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Can emerging Gen-Z talent build social capital in a work-from-home world?

(EDITORIAL) As corporations plan for the future, it is important that business leaders take unique traits from Gen-Z into consideration.

Gen-Z

The following is the thoughts and analysis of Kevin Davis, the founder and chairman of First Workings, a nonprofit helping underrepresented NYC high schoolers acquire social capital through paid internships and one-on-one mentorships.  

Pre-pandemic, only 2% of workers were remote. By May 2020, that number was up to 70% according to SHRM. Hybrid work (a combination of work from home, and in the office) has grown in popularity, and many large tech companies like Amazon, Meta, and Alphabet, have announced permanent policies on remote work.

As corporations plan for the future, it is important that business leaders take Gen-Z into consideration. They are currently the largest generation in America, and a generation rapidly entering the workforce as interns and entry-level staff. With the Great Resignation still occurring, firms need to take the concerns of Gen-Z into account to grow their workforce.

I have learned a lot as the Founder and Chairman of First Workings, a nonprofit organization that helps high school students from underserved communities build social capital and workplace readiness skills through paid summer internships and mentorships with large firms across New York City. Working with high school students throughout the pandemic has taught us valuable lessons on virtual learning and working.

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Gen-Z is the most diverse generation

According to a Pew Research center study, Generation Z has more racial diversity than any generation before it. Their entry into the workforce has coincided with a huge “racial reckoning” throughout every industry in America. Over the past 18 months, many of the industries we partner with including finance, law, medicine, and media have taken strides to broaden the diversity of their workforce.

Virtual jobs and internships can fill in some gaps…

Virtual jobs and internships allow students and graduates to get experiences at companies regardless of their locations. Not all students can afford to move to expensive places like New York City for the summer.  Others may need to spend time living with family members in places far from the firm’s headquarters. For them, virtual positions make a lot of sense and broaden their access to opportunities.

Additionally, working remotely can give new hires more one-on-one time with mentors and supervisors. Indeed in our experience, interns and mentees get far more one-on-one time from a facetime call with their supervisor, than amid the hustle and bustle of a busy office. One obvious reason for this is that when a conversation is taking place through a video call, the employer or mentor is able to focus entirely on the mentee for a set amount of time. This makes their engagement far deeper and more meaningful.

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But there are costs

For new hires from underserved communities, virtual work is not always the best fit. Finding a quiet place for Zoom calls can be difficult, especially when one shares small living spaces with extended family members and or siblings. Additionally, we have noticed that many of the students we have worked with over the past 18 months are reluctant to turn their cameras on while interacting. Zoom fatigue, paired with feelings of shame or embarrassment about one’s camera background, can have a detrimental impact on their ability to make connections in virtual environments.

Companies need to prioritize face-to-face interactions

A young person entering the workforce will not have the same office relationships as older colleagues. It’s important for HR staff and management to encourage as much interaction as possible outside of Slack and email. If new staff members have a question or concern about a project, they should set up a Zoom call (or meet in person, if possible) allowing relationships, trust, and social capital to develop. Furthermore, employees should be encouraged to connect “offline” by working in person at the same time, if in-person work is optional. This will help colleagues relate better to one other, and build trust.

New employees should spend as much time as possible building intentional relationships. This does not mean idle office chat, but something deeper based on shared interests, goals, and aspirations. Those new to a job should show initiative by joining a committee or offering to help out on ad hoc projects.

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Mentorship doesn’t happen naturally

 If employers want their employees to mentor one another, an active effort should be made to facilitate these relationships. Companies need to outline clear guidelines and expectations to ensure an equitable and beneficial professional experience for everyone involved. The lockdown forced First Workings to develop a virtual mentorship model, and we are noticing how many of the added benefits are here to stay, despite the return to in-person work.

Managers Need to Prioritize In-Office Work for Gen-Z

If firms want to succeed in attracting and fostering Gen-Z talent, a critical eye must be turned towards remote work. It is not enough to institute small fixes, as we cannot build the future workforce from our home offices. Bringing the new generation into the workplace is the best option for building a sustainable workforce.

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