This article first appeared on LinkedIn in October 2022.
Just like millennials before them – the language used by older generations and those in power to talk about Gen-Z can range from dismissive to derisive.
But, here’s the thing: those born between the mid-90s and early 2010s, are a savvy, digital-native and growing workforce that companies need to attract and retain in order to move forward and be innovative.
They’ve lived through multiple crises and are open to change, but they’re also uniquely demanding and assertive. They’re both wonderers and wanderers, and companies need to meet them where they are.
I was honoured to host an OliverWyman powered discussion on how to attract, retain and empower this next generation of changemakers at #FII6 in Riyadh last week. The panel was engaging, insightful and full of young talent and business leaders working across the GCC and beyond.
Here are some of the key takeaways that will certainly keep me thinking…
Covid got us there faster, but change was already afoot: As Mona Ataya, founder of Mumzworld said during the talk, “Covid either anchored or sped up what was already happening.” This is the case with hybrid working: the technology was there to do so “maybe 8 to 10 years ago”, she notes, but “what Covid did was accelerated that and mandated that organisations create systems.”
Khaled Zaatarah, the co-founder of 360VUZ said being “flexible” and “open-minded” is now the only path to talent retention. “If you had told me 4 years ago that 80% of my employees will work from home, I’d go crazy and say, ‘no we can’t do that, how will they work?’ But when you get to do it, you see how you manage things and you find the right balance … but unfortunately many companies are still in the old mindset of holding a stick and walking behind people to get things moving – like ‘you came 5 minutes late’.”
But he says this approach won’t work with Gen-Z, and then they may…
Quit and become your competitor – unless you incentivise: Mashal Waqar, founder of Milestone Ventures, says she’s seeing a lot of Gen-Z who are unhappy with where they are working decide to start their own companies. “They’re literally now competing with the companies they were working with, all because they got the ‘icks’ from their manager.”
“They’re very comfortable switching from one thing to the next until they find the right thing, and it’s not a bad science. Previously people saw someone working at one place for a long time as a good sign, I think when you have Gen-Z in your departments it will be seen very differently. They’re very comfortable with exploring.”
But Zaatarah notes that a way to retain this generation is to be aware that they love to create (so give them space to be creative), and that they value and anticipate ownership. He says his most profound strategy has been giving all employees ESOP shares, and then building a dashboard so they can check their shares, and future projections. “If you feel as if you own part of something you will be dedicated to it - no matter where you’re working from.”
Traditional corporate language doesn’t always sit right with Gen-Z: As Waqar says, “companies say we’re a family, but for a lot of Gen-Z that’s actually a red flag, it means there’s going to be unreasonable boundaries”. She says they prefer the analogy of a sports team, because that means we’re all in this together, but then there’s a hard line of you go home once the game’s over.”
They’re getting career advice on TikTok – which emboldens and empowers: Shikah D. Alshuwaish, who works in strategy at Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Tourism and is an #OWAlumni, is a Gen-Zer herself: “We grew up having a lot of access to information that the previous generations didn’t. You go on TikTok and you’re flooded with information that fuels your curiosity. so who says that because I have a chemical engineering degree I can’t work in tourism and I can’t also DJ at night? It’s our curiosity that leads us to shift from one career to another, we won’t set down one specific path forever.”
Waqar concurs that mediums like TikTok empower the way career coaches used to, and because of this access to information, “you have a very intelligent generation of young people who are very aware, are not afraid to ask tough questions and know what they want.”
You can set boundaries – but fresh ones: As Alshuwaish notes, “the 9 to 5 no longer exists in the Gen-Z dictionary”, adding that she’s “just as efficient, if not more efficient when not in the office… sometimes I may be happier working on a beach in Sri Lanka than I am working in a brick-and-mortar building. You need to change the scenery, you need to change the way people are working.”
Waqar agrees that remote, work-from-anywhere schemes get results in terms of output, efficiency and motivation, but that doesn’t mean they’re boundaryless: “We have a central timezone – we try to make people understand that, no matter where they are, in that time zone they need to be active. Having that expectation helps a lot.”
And as Zaatarah notes, the WFH model isn’t a one-size-fits-all across a company: “different departments have different needs”. So, for instance, coders and engineers may work much better from home, only getting together for collaboration, while sales teams might thrive in the office.
Strap in for change or be left behind: Ataya also shared this incredibly enlightening thought: “If I was sitting in front of a friend 15 years ago, and told them I was in an Uber, on my iPhone, WhatsApping my assistant to send me a Zoom link for a meeting, but to send me my documents in a Dropbox first, the friend would think I was talking gibberish because none of that existed 15 years ago. But that is our way of work today.
“The rate of change has been staggering… we are no longer walking, we are running at 1,000 miles an hour and the normal of today is going to be obsolete tomorrow. That ability to be flexible, agile and open to change is the only way to succeed.”
Give them a seat at the top table: The fact that Gen-Z values autonomy was a resounding message from our panel. Another key theme was that they need to be heard at the highest levels – including in government: Waqar likes how agile policymaking in the UAE and KSA is towards things like the metaverse, which older people may treat as a buzzword, but just feels like standard operating procedure for Gen-Z. “What I love in this region is we have young policymakers who are super switched on and want to understand. They want to be the first ones to jump into things and attract the best talent.”
Alshuwaish says she hates the word “youth” because it has connotations of “you’re immature, but we’ll hear you out”.
No, you need to hear me out because innovative solutions are driven by innovative policy, so you need to hear the younger generation and co-create with them to build policies that will suit the future.