Lessons for Leading Gen Z Employees

Jun 07, 2023 Kate Riley

In January 2020, I joined Inkhouse to establish and lead our new Seattle office. Two months in, however, the pandemic challenged our ability to create a physical space and cohesive team in uncharted ways. Like many others, we pivoted to remote functions but still managed to grow a tiny-but-mighty team of ten employees before it was the right time – and safe – to open a physical office space.

What surprised me most coming out of the pandemic is that when I started my job at Inkhouse, I was part of the youngest generation in the workforce (millennials). But I emerged from the pandemic as the office veteran welcoming Gen Z to the team. I realized that having both of these perspectives gave me a good vantage point for thinking about how to lead the next generation. 

Understanding Gen Z 

Gen Z employees are starting their careers at a fragile time in the American economy. The peak years of the pandemic have led to inflation and a major slump in the tech sector. Coupled with ongoing social movements, many Gen Z-ers are coming into the workforce feeling disillusioned and mistrustful of authority. They are also accustomed to a social media fueled world that creates a constant flow of information, which they also expect from their employers. In addition, the pandemic put a huge spotlight on the importance of health, balance, and well-being which translates into a continued desire for flexibility today. In short, Gen Z wants transparency, flexibility, belonging and clear and secure growth paths.

I believe the best thing we can do as leaders is to understand what this generation is experiencing and meet them where they are. On that note, here are some of the ways I’ve adapted my leadership for Gen Z:

Connecting with Each Other…Everywhere

I Slack, text, email and go into the office 2+ days a week. In all those places, I make space for simple and human conversations. At the beginning of my career, the random laughs in the office, conversations at the coffee machine and car rides to client meetings were how I created connections and friendships. Gen Z is craving those same connections (aren’t we all?) but the mediums have changed.

A recent Harvard Business Review article reported that 73% of workers aged 18-22 sometimes or always feel alone. Most Gen Z employees (and even some younger millennials) only know remote or hybrid ways of life. Thus, they haven’t had as many opportunities to forge deep professional relationships that are often created in person over a period of time.

To address this, Inkhouse Seattle emphasizes connection, conversation and spontaneity during our 2-3 days together in the office – while also finding ways to engage and celebrate virtually. While I can’t be the type of leader who keeps up with the latest emoji trends or clever GIFs, I can be fully myself and let that shine through in everything I do. No matter where or how we connect, the most important thing for my team to know is that I’m transparent, available and care.

Being Flexible Together

We have a flexible work policy at Inkhouse (read more about it here!). As the mother of two small children, I enjoy these benefits as much as anyone. At the same time, I’ve learned so much through osmosis by seeing and hearing my colleagues and mentors in action in the workplace – absorbing skills like professional maturity, confidence in meetings, effective phone pitching, stress management and so on. 

Here are some efforts I’ve made to provide that learning opportunity for others:

  • Collaborating on the design and “vibe” of our office 
  • Having an open desk plan and open “door” policy
  • Offering opportunities to take calls at a desk instead of a conference room
  • Acknowledging stressful days and showing how I work through them
  • Celebrating wins in the moment
  • Planning fun team events inside and outside of work
  • Modeling what work-life balance can look like in a leadership role
Showing up as myself (and for myself)

I will admit that I don’t have BeReal – a social media app to capture and share unfiltered moments from your life with your followers. But if I did, here are some of the images you might see:

  • Me juggling a bagel and cream cheese, a travel mug of coffee, a one-year-old and my laptop bag with my four-year-old somewhere in the vicinity
  • A smear of peanut butter on the shoulder of my shirt (thanks to one of the toddlers) while on a Zoom call and trying to surreptitiously respond to my husband about daycare pickup

Because I am a mother, wife, general manager and human, every day is a reflection of my circumstances. I want my team to see this and know that they can be all these things and still show up and do great work. Some days, I wake up early, squeeze in exercise, pack a lunch, whisk my kids to daycare and breeze into the office ready to roll. On other days, I’ve already spent two hours doing mind tricks with my toddlers to get their shoes on by the time I arrive at the office. I don’t gloss over my reality or dwell on it. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in my career and believe I’m a stronger and more fulfilled professional as a result of those choices, so I want my team to see that as a viable option for themselves.

This is only the beginning of the workplace transformation and I feel confident that Gen Z will continue to shape the workplace in ways we can’t yet imagine. But this is the best part! We all get to continue growing, changing and challenging each other. 

Topics: Public Relations, Employee Communications, tech PR, workplace culture, Inkhouse Seattle, Gen Z
Kate Riley

Kate is the Pacific Northwest general manager of Inkhouse. She resides in Seattle with her husband and two young children.

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