Last updated: How to manage millennials and Gen Z at work

How to manage millennials and Gen Z at work


Listen to article

Download audio as MP3

Do you know how to effectively manage millennials and Gen Z at work? According to Gallop, the two youngest working generations already make up almost half the full-time workforce in the U.S.. So, if you don’t know yet, it’s time to learn. Your business could depend on it.

Studies show time and time again that companies with engaged employees consistently out-perform companies with disengaged employees. High employee engagement increases productivity, sales, and profitability, and reduces absenteeism and turnover.

So it falls to managers to drive engagement on their teams, and unlock their employees’ potential. But the world changes so rapidly, each generation seems to be a drastic departure from the one before it. The strategies that worked in years past may not be effective with the younger generations. So, managers need to adapt.

Just like good CX, good employee experience starts with understanding. So let’s examine millennials and Gen Z at work, and the best ways to manage and engage them.

Everyone’s got a backstory: What shaped the youngest working generations

We’re products of our upbringing. Pivotal moments that form our generational identities also inform our values and expectations at work.

To understand what motivates millennials and Gen Z at work, we need to look at where they came from.

Meet the millennials

Millennials were born between 1980-1995, and currently make up the largest portion of the U.S. workforce.

They had just started working at the onset of the Great Recession. That not only impacted their work experience (hello, unpaid internships), but also their families and communities.

Millennials saw older generations – who had valued loyalty at work – get laid off in an instant. Suddenly, that loyalty no longer seemed to be rewarded like it was supposed to.

Those who secured jobs often set themselves apart by being willing to work longer hours and wear more hats at work. The “grind” became their competitive advantage. (This would eventually lead to a burnout epidemic, placing a higher value on work-life balance.)

These experiences gave rise to two distinctly “millennial” traits:

  1. They became the job-hopping generation
  2. Understanding they’d be spending more than 40 hours a week working, they sought out personal fulfillment at their jobs, even more than a paycheck.

Meet Gen Z

Gen Z were born between 1996-2010, and is the youngest and most diverse generation in the workforce today.

They’re known for being as disruptive as millennials. They weren’t working during the Great Recession, but they saw its impact on their parents and older siblings (many of whom had to move back home). When they entered the workforce, they were met with a whole new challenge: a global pandemic.

Gen Z has been hit hard by mass unemployment, an environmental crisis, and pervasive social justice issues.

It’s no wonder what they crave most isn’t millennials’ flexibility – it’s stability. They are highly-driven and pragmatic.

Some other distinctly Gen Z traits include:

  1. They are true digital natives (many don’t remember a time before smartphones)
  2. They are an activist generation, expect companies to meet a higher standard when it comes to diversity and inclusion

6 tips for managing millennials and Gen Z at work

Now, let’s get tactical.

Six tips for managing millennials and Gen Z more effectively:

  1. Provide frequent, clear communication
  2. Prioritize development and growth
  3. Empower them with independence
  4. Connect with why
  5. Facilitate and enable
  6. Ask and involve them

1. Provide frequent, clear communication

Millennials and Gen Z are both known for wanting a lot of direction and feedback. They were both raised in a culture of instant gratification, getting constant feedback from social media.

Set up regular 1:1’s to establish an open dialog. Provide regular feedback and guidance on their performance, keeping their long-term goals in mind.

With projects, give explicit directions, though it doesn’t need to be hand-holding. Instead, clearly communicate your expectations. (e.g. Does this project need to be done in a specific, templated way, or are you looking for them to take the reins?)

Pro-tip: Millennials tend to respond better to feedback that’s framed in a positive light, whereas Gen Z tends to prefer direct, straightforward communication.

2. Prioritize development and growth

Gen Z craves stability, while millennials crave flexibility. Two seemingly opposing goals, but they have something in common: both respond well to ongoing education. Millennials want to learn and grow to avoid staying stagnant. Gen Z sees new skills as a sort of insurance policy for long-term security.

Carve out time for professional development and up-skilling, and show how it will benefit them long-term. You could also set up a formal mentorship program, allowing them to learn hands-on from, and build connections with, other people in the organization. These types of programs not only check the professional development box – they also show that you’re invested in your employees’ success, something valued by millennials and Gen Z alike.

3. Empower them with independence

Despite the stereotypes, younger generations thrive when they can work independently. That doesn’t mean they won’t need some guidance, but micro-managing millennials or Gen Z is likely to shut them down. If you want them to be engaged, provide them with opportunities to harness their problem-solving and creativity.

Millennials tend to seek out start-ups and young companies where they can job-craft. When possible, give them some agency over their workday. (You can always revisit it if performance starts to slip.)

Gen Z, on the other hand, is drawn to more stable, corporate environments, while still enjoying an entrepreneurial approach. Give them projects they can own end-to-end. They will value the freedom and agency, and be more personally invested and engaged in their work.

4. Connect with why

Millennials and Gen Z both tend to be more engaged at work when they can see the forest through the trees. They want to know why the work they’re doing is important to the company; why the project where they fit in the broader picture. They also like to know their company shares their values and stands for something beyond its products or services. Whenever possible, connect their work with the why behind it.

However: both generations also value authenticity (and have super-keen BS-detectors). So, don’t paint an idyllic picture about how their data entry is going to change the world. But even for those smaller projects that “just have to be done,” if you can show the value of the task, you’ll see positive results.

Pro-tip: Communicating “why” also helps when you need to deliver bad news – why their proposal didn’t get approved, or why you can’t accommodate their hyper-specific needs. Younger generations expect the workplace to be a lot more empathetic than it used to be. Ask them to be empathetic to the company’s needs, too, and they will likely return the favor.

5. Embrace innovation

We’ve all recently had to embrace high-tech solutions for collaboration since the pandemic.

But millennials and Gen Z see connectivity as table-stakes at work.

As they become the workforce majority, plan to use new technologies for everything from brainstorms to billing. Whether working from home or in a shared office space, use apps like Slack and Teams to chat and share files. Demonstrate that you’re not stuck in the old way of doing things, and foster a culture of innovation.

6. Ask and involve them

Above all? Millennials and Gen Z want to feel seen and heard. So, ask them how they work best. Involve them in conversations that will impact them. Even if final decisions don’t go their way, they’ll be more engaged if they feel like their voice matters.

The future is here: Generation now

Two generations known for disrupting the status quo are just moments away from becoming the majority of the full-time workforce.

They’re not kids anymore – they’re highly driven and highly demanding of their work environments.

Those who can connect with and manage them effectively will be set up for long-term success.

Work doesn’t work like it once did.
Win, retain, and grow talent in a changing, competitive landscape. Real-life proof points →HERE.

Share this article


Search by Topic beginning with