It’s simple but true: Leaders need to bear in mind that what they ask of their employees has far less impact on what people are doing than what is being rewarded.
Furthermore, the rewards that organizations provide—which can take the form of promotions, pay increases, new opportunities, and recognition—will be effective only if they work together in concert. That means that all of these rewards need to reinforce each other in order for everyone to feel that they are given authentically.
This process starts with a focus on merit raises, promotions, and high-profile external hiring. Employees want to know what is required to advance in their careers and to take the next significant step toward better pay. They’re looking to see the relationship between their work and their career advancement, salary, and feedback on their annual evaluations. Thus, it’s crucial for company supervisors to be aligned with organizational values in the way compensation and career path decisions are made.
I added high-profile external hiring into this mix, because the kinds of people you bring into an organization say a lot about what top-tier management really thinks is important. Bringing in executives whose past work does not mesh with stated company goals and values can quickly create cynicism.
The reason why I mentioned career path and compensation first is that other modes of recognition will feel authentic only in the context in which the most significant workplace rewards are already reinforcing key goals.
Giving someone the opportunity to participate in a valued project or to meet with a key client can be a reward, but only if it is seen as a signal of potential career advancement in the future. People like to get evidence that they are being groomed for future roles. So the chance to attend an important meeting has a benefit only if people believe that they are in contention for a step up the ladder.
Similarly, performance awards and other prizes and recognitions are valuable in the context of a system in which those can be taken as evidence that career path and compensation growth are likely to follow. Otherwise, awards and recognition ring hollow. A certificate, plaque, or plexiglass trophy will not outweigh a sense that an organization does not truly value its contributors.
If advancement and compensation are so important, then why bother with any other forms of recognition?
In a typical organization, raises are given yearly—often at the same time as a comprehensive performance review. Promotions typically occur even less often—at best every three years. As a result, it can be hard for your best performers to know that they are excelling.
Obviously, you should strive to tell people when you think they have done a good job on a project. But more valuable recognition like opportunities to engage in high-profile projects and awards provide another way of helping team members to know that they are being noticed by important people in the organization for the work they are putting in.
In addition, when the awards and recognition are given to people who are actively pursuing the organization’s goals and living its values, it reinforces the commitment of the organization to those goals and values to every member of the team.
Finally, you’ll know you made a good choice from the reaction people have when awards and recognition are given out. Leaving aside a few people who get jealous whenever anyone else gets something they do not, most people will greet an award given to a key performer with an attitude of respect and pride both for the individual who was honored, as well as the organization overall.
For Hannah McConnaughey, starting her first job during the pandemic felt almost like being in a simulation. “When I started my first all-remote role in late 2020, I couldn’t shake this sense that my job was imaginary,” she says. “It felt like I was playing a ‘work’ video game on my laptop eight hours a day.”
McConnaughey, a Gen-Zer, has since worked multiple roles that began remotely. What made her feel the most fulfilled after starting new jobs working from home? Finally getting to interact in person with her coworkers, she says. “Meeting my team even once or twice helped me feel much more connected [with] them and the work we did.”
Starting a career remotely is common for lots of Gen Z hires, who were born between 1997 and 2012. Many are used to working from home or in hybrid settings since beginning jobs during the height of the pandemic. Many faced a steep learning curve, adjusting to their first post-college jobs from their bedrooms or their couches, after completing their final semesters of school remotely, too.
For most people at the outset of their careers, personal development and enrichment is deeply important. And without the benefit of spending time in a face-to-face office, many Gen-Zers say they’re wary of being left behind. According to a Generation Lab survey, cited by Axios, about 40% of Gen Z wants to return to the office. (In contrast, a similar survey from Slack shows only about 12% of older generations wish to go back to the office full time.) Another survey, from Washington State University, found that a majority of Gen Z felt less passionate about their work when they worked only remotely, though a percentage also expressed reluctance about going fully back to the office.
Shelley Hernandez, a university recruiter at Pinterest, says that Gen Z may be digital natives, but they still want opportunities to convene with their coworkers and managers in person. “For Gen Z employees, a collaborative team and/or mentor is important because they are still learning,” says Hernandez. “Since, as recent graduates or current students, there is still a lot to learn, they should feel there is enough open communication where they don’t feel like they can’t ask questions or for constructive feedback.”
This desire to speak openly with teammates and develop in-person work relationships, is in fact one thing Gen Z wants. Here are a few other workplace ingredients young employees would like to see:
OPPORTUNITIES FOR CONNECTION
Understandably, connecting with colleagues is important to Gen Z. Ideally, a return to the office would also mean more opportunities to connect with senior teammates, who can open a world of career advice. This all feeds into a feeling of belonging, which, according to a survey from Cognizant, 93% of Gen Z desire in order to succeed in the workplace.
Studies show a rising rate of disconnection and lowering of engagement from work and school among young people. This can take a toll on individuals’ mental health—which is extremely valuable to Gen Z, according to a recent Microsoft workplace index.
Santor Nishizaki, coauthor of the upcomingWorking with Gen Z: A Handbook to Recruit, Retain, and Reimagine the Future Workforce after COVID-19, has done research on the youngest cohort of workers, and the pandemic has had significant psychological effects on young people. “Half of the working Gen-Zers we surveyed stated that working remotely increased their level of anxiety and depression. More than half admitted to having the feeling of increased loneliness and a more challenging time dealing with conflict since going remote.”
So, if you’re asking employees (of any generation) to return to in-person work, see what you can do to encourage opportunities for collaboration and connection. According to research from Indeed, 73% of workers reported they missed socializing with their coworkers while 45% shared they missed in-person meetings.
Look at any study about what workers care about, and you’ll see that white-collar employees want more flexibility to get things done when and where they want. So it makes sense that this benefit looms large in Gen Z’s minds, as well. Microsoft’s research notes that Gen Z is 77% more likely to interact with a job posting on LinkedIn if it includes the word “flexibility.” That’s higher than for all other generations, including millennials, who were a mere 30% more likely to interact.
“The ability to have flexibility is very important to [Gen Z],” says Hernandez. “Some want to be in an office all the time because they love interacting with coworkers, some want to be fully remote because they want to be in a quieter space, [and] some want a combination.”
Hernandez says Gen Z’s willingness to voice their support for less-traditional working styles is refreshing. “This generation really understands that their preferences may not necessarily be their colleagues’ preferences, and they are advocating for companies to not have one-size-fits-all policies,” she says. “[They] know they don’t have to settle for a 9-5 job if that isn’t what they like. There are companies out there that offer flexibility.”
McConnaughey says she believes a hybrid environment will become the “new default mode” for the way many of us work. “It’s easy to forget [because of] our age, [but] Gen Zs spent little-to-no time in an in-person, five-days-a-week office, before the pandemic,” she says.
A POSITIVE CULTURE
In the Microsoft report, the leading benefit (46%) young respondents wanted from employers was a “positive culture.”
An aspect of this may mean a distinct focus on mental health, and work-life integration. In her recruiting experience, Hernandez has felt it encouraging that Gen Z is insistent on prioritizing mental health at work. “[They’re] much more open about talking about mental health. They don’t want to work an excessive [number of] hours a week. They have a life outside of work, [and] they want to have a healthy life balance.”
“My goal is using my career to contribute to something bigger than myself,” says McConnaughey. She says that she and her friends have embraced opportunities to find work they are passionate about—or else they’re not interested. “[Some] have decided that their jobs are a means to an end, so they’re spending more time and energy on things they care about outside of work,” she says. “Either way, everyone I know is much more intentionaland proactive about how work fits into their life.“
This sort of sentiment of establishing more balance, and even de-prioritizing work, reflects the current research. In the Microsoft index, many young people spoke candidly about their hopes to find fulfillment and purpose—whether or not their job could satisfy this. “I viewed work to be almost top priority in my life because I believed it would be the only thing to give me the life I wanted,” said one entry-level finance worker. “But that has changed. I am realizing that corporations aren’t always going to care for you, so make time for yourself and loved ones.”