Why employers have to spell out workplace standards to Generation Z

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The young generation of professionals is entering the workplace demanding increased flexibility and wellness perks, but sadly lacking soft skills. Here’s what managers can do about it…

In June, KPMG announced some recent hires would be offered training courses on how to behave professionally in the office, aimed at younger workers who spent their college years (or first few years at work) stuck at home on Teams calls. According to media reports, these courses include sessions on what to wear in the office, how to make small talk in the lifts, sending emails, maintaining eye contact and avoiding jargon. Fellow big four behemoths Deloitte and PwC have also announced similar training for junior staff.

With Gen Z entering the workforce, many other companies have also spoken of the challenges in getting them up to speed on workplace etiquette. Some employers have bemoaned the casual workwear: ripped jeans, trainers and hoodies; others have spoken about their younger staff signing off emails to clients with “hehe bye” and “hasta la pasta”, rather than the more conventional “kind regards”. Reports also surfaced earlier this year about the ‘tech shame’ young people experience because they don’t know how to use ‘legacy’ technology such as folders, printers and scanners. Some also needed training on how to speak on the telephone.

Accountancy practices may have observed changing attitudes around work-life balance too: according to one McKinsey study from last year, 18-34-year-old workers were 59% more willing to quit their jobs than older colleagues if flexible working was taken away. Another poll from Axios/Generation Lab found 82% of Gen Z workers said doing the bare minimum at work was “pretty or extremely appealing”. Yet, some of the changes could be positive: 82% among Gen Z want regular “mental health days” according to 2022 research by workplace training company TalentLMs. 

“I spend a lot of time speaking with employers and consistently hear the same thing: employability skills and readiness for work isn’t what it used to be among young adults,” says Gareth John, chief executive at training provider First Intuition. “But it’s not their fault: the last three-and-a-half years have been dreadfully difficult for them… employers may need to rethink their expectations and recognise the extra support they need to offer.”

From coaching soft skills to the importance of defining workplace standards, experts give their advice on managing younger recruits…

Understanding post-Covid recruits

Karen Blaylock, Accounting Training Manager, Armstrong Watson: “I’ve noticed the Gen Z/post-Covid cohort is much quieter, which can come across as shyness. Confidence can often be an issue too… Covid has meant school-leavers have had a disruptive couple of years, missing the part where they’d usually go out and socialise. Also, the pandemic has meant many haven’t been able to have part-time jobs and missed out on valuable work experience opportunities.”

Gareth John, Chief Executive, First Intuition: “It’s easy to blame everything on Covid, but there’s a cultural shift happening among young adults. For example, they don’t socialise in even the same way they did a few years ago. I’ve heard of some workplaces where young recruits will sit in their cars to eat lunch, as they don’t feel comfortable eating in front of colleagues.”

Chloë Mattick, Marketing, PR & Communications Executive, First Intuition: “The lack of part-time jobs has also had a huge impact. Many young people develop communication, teamworking and time management skills in jobs such as working in restaurants, shops or pubs at weekends. But the hospitality and retail industries have taken a hit in recent years. It’s a shame, because these are the skills that are increasingly being valued within accountancy.”

Attitudes to work-life balance

John, First Intuition: “Today, many employers are working 10-12-hour days just to keep up with the pressures of workload and [having] limited resources. Many young adults entering the workplace are seeing their bosses work these crazy hours and thinking this life isn’t for them. It creates a vicious cycle that makes it harder to retain and promote talent, while managers work even harder.”

Struggling with ‘legacy’ tech

John, First Intuition: “Don’t assume young adults will know how a printer works: some will have never seen a photocopier in their lives! Some also struggle to make phone calls on office landlines, often because they fear failure and criticism. Managers should help and give training where they can.”

Amy Carter, development manager, Kirk Newsholme: “We sometimes see a gap in technical skills such as Excel. Sometimes employers have an assumption young trainees will know how to use Excel spreadsheets, but it isn’t built into school/college curriculums. We work with our training providers who ensure Excel is built into trainees’ onboarding package before they join the firm.”

Mattick, First Intuition: “Today’s young adults do everything on their phones. But they’re not all watching TikTok videos. At First Intuition, some tutors allow phones in some classrooms as mobiles can be a great way to get the whole classroom engaged, by using quizzes and word clouds. It particularly gives students who are less confident a chance to speak out and participate. If used effectively, mobile technology can increase engagement for learners.”

Setting workplace standards

Mattick, First Intuition: “We hear of some candidates turning up to interviews in sports/leisurewear. But if you look at many workplaces today, tracksuits and hoodies are often the norm, even for the managing partners. How are young adults supposed to know any better? It’s a good idea for employers to give young adults clear expectations on behavioural standards: what constitutes appropriate workwear, hours of working, when their lunch hour is, even when they’re allowed to use their phones and what for.”

Blaylock, Armstrong Watson: “Our culture at Armstrong Watson is based around standards. We communicate our values as early as the interview stage, when we give new colleagues our ‘Culture Book’.”

Carter, Kirk Newsholme: “Many school-leavers from the Covid generation haven’t had the guidance about what the corporate world is like. We need to make sure they know what’s expected of them from day one. That’s why when it comes to interviews, it’s helpful to brief them on what they should wear and the style of the interview… The recruitment process is also where we gauge whether our candidate’s values align with our own… identifying candidates who have the same values as our firm is essential in gaining new long-term members of the team.”

Improving soft skills

Blaylock, Armstrong Watson: “As well as holding technical training sessions, Armstrong Watson also provides softer skill training days throughout the year covering communication, time management/planning, critical thinking and problem-solving along with leadership skills. To develop our trainees’ people/communication skills, we encourage face-to-face sessions so that students are used to being around groups of people and their own cohort.”

Blaylock, Armstrong Watson: “Some trainees aren’t used to communicating in a more formal style and may need to be shown how to adopt a professional approach when dealing with clients. We encourage this is by providing opportunities for them to shadow senior members of the team.”

Skills and behaviours

John, First Intuition: “In the accountancy sector, the quality of apprenticeship programmes has grown phenomenally in recent years. In particular, employers are finding the Skills and Behaviours element of apprenticeships helpful, as it teaches all the non-technical skills many new recruits lack, such as teamwork, communication skills and critical thinking.”

Check-in regularly

Blaylock, Armstrong Watson: “Due to their quieter nature, students can be less likely to speak up. That’s why it’s important to check in on them regularly. It allows you to deal with any issues quickly, plus help gain a better understanding or where they – or we – might be going wrong, plus any help they may need.”

Blaylock, Armstrong Watson: “While confidence and communication skills are areas companies may need to spend time on with their younger recruits, their determination and willingness to learn can be found in abundance. They’re always keen to take on a challenge. I’ll often send students out to other offices. Even though it’s out of their comfort zone, they don’t hesitate to do it… Post-Covid cohorts have had setbacks, but with proper guidance they’re more than willing to push themselves, build their confidence and gain the skills necessary for a successful career in accountancy.”

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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