Rightsize your relationship with work

What Gen Z can teach their bosses about the meaning of work

3 tips from Gen Z to rightsize your relationship to work
What Gen Z can teach their bosses about the meaning of work
Photo: Dmytro Zinkevych (Shutterstock)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Nirosha Methananda is VP of marketing for Influ2. Prior, she created Bombora’s distinctive brand and led marketing for PwC Australia’s Tech Consulting practice.

Gen Z is bursting onto the professional scene with their ideas about work—and work often isn’t their number one priority. There’s a cornucopia of generations in the workforce—the typically ambitious millennials, efficient Gen Xers, and tireless boomers—all with differing experiences, priorities, and understandings of what work is and means. With these differences and the added threat of a recession, saying that management is challenging right now is an understatement.

Nonetheless, the next generation is always the future of work, and Gen Z is no different. Although this generation just started aging into the workforce (and only makes up 12.6% of the U.S. workforce), these employees will continue shaping work culture over the next few decades.

Most Gen Zers are not buying the traditional way of doing things, particularly the culture of overwork. After all, consider just how unhealthy and unsustainable our work lives have become. Half of Americans consider themselves in time poverty: too many things to accomplish and not enough time to achieve them. In the meantime, nearly 3 in 5 employees show signs of burnout like lack of motivation, disengagement, and cognitive, emotional, and physical exhaustion. Perhaps even more troubling, nearly 70% of millennial employees only identify with their professional roles, undoubtedly losing touch with their personal identities.

Stick your hand up if this is you. No, you likely won’t because, like me, you’ve been taught to “keep calm and carry on.” But this doesn’t do it for our youngest generation. So what can we borrow from the newest generation of the workforce, Gen Z?

Gen Z habits to borrow from

Even as a seasoned leader, I can learn a lot by taking a page out of the Gen Z handbook instead of stigmatizing them. Here’s how:

Set firm boundaries:

  • Do the opposite of quiet quitting—communicate: Talk to your team members about your expectations of their work and time. What are your organization’s core hours when they are required to be available? When are they expected to return emails and Slack messages? Is it the same day, within 24 hours, or the week? Do employees need to be offline during specific times to fulfill personal commitments?
  • Model appropriate work times: If you are disciplined about when you work, your employees will follow suit. While some situations require immediate attention, many don’t. Normalize addressing work during work hours, and resist sending non-urgent communications during off-hours.
  • Take advantage of natural fluctuations in workload: Ask employees to join you in enjoying a long lunch or attending an afternoon exercise class during slow periods. And normalize alone time for those that need to reboot.

Encourage staff to take time off

  • Wellbeing: Approach your employees’ vacation time as an investment in their mental health. While the American workforce doesn’t use 33% of its paid leave (pdf) 97% of people feel happier if they have a trip planned.
  • Innovation: Employees and leaders need to experience the world outside of work to stimulate creativity. Encourage employees to take an afternoon off to read a book, volunteer, or visit an art museum—whatever stimulates thinking outside their professional sphere to boost creativity and innovation. And do yourself a favor by doing the same.
  • Mandated time off: Consider mandating a minimum amount of time off per year and blocking access to email and other communication tools during PTO. After all, some generations may need help shaking our long-entrenched work norms.
  • Don’t be a hero: Stop wearing your lack of vacation time as a badge of workaholic honor—your employees are watching. Instead, tell stories of how you refueled in micro-ways or spent your time off.

Expect employees to pursue enriching work

  • Don’t let your staff stagnate: While employees can’t always count on saving the world or pursuing their specific passions, they can and should insist on learning and growing from whatever job they have.
  • Encourage curiosity: Frequently ask about employees’ personal and professional interests and offer opportunities that match these interests. Is a marketer interested in finance? Lend your employee’s skills to the finance department during budget season, or have the employee take a crack at budgeting for your department.
  • Watch for languishing: Consider it a warning sign if your employee’s productivity has plateaued or interest has waned. Engagement in work, notably different from time spent in front of a desk, is the goal.

One last tip I picked up from my Gen Z team members: not every employer fits every employee. So if you’re a leader that can’t fulfill your employees’ needs, it’s time for a frank, guilt-free heart-to-heart. And if your employer doesn’t serve your needs, look for one that does—even if you need to put some work into rediscovering yourself first.