Demographic change is a pressing issue facing organisations today. Early retirements, coupled with what Harvard Business Review describes as a caustic blend of ageism and cost-cutting measures, led to many businesses prematurely parting ways with older workers during the pandemic. When these seasoned employees left, they took with them a wealth of institutional knowledge, expertise, and loyalty. Those who remained are now grappling with an influx of Generation Z employees who have entirely different skills and work expectations. This dynamic is further complicated by new work models, including hybrid structures and boundary-less assignments. So, how do we navigate these generational differences in the workplace? In an interview with Biznews, Anne Rutledge, the Executive Director of Talent Solutions at Resourgenix, emphasises the importance of companies understanding the generational composition of their workforce, what motivates these different groups, and how to retain them. Rutledge advocates for mentorship programmes that foster collaboration, enhance problem-solving skills, and help younger generations develop soft skills. Rutledge also offers insights on how workplaces can be redesigned where people can connect or take a break, how companies can deal with boundary-less assignments, data privacy and developments in AI in the recruitment process. – Linda van Tilburg
Edited excerpts from the Interview
Generation Z is adding a different dynamic to the workplace
Over the last two years, we’ve seen Generation Z entering the workplace, adding a unique dynamic. This is a generation that has grown up with an online presence, deeply involved in social media for most of their lives; they’re always connected. Consequently, their expectations of the workplace differ significantly from those of other generations. Balancing these dynamics to foster collaboration among different generations can be challenging for managers and leaders.
Generation Z also brings a new dimension to the workplace. They seek efficiency and have been using AI and digital tools for most of their lives. They look for opportunities in organisations that help them develop these tools and skills and they are a generation that wants to learn and grow. They understand the need for continuous learning and seek this from their employers and the organisations they join. Therefore, the older generation, now working with these younger individuals, has had to explore different ways to retain them within the organisation, especially considering the scarcity of top skills.
A different attitude to ‘job-hopping’
They view changing jobs as a means of developing their skills. While the older generation saw growth within an organisation as a form of loyalty, Generation Z is keen on constantly learning and acquiring new skills. Having always been involved in a fast-paced digital world, they seek new opportunities when they feel their skills are stagnating.
For them, it’s not just about promotions. Yes, they are ambitious and aspire to advance, but they also understand the importance of learning different skills and upskilling themselves. They are interested in linear movements that keep them engaged and allow them to refine various skills and expand their skill network. They are always on the lookout for interesting projects that they can contribute to and learn from.
Understanding and nurturing generational diversity in the workforce
Companies must understand what generations they’ve got in the workforce and what drives each of them. From a Generation Z perspective, we know that by 2030, even 2035, we’re going to have a lot of those individuals within our organisation. So, we need to be able to retain them. The older generation must have the ability to collaborate with them from a mentorship perspective. Mentorship programmes should be created with the older generation to help them understand the different projects and company dynamics and to hone in on not just their hardcore skills, but also their soft skills.
Being able to build up skills for them such as problem-solving, collaboration with other individuals, putting their message across, looking at their emotional EQ, customer service orientation, all of those softer skills that perhaps they haven’t been able to develop quite extensively as yet. So, helping them to develop those skills is important and then it’s also important that companies understand that they need to provide learning opportunities for them and growth opportunities.
I’m not saying that every single company must have a whole bunch of courses that they must send people on, but give them opportunities to work on different projects with different teams. You might be surprised about what type of skills they can bring to the table and what they can actually offer, which might not necessarily be within the realm of their job profile, but it’s more suited to the type of skill that they’ve got.
Promoting skills development and collaboration in remote and hybrid work
It is a dilemma that many organisations are currently grappling with. The younger generation, particularly Generation Z, prefers remote working opportunities. This is what they’ve become accustomed to, especially during the pandemic, which significantly drove the shift towards remote work. They see the benefits of it, but it’s important to remember that we are social beings at the end of the day.
We need collaboration with others, and when isolated, we miss out on certain skills that can be developed. What we’ve found, and what many companies are implementing, is a hybrid model that allows employees to come into the office for specific meetings and collaborations. It’s more of a flexible model, so it’s not about doing day-to-day tasks in the office. Even with a hybrid model, it’s about coming into the office to collaborate, for team-building exercises, for meetings – those kinds of activities that require group interaction. In this way, you’re still offering them the flexibility and autonomy they want, but you’re also encouraging them to engage more with your organisation.
You’re getting them to collaborate more with their colleagues and building that culture within the team. Yes, you’ve got flexibility and autonomy, and you are responsible for your work, but you’re part of a larger organisation that can help you solve problems or work on projects. Come in and collaborate with them!
Redesigning workspace to enhance collaboration, South Africa not ready for nap areas
We see it quite a bit, even with organisations here, and some of the larger corporates, where they are redesigning their workspace to make it a more collaborative environment. It’s always been a drive towards an open plan, but it’s more about having areas where people can connect with each other rather than a desk where you work all the time. It’s more about those connections and making them meaningful.
You’re not coming into the office because you are forced to, but because there’s a need for it, maybe to discuss a future project, strategise on a certain concept, problem-solve a certain concept, or perhaps you’re coming in for some learning or training that you need to do. Through that, a lot of organisations have redesigned their workplace to include that and make it a more homely place where people can sit together and really connect differently, rather than just about work all the time.
If you go into some of these really large corporates, they do have little mini pods where you can go and have a personal phone call, or where you just need to get away from people. There are a lot of Generation Z that sometimes get overwhelmed when there are a lot of people around them. So, they do need that little bit of a break to go away. So, having these little chill areas where they can just go and relax or do something separately is something that they look at as well.
Within our organisation as well, we’ve also got little sections where you can just be by yourself and have a little bit of time out. It doesn’t mean that you’re not connecting with everybody, but it just gives you that opportunity to have that little space away. In some organisations, I’ve even heard of people taking little power naps, but I don’t know if we’re there yet.
Building a connection in the workplace with boundaryless assignments
It’s a challenging situation because in a world where we are lacking skills and people are seeking more flexibility, which makes it hard to find urgently needed skills, you’ve got to look at other ways that people want to work. So, Boundaryless Assignments is more about being able to work from anywhere, perhaps doing multiple different types of roles or gigs from any location.
You do find that a lot of Generation Z are doing that. They’re coming up with different roles and jobs that we didn’t think were possible, like social influencers and various media strategies, marketing, and all of that, which they’re able to do remotely and boundaryless.
However, cooperation can be difficult because, at the end of the day, you still have to build up that connection with people. If you think about freelancers or people doing multiple different types of roles, they’ve got to build up that customer service orientation, learn how to sell themselves, influence others in terms of what they’re doing, and provide those different skills. A lot of them can upskill themselves with mini-courses and things like that, but that comes with time.
It’s about working at it constantly, which Generation Z does very well. They enjoy growth and learning, and they constantly want to learn. So, they set themselves up to be able to learn that. But in some professions and skills, they do put themselves at a disadvantage by not being able to collaborate with a generation that has been doing things for a long time and from whom they can learn and the older generation can learn from them too. So, it’s about passing those skills between the two generations.
The workforce need to be aware of data privacy
Data privacy is a significant concern, and it’s crucial that companies take it seriously. We are all aware of the potential for cyber-attacks and other threats. Therefore, it’s essential to ensure that data is well-protected within organisations. Companies need to take responsibility for a significant portion of this data and ensure that measures are in place to protect it.
However, I believe that individuals, as well as the workforce, also have a role to play. We need to be aware of the dangers associated with data privacy, phishing scams, and other threats. It’s about being more diligent about what we’re putting out there and what information we are providing. We need to be careful about this.
Many organisations are now providing extensive training on understanding what it means to put your data out there. They educate about where you should be giving your data and where you shouldn’t. There’s a lot of education and awareness around data privacy, ensuring that you also protect your data.
Balancing AI and human interaction in employee onboarding
I believe that in the coming years, we’re going to see a significant shift in digitalisation. While many things have already been digitised, the organisations that are doing it well are those that can automate digital journeys, such as the onboarding process, while still maintaining a human connection.
There’s a lot of talk about AI and automation taking over certain tasks, but this also creates more room for human connection. Candidates want an experience where they can connect with people when they join an organisation. The interview process is their first step into the organisation, where they begin to understand who they’ll be working with and the company culture. While some of this can be gleaned from a video, the true experience comes from interacting with colleagues and employers.
Providing a human element throughout the onboarding journey is crucial. Even within the recruitment industry, many companies have adopted AI automation and AI screening. However, it’s important to remember that these technologies aren’t always 100% accurate. The human element can’t be completely replaced. Having a conversation with a person is vital. It’s the connections we make with each other that build a strong workforce and a company culture that drives success. These connections will help your organisation move forward successfully.
Within our organisation, it’s about what tools are in place that can help me work smarter. They also see the benefits of having AI because it helps them.
If you look at recruitment in the past, you would have so many different roles that you’re working with and you’re going through all these CVs and screening them all the time. Now, you can handle a bit more than that because you’re able to use specific screening questions from an AI perspective to help you with shortlists and find those gems.
Essential Skills for Navigating the AI Revolution
Honing analytical thinking and problem-solving skills is crucial. The ability to reason and solve problems is equally important. Creativity skills also need to be sharpened. All of these tie in with AI because AI can provide a wealth of information and perform numerous tasks. However, if you’re unable to analyse and apply analytical thinking to it if you can’t solve the problems it presents or reason with the information it provides. You won’t achieve the outcomes you desire. Yes, you can train AI. There’s a whole field dedicated to generative AI, where you can train systems and bring them up to speed, but you still need to apply your thinking to it. You still need to apply a certain amount of reasoning and intuition to make the information useful.
We are bombarded with vast amounts of data every day, coming from all angles. The challenge is to take those pieces of information and transform them into useful data that can drive your company and career forward and assist with your daily tasks. Skills like creativity, analytical, and reasoning will be incredibly beneficial for individuals to navigate this new world of AI and its impact.
I wouldn’t say that people are worried about AI. Within our organisation, it’s about what tools are in place that can help me work smarter. They also see the benefits of having AI because it helps in so many different roles that you’re working with and you’re going through all these CVs and screening them all the time. Now, you can handle a bit more than that because you’re able to use specific screening questions from an AI perspective to help you with shortlists and find those gems.
Soft skills need to be built in a team environment
Soft skills encompass empathy, but they also include much more. For instance, leadership skills are a key aspect of soft skills. You don’t have to be a team leader to possess leadership skills. Even within your role, being able to lead and present your thoughts and ideas in a collaborative manner that drives organisational success is crucial.
Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is another important soft skill. It involves understanding how to interact with different people and how to bring out the best in them to create a successful team. It’s also about customer service and dealing with various clients and scenarios. While these soft skills are often innate to us as humans, they can also be developed.
If you’re not placed in a team environment, you won’t learn about your leadership skills or how to handle different conflicts and resolve them for the best outcome. So, there is an element of teaching involved. However, you won’t be able to hone these soft skills unless you’re allowed to develop them. So, it’s about providing opportunities for individuals to develop and refine their soft skills.
Tailoring Training Approaches to Suit Different Generations
As with any individual, there are different learning styles. The younger generation, or the Gen Z’s, prefer a non-traditional type of training. For them, it’s about making it real. What does it mean for me if I learn this skill? What does it mean for me if I learn this soft skill?
If you provide them with real examples, they learn much easier. For them, it’s all about what it means for them here and now. Whereas the older generations were more about classroom-based learning. So, when you’re looking at training, you’ve got to get a combination of everything. A bit of classroom interaction, interaction with colleagues, digital learning that they can do at their own pace, and on-the-job training. But they need to feel that they are being trained and that they are learning at the same time.
Skills are becoming more important than job titles
There are a lot of tools in place that look at skills rather than job titles. What you also find is that you’ve got to look at more skills-based hiring. I might be in a particular role with a particular title, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t have the skills to do something else within that role. So, there’s a lot of skills-based hiring that needs to happen as well. And there’s a big shift in organisations to move to skills-based hiring, rather than job title hiring because skills are ultimately what drives productivity and outcomes.
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