What Kind of Workplace Will Attract Gen Z? Just Ask the Colleges

Five things higher ed can teach us about the next generation of employees

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Employers have just started to wrap their heads around Millennials—now enter the next set of employees: Gen Z! How will the up-and-coming “iGeneration” affect the future of work? For a preview of how those born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s will want to experience the workplace, just look to what higher education is doing.

Like the war for talent raging in the corporate world, college and university leaders are facing their own battle to recruit and retain prize students. Glossy catalogues featuring dreamy campuses remain a key tactic. However, more than just an attractive picture, higher ed leaders are finding that it’s the experience that counts.

As Gen Z starts their final years of education, colleges and universities are striving to deliver campus experiences that inspire and support their unique learning styles because, as you may suspect, Generation Z will be one for the workplace history books.

Enter the true digital natives

Millennials may have grown up with technology, but the iGen cannot remember a world without the Internet. They are the true digital natives, which makes connectivity not a must, but a given.

They are independent and entrepreneurial. Having grown up through times of economic, social and political turmoil, they tend to be less idealistic and even more pragmatic than Millennials. Despite that, they also expect certain amenities that in previous generations would have been considered privileges.

And they appear ready to work on their own to ensure they get what they want. One survey found that nearly 70 percent of Gen Z teens are “self-employed”—that is, teaching piano lessons or selling things online—compared with only 12 percent who are holding down “traditional teen jobs” like waiting tables. And another poll found that 42 percent of today’s teens expect to work for themselves one day—far more than the 1-in-10 that are actually self-employed today.

Gen Z is also the most diverse generation in U.S. history, and they care about environmental issues, particularly climate change and clean energy technology.

In addition to those characteristics, Gen Z will also have another quality that’s difficult to ignore: they’re on track to become the largest group of consumers by 2020, already wielding billions in spending power.

So, what’s happening on the campus level that can help workplace designers get ahead of the curve on this next generation of workplace talent?

How workplace leaders can learn from higher ed

Ever looked out over a row of cubicles—at college? Probably not. Many of today’s college campuses are modern, dynamic places that no one would ever want to trade for a conventional workplace. And why should they? Here are five lessons workplace leaders can learn from their higher ed counterparts:

  1. Give them room to be happy, aka, the power of choice. If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to drop the outdated notion of boxy cubicles and one-size-fits-all offices or cubicles. New graduates are not coming from a place where they’ve had to sit in one place all day, and they won’t be inspired if every place looks the same. They’re used to a campus full of interactive, tech-enabled spaces to choose from, and will demand the same at work.
  2. Re-imagine physical space—with technology embedded. Connected, digital experiences are becoming the lifeblood of the modern college campus—and the same must become true for the workplace if it’s going to appease this tech-thirsty generation. After all, the average 15- to 18-year-old owns at least seven internet-ready devices, and nearly three quarters of the same age group recently ranked high speed Wi-Fi as being the most important accommodation in a college facility, higher than food. They have grown used to moving seamlessly between physical and digital space, and they’ll expect that seamless experience wherever they work, too.
  3. Feed innovation with anytime/anywhere collaboration space. Single-purpose buildings are going the way of the dinosaur in campus design, with today’s construction projects often fostering inter-departmental interaction. Group work is no longer the sole domain of business schools, and interdisciplinary programs have been gaining popularity, too. Today’s students are being groomed for the cross-pollination of ideas, whether they’re in a state-of-the-art innovation building complete with incubator, or in a social hub like a dining hall, which is now as likely to be outfitted with computer plug-ins as it is with plates.
  4. Adopt this mantra: Health amenities are not perks, they are rights. Unlike the conventional workplace, most colleges are designed to support the broader student experience in a 24-hour day. And lately, they’ve been stepping up their game in terms of fitness, mindfulness and nutritional offerings, from mixing in smaller workout areas throughout campus to make it easier for students to stay fit, to incorporating extras like a meditation room and healthy cooking classes. They’re also aiming to support mental health by offering easier access to counseling and safe places to sit down and talk, like fireside chats. When Gen Z graduates from school to work, they will bring with them these fond collegiate memories of good health and wellness—and if one workplace can’t deliver it, many will move along until they find another that does.
  5. Walk the walk for sustainability and accessibility. Many Gen Zers can appreciate the environmental, financial and social benefits they see in green campus For example, investing in a carbon-neutral campus can help reduce emissions as well as save money—an important concern for teens who have grown up seeing the rise of the college debt. And, as the most diverse generation to reach college age yet, they can also appreciate features that keep their school accessible, open and safe for all, from wheelchair ramps to apps that make it easy to navigate a sprawling campus.

In the past, college students have graduated and entered the workplaces that their parents helped shape. Slowly, over years and decades, they would eventually make their presence known.

Now, however, workplace change is happening at a much faster rate—and for good reason. When leaders can deliver work environments that support their teams’ best work, they can improve productivity and profitability. By looking at college campuses now, workplace leaders can be ready to give the next wave of fresh talent what it wants: a tech-driven, free-flowing environment. So why not give it a try? The next generation will thank you for it!

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