way as their predecessors. If you don’t understand the nuances of what Gen Z expects from workplace communication, confusion and missteps will follow.

To help you avoid any breakdowns when working with your youngest employees, here are four things you need to know to effectively communicate with Gen Z.

1. Don’t underestimate face-to-face communication

If there’s one stereotype about Gen Z that should be dismissed immediately, it’s that because they are digital natives, they prefer texting or tweeting over talking in-person. A Gen Z survey by Yello highlights the problem with this thinking perfectly: 51% of Gen Z workers say they prefer face-to-face communication, while only 25% prefer to communicate digitally.

What does this mean? Make sure you’re giving younger employees quality face-to-face time to really get to know them. It’s also a good idea to walk to their desk for a status update on a project or a catch-up every now and then instead of sending an email.

Not only can you build a better rapport through face-to-face communication with Gen Z workers, but you can also begin to earn their trust. Generation Z doesn't trust authority figures as easily as other generations; you’re going to have to work for it.

2. Feedback is not only welcomed, but encouraged

Compared to less than half of millennial workers (47%), 69% of Gen Z workers in a Randstad study on generational workplace preferences say they want their manager to mentor them and give them regular feedback. In other words, Gen Z wants to know where they stand at all times, and it’s on company leaders and mentors to let them know.

If the only place your Gen Z workers are getting feedback is during annual performance reviews, you need to increase the feedback frequency significantly. One way to do this is to pepper more performance feedback into your conversations with Gen Z employees. Another way is to leverage technology that creates more natural opportunities for real-time performance discussions:

  • Performance management systems with continuous feedback functionality allow both workers and managers to ask for or receive performance feedback on a more frequent basis.

  • Employee recognition apps give companies an Instagram-like feed where employees can applaud one another’s efforts and give more visibility across the company into special work accomplishments.

  • With a learning management system (LMS), managers can recommend training content to Gen Z workers that will help them develop new skills or shore up existing weaknesses.

By varying the ways in which you give feedback, you can let Gen Z workers know how they’re doing on a regular basis without these conversations becoming stale or overbearing.

3. Know that it’s a two-way street

As much as Gen Z values feedback from others, that doesn’t mean they want all of their conversations to go one way. In fact, a study by the Workforce Institute found that 44% of Gen Z workers want leaders that “listen to their ideas and show they value their opinions.”

Though many young Gen Z professionals may not feel completely comfortable speaking up in a new job, it’s important to give them opportunities to share their ideas so they can be a more integral part of the team. During brainstorming sessions, ask for their input. Question them about what they think or feel about a project so they can see you value their voice. Also, ensure any channels that you use to give feedback are open to receive feedback as well.

If there’s a serious issue, such as workplace bullying or sexual harassment, make sure your Generation Z workforce knows how to report it. Let them know you want the office to be a safe place so they can feel comfortable communicating distressing situations.

4. Get to the point faster (and make it visual)

Research suggests Generation Z is even more fickle with their attention than the already fickle millennials:

  • Gen Z has an average attention span of about eight seconds, compared to 12 seconds for millennials.

  • Gen Z splits their time between an average of five different screens (smartphone, TV, laptop, desktop, and tablet). Millennials only use three screens.

While Gen Z benefits from being expert multitaskers that are hyper-selective of the information they observe and retain, it could mean something important you’re communicating to them could easily be lost.

To combat this, spell out the need-to-know information or request first in communications with Gen Z before diving into the less important details. Mixing up the formatting in written communications with bulleted lists or bold text can also make it easier for Gen Z workers to quickly scan messages for the information that pertains to them.

Using visuals can be even more effective. A study by Pearson found that, compared to millennials, Gen Z spends more time consuming visual and video media, and is more likely to share visual content on social media. In fact, YouTube ranked second behind teachers as Gen Z’s preferred method for learning.

Whether it’s utilizing a whiteboard during brainstorming sessions (physical or virtual), or leveraging more charts, GIFs, and drawings in emails and other communications, using visual communication can be effective by speaking more to how Gen Z consumes content every day.

We’ve spent a lot of time covering the communication characteristics and preferences that make Gen Z workers unique from previous generations. There’s some value to this data, for sure, but it’s also dangerous to blindly follow these guidelines.

At the end of the day, Gen Z is still a group of individuals; individuals with unique needs and wants that may fall in line with a large proportion of their generation, or may not. Factors such as culture, upbringing, and even their role in the company will play just as big of a role in how a worker communicates as what generation they’re from. Applying broadstroke Gen Z trends to your Gen Z workforce could lead to even more problems if your assumptions don’t actually align with their expectations.

All that to say, the advice covered here is a good starting point, but don’t forget to survey your Gen Z workforce to understand their specific preferences when it comes to communication, feedback, and what they need to be productive and engaged. You’ll never know how much your young workers differ from the “norm” unless you find out.

Employee engagement platforms make it easy to regularly gather worker feedback through automated pulse surveys so you can quickly adjust your policies and practices as needed.

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About the author

Brian Westfall

Principal Analyst
Brian Westfall is an associate principal analyst at GetApp, covering human resources and talent management. His research on the intersection of talent and technology has been featured in Bloomberg, Fortune, SHRM, TIME, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. When he’s not playing with his two corgis, he can be found traveling the world.
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