Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The zing thing: Gen Z redefining work and workplaces

Driven, hard-working and unafraid of failure, the youngest, social-media savvy generation, or Gen Z, is redefining work and workplaces

Varsha Meghani
Published: Aug 6, 2018 09:27:05 AM IST
Updated: Aug 6, 2018 10:56:42 AM IST

The zing thing: Gen Z redefining work and workplacesDespite being hyperconnected on social media, it’s a myth that Gen Z shuns interpersonal connections and collaborative work
Image: Nishant Ratnakar for Forbes India

I employ people who are education-less, brainless and of zero quality,” says Sidhanto Saha. “I’m dead serious,” he adds.
After failing his exams while pursuing journalism at Manipal University, the now-23-year old entrepreneur decided to take a break. “I was totally depressed and didn’t know what to do,” he recalls.

Back home in Ahmedabad, Saha freelanced with a content writing agency for a few months while simultaneously studying for his exams. He passed eventually, but his heart wasn’t quite there. “Working for others sucks,” he offers. “I needed my freedom.”  

Two years ago, he set up Kosho’s Hotdogs, a cloud kitchen at his home city that delivers the American fast food staple to consumers via Swiggy and Zomato. They were one of a kind in Gujarat, says Saha, offering a variety of hotdogs from 7 pm to 7 am. With initial funding from his father, Kosho’s now rakes in ₹4.5 lakh a month, fulfilling about 40 orders a day.

Saha talks excitedly about the learning curve being “steep but fun”, and how he would never have learnt as much—and as fast—had he taken the more routine, professional route. But what’s with the hiring policy? It goes against all conventional recruiting wisdom. “It’s about giving them [those at the bottom of the pyramid] a chance. If they are willing to work hard and learn, we will hire them, train them and give them a sense of purpose,” says Saha, with the air of a seasoned entrepreneur.

Saha is an example of Generation Z—the post-millennial cohort roughly between the ages of 18 and 24 (descriptions vary among experts) that is new to the workforce. Sure enough, Saha ticks all the boxes that experts talk of when it comes to Gen Z’s characteristics and workplace motivations.

Willing to work hard? Check. Focussed on career development, growth and progression? Check. Motivated by a desire to positively impact the world? Check. Candid about failure and even welcoming of it? Check: “There’s no stigma associated with failure,” shrugs Saha. Practical and risk-averse? Check. “I don’t have an endless supply of cash. I first want to strengthen our existing business and then look at opening an outlet,” he says.

According to estimates, this lot that Saha belongs to is expected to make up 20 percent of the global workforce by 2020. India, with its youthful population, is expected to benefit from a large chunk of this “demographic dividend”. But how do employers leverage this? And how will Gen Z’s preferences and habits redefine work and workplaces?

“It’s not that this generation is different from older generations. Across the board, everyone is looking for opportunities to develop, to grow their careers and good pay; and is willing to work for it. It’s just that Gen Z wants it faster than those before them,” says Prasenjit Bhattacharya, CEO of Great Place to Work, India. And so it follows that employers must set expectations right at the time of hiring this young lot.

Bhattacharya cites the example of a large Indian company that lets employees “gamify” their career progression based on their goals. Say, a new joinee aims to become head of R&D. She enters her goals into a simulated game, which then throws up options: In order to become R&D head in 20 years, she’ll have to meet certain milestones at certain times; in order to make it there sooner, she’ll have to perform other duties clearly laid out by the machine.

Moreover, in this age of social media, transparency is key. “In their excitement to hire young people, employers promise the moon, ranging from collaborative working spaces, ping pong tables or ‘bring your pets to work’,” says Bhattacharya. “However, the reality is increasingly difficult for organisations to hide. Technology-enabled social media makes them transparent.”

In fact, Gen Z are the first truly digital natives, more so than millennials—the oldest of which are in their mid-30s—who had to learn and adapt to social media. So whether it’s checking out potential employers, ensuring that they meet the expectations they set or succinctly articulating opinions via a tweet to effect change, social media will play an increasingly important role. The data testifies: A survey conducted by human resource consultancy Randstad found that 88 percent of 18-24 year olds in India were connected to their colleagues on social media such as Facebook or Instagram, and 60 percent said they were connected to their personal managers on these platforms.

That said, Paul Dupuis, CEO of Randstad India, is quick to point out that even though Gen Z is hyper-connected on social media, it’s a “myth” that they shun face-to-face communication. Collaborating in person is fulfilling for them, he says, adding that when he put in place an open-door policy at Randstad India, he found that it was the younger lot who would come up to him for a chat. “They want to be heard,” says Dupuis.

As Gen Z looks to have a voice and their opinions considered, it’s clear that they aren’t satisfied being mere cogs in an organisational wheel. “Soon we will see that employee equals customer,” says Bhattacharya. Just as employers obsess over their customers, so also they’ll obsess over their employees. “After all, from a customer’s perspective, a company is only as good as its people,” he says.

But as members of Gen Z become an increasingly important part of the workforce, three distinct generations will be emerge at the workplace: Gen Z, Gen Y or the millennials and Gen X who are currently in their 40s. In many instances, baby boomers (the youngest are currently in their mid-50s) are staying on the job longer, which makes it four generations with differing attitudes and styles of working. Are businesses prepared for this? Microsoft India, one of the largest recruiters in the country, says it is. The software firm has put in place a “reverse mentoring” programme called Elevate, says HR head Ira Gupta, through which employees from different generations are encouraged to develop empathy.   

Then again, as Saha of Kosho’s Hotdogs points out, nothing brings together people and teams, however different, like a well-earned reward. “We motivate our employees by giving them good non-vegetarian food. When we give it to them, they’re like “O-M-J!” [Oh my Jesus]. It boosts the camaraderie and makes work easier.”

(This story appears in the 17 August, 2018 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)