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What Gen Z Wants (and Expects) from Work with Melanie Wertzberger

Updated: Sep 1, 2023


We’re baaaaaack! And I’m so excited to be sharing this fantastic conversation with Melanie Wertzberger, the founder and CEO of Shaka, a Techstars-backed startup that helps great companies improve retention through scalable culture programs.

In today’s episode, Melanie and I deep dive into the 1,000+ person research study she conducted around what Gen Z wants and expects when it comes to work. While some of what she learned made complete sense given what I already know, there were no fewer than three findings that completely surprised me - and likely will surprise you too!


Reflect On This

Think about your earliest professional experiences…

  • How did it feel to be new to the world of work?

  • Were your expectations in line with what you experienced?

  • Did you feel supported, nurtured, and understood? Or patronized, chastised, and looked down on?

  • What do you remember most from that time?


In this episode you’ll learn:

  • What values you can expect Gen Z employees to champion in the workplace.

  • How Gen Z feels about working from home vs in the office - and it might surprise you. I know it surprised me!

  • How side hustles factor into Gen Z’s view of work and the mind shift change Melanie recommends adopting asap!

  • Practical tips for managing Gen Z employees.

  • Why Gen Zers expect to make six figures (yes, six!) right out of college and what this means for your recruiting process.

Melanie Wertzberger talks about what Gen Z wants on the Want to Work There podcast
Melanie Wertzberger - Founder and CEO of Shaka

Connect with our Guest:

Did you love the episode? If so, I’d love for you to share it with a friend or colleague who shares your passion for building a better world of work! Find us at wanttoworkthere.com/podcast or by searching Want To Work There wherever you listen to podcasts.


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How to manage Gen Z employees in the workplace


Make Way for Generation Z.


As an elder millennial who’s heard enough avocado toast quips to last a lifetime, I so appreciated the moments in my conversation with Mel Wertzberger when she’d carefully interject that - like any generation - Gen Z operates with tremendous nuance.


Without that reminder, it might seem that Gen Z is a cohort of contradictions. But in fact, these very contradictions reinforce consistently held values, and the desire to live them.


Defining Gen Z

Before delving into our survey findings, let's clarify the parameters of Generation Z. While the exact range varies across studies, Gen Z is typically defined as individuals born between 1996 and 2012. This cohort has grown up in an era of rapid technological advancement, in a time where they don't know what the world was like without the Internet. Gen Z is often characterized by their enmeshment with technology and their strong individualistic tendencies.


Three Ways Gen Z is Different and Awesome


1. They walk the walk

Mel refers to Gen Z as the Do Better generation, folks who want to live ethically, and to see the world operate ethically. They’ve lived their whole lives facing dwindling natural resources, and observing shifts in popular understanding of social justice. For Gen Z, taking action that aligns with values really matters.


2. They'll also walk away

You could also call them the "flexibility generation". More than its predecessors, Gen Z is likely to walk away – quickly – from a job that doesn’t afford the flexibility to pursue passions, support side hustles, and prioritize mental health and wellness.


They role-hop, operate side gigs, and demand flexible and hybrid work models at rates dramatically outpacing other generations. A majority (55%) expressed a desire for a hybrid work model that offers a balance between office and remote work.


3. They value their value

While most of what Mel shared was in line with my understanding of Gen Z's desires and drivers, I admit I was thrown when she revealed that many Gen Z’ers expect a $100k+ salary straight out of college.


“Sweet youths,” I thought, “you’re so values-driven, so vocal about the harms of systems that elevate profit over people. Your whole thing is ethics and flexibility, not paycheck and prestige. Surely you know that money isn’t everything!”


Enter: social media, where ideas and influence spread at lightning speed, with the potential to enter popular discourse at a moment’s notice. This has likely fed their desire to shape a more ethical world.


But it’s also given them an at-times unrealistic view of what individuals can expect to be paid, when comparing their own salary potential to those of influencers who are quick to share big paychecks.


Gen Z has less work experience and it's showing

For many reasons (Covid, fluctuating job markets, etc.) this generation has also had less early work experience than its predecessors. Only about 18% of Gen Z’ers have held jobs in their teen years; less than Millennials at 27%, and far less than Gen X’ers at 41%. This lack of real-world experience likely also plays a part in unrealistic pay expectations.


But it has awkward implications for their preparedness for the professional world. This generation needs additional support and guidance in developing foundational workplace skills, such as communication, teamwork, and customer interaction. Employers must recognize this gap and proactively provide training and mentorship to help Gen Z employees thrive in their careers.


(Sidenote: if this is making you sweat, hop to the 44-minute mark of my chat with Mel, where she outlines concrete strategies to align Gen Z talent to comprehensive, more realistic compensation expectations.)


They don't want to get burned out like generations before them

One of the most significant revelations from our survey is Gen Z's emphasis on work-life balance. Unlike previous generations, which often adhered to a culture of unrelenting hustle, Gen Z seeks a healthier equilibrium between their professional and personal lives.


This aspiration reflects a broader shift in workplace dynamics, catalyzed in part by millennials, and now being actively championed by Gen Z.


Gen Z faces a mental health crisis

Remember the office hubbub Millennials caused with increasingly vocal stances on mental health support?


Well despite being digitally networked, only 45% of Gen Z’ers – a full 12% less than Millennials – report having “excellent” or even “good” mental health.


A lifetime of internet-enabled connectivity has helped them recognize that vibrant mental health requires access to resources, and they expect their employers to help.


In one study Mel conducted, a staggering 87% of survey respondents expressed their desire for companies to prioritize their mental and physical well-being. This underscores a pivotal expectation that employers must adapt to, recognizing the paramount importance of employee health and happiness.

I, for one, am fully behind this cause. Everyone, no matter the generation, will benefit from employers better understanding, considering, and supporting the mental health of their employees. It is just one of the many things that is giving me hope about this bright, thoughtful generation becoming an increasingly larger part of organizations.


By 2025, Gen Z will make up over 25% of the workforce. Rather than write off their unique needs, it’s on us to embrace their nuance in order to welcome them, support their learning and growth, and afford them the meaningful work experience they crave.


How to make your company Gen Z-friendly


It’s clear as a bell: making way for this new generation and their unrelenting persistence requires mental health support. And we’ll all be better off for it!


Today, I want you to do a 10-minute audit of your company’s mental health support offerings and then take action on at least one of the suggestions below.


1. Take an Audit


Catalog the perks and benefits you currently offer, like comprehensive insurance, stipends, or subscriptions. Are you enrolled in an employee assistance program (EAP) or mental health program like Lyra or Modern Health? Does your sick policy define mental health needs as a valid use of sick time? Is it common for team members to casually use language like “crazy,” “so OCD,” or other terms that may signal ableism? Jot all of your observations down.


2. Pick an Action

  • Schedule time during an upcoming all-hands meeting to refresh your team on what mental health benefits are available to them. Oftentimes, they don’t know!

  • Centralize your resources into an index to include in new employee onboarding. Having this resource to share during onboarding will signal your organization’s support and understanding of mental health to new employees.

  • Ping your colleague in benefits to ask about resource budgeting in the coming quarters. Use the additional budget to inquire about corporate pricing at a mindfulness app or to send your leadership and managers through Mental Health First Aid training.

  • Forward this email to your managers with a reminder that taking mental health days is not only encouraged, but that you’d like them to be vocal when they do, so their team members know it’s a safe and accepted practice.


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