Starting a new job for the first time is hard enough.
But Gen Zers who graduated college this year found themselves entering the workforce at the height of the pandemic, while simultaneously standing on the front lines of Black Lives Matter protests.
That made assimilating into the work environment and building valuable relationships challenging, to say the least.
Brianna Zuniga, a Gen Z account executive at BBDO NY, was just beginning to build a professional and social network when the world went into lockdown in March.
“The restriction of social interactions for Gen Zers, who were just starting their adult lives, eliminated all opportunities to make new friends and continue hobbies,” she told Campaign US over email. “It’s challenging to learn how to become an adult during an economic crisis with increasing unpredictability every day.”
That unpredictability has only heightened since the attack on the Capitol last week.
Jude Cohen, Gen Z social strategist at Ogilvy NY, where she leads the young professionals network, said the events of January 6th have left her incapable of fully concentrating on work.
“Needless to say, my focus was on Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle,” she said. “I work in social, so I’m constantly on the platforms in my day-to-day life and it’s tough not to dive down all the news holes and sensationalist headlines.”
Looking to leadership
Younger employees are searching for agency leadership to take meaningful action and be intentional about their support in a challenging year.
On January 6th, after the attack on the Capitol, several agency executives promptly reached out via email or Slack to express their solidarity with employees and offer support. Ogilvy global CEO Andy Main, for example, sent an email memo to employees condemning the events and asking leaders and execs to exercise their best judgment when addressing work.
Tone is particularly important to Gen Zers when it comes to communication from leadership. This is a generation that wants to see that leaders understand their values, said Jason Rosario, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at BBDO NY.
“Increasingly, millennials and Gen Z are holding our feet to the fire to make sure that we are calling things out for what they are,” he said. “They weren't just riots. They were terrorist attacks. They were displays of white supremacy. Being able to engage in that language means a lot for Gen Zers who want to confront these issues.”
Keeping the conversation in the aftermath of particular events is crucial as well.
Day One Agency, for example, has created “safe spaces” throughout the year, where employees can discuss whatever topics are on their minds. Every Wednesday, the agency blocks off meetings for a certain amount of time to allow employees to step away from their devices.
In addition to providing resources to employees, Deutsch NY launched a virtual open conversation initiative where employees can speak to someone at any time about whatever they choose.
“Open conversations is a time when people can either talk or not, or they can change the subject if they want,” said Deutsch NY CEO Val DiFebo, adding that conversations have ranged from current events to how employees are working lunch breaks into their remote days.
“I don't think it's our place as a leadership team to tell people how to feel,” DiFebo added. “It's our place to understand how we feel, and see how we can put things in place for them to feel better.”
When it comes to our national politics, Gen Zers know that this “fissure” is not going away anytime soon, and are urging leadership to stay focused.
“There’s no more age of ‘that’s not my job’ or ‘not my place,’” Ogilvy NY’s Cohen said. “If the chaos that was 2020 made anything clear, it’s that everyone has a part to play when it comes to pursuing justice and equity.”
Mental health is key
Mental health is a mainstream topic for Gen Zers, even in the workplace.
Employees of this generation appreciate when their superiors can acknowledge the difficulties of starting a new career in such turbulent and isolating times. Small efforts, like simply reaching out to ask employees how they are, or normalizing mental health days, goes a long way, said BBDO NY’s Zuniga.
“I would like to see our leadership take even more action, such as virtually providing ways for employees, especially the newbies, to interact,” she said. “Also, sharing more personal examples of how they’re giving back to the communities that are hurting.”
Executives can speak up about their own mental health struggles too, she added. “Vulnerability speaks volumes.”
At Deutsch NY, DiFebo is already planning on how to approach employee mental health on Inauguration day on Jan. 20.
“Do people feel like they want to work so that they're busy? Or like they need windows of time to check in and see what's happening in the world?,” she said. “We're going to pivot as people tell us how they're feeling.”
Committing to action
While showing empathy is a good place to start, Gen Zers will stick with companies for the long haul that are willing to commit to the change this generation wants to see in the world.
“It’s hard for me to reconcile when my daily actions aren’t necessarily contributing to a solution, or the progress our country so desperately needs,” BBDO NY’s Zuniga said, adding that her agency has taken on pro bono efforts with organizations including The King Center and Color of Change.
This commitment to causes must extend to the agency’s clients. Just like Gen Zers don’t want to shop with brands that don’t align with their values, they don’t want to work on their accounts either.
“It’s imperative that our leadership is evaluating the ways in which our clients are either complicit or actively rejecting and dismantling systems of oppression,” Ogilvy’s Cohen said. “I hope they’re ready to hold clients accountable and to stop working with brands who contribute to injustice.”