Gen Z’s digital demands: the ultimate challenge for workplace tech?
As the Generation Z cohort enters the workforce with different expectations of technology, how should employers best serve their needs?
In the past decade, the influx of Millennials into the workforce challenged prevailing notions about how all kinds of organisations might best induct, motivate and equip their new workers. It was not simply a question of tools and training – it soon became clear that the phenomenon was much wider in impact. Here was an emergent generation (a.k.a. Generation Y) that thought differently about the world. Growing up during the convulsive expansion of technological revolution, they intuitively adopted new tech habits and matched them with experimental social attitudes, new expectations and different life aspirations. Significantly, the Millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) were also forerunners of the next youthful demographic revolution now upon us: Generation Z.
Gen Z differs from the Millennials in that members of this cohort (born between 1995 and 2012) have never known a world without the internet and social media. Technology informs every aspect of their lives from personal health tracking and online gaming to social media, box set streaming, the monitoring of global politics and climate change militancy. For them, flexible working is increasingly a reality, not an aspiration. They are not awestruck by what digital technology can offer; they are simply impatient when it under-performs.
No tolerance of failure
Their average attention span is variously estimated at being between eight and 10 seconds. To Generation Z, commuting increasingly looks like a historical concept. They assume that technology should deliver everything rapidly and seamlessly wherever on the planet they might want to use it. They have no time for sluggish buffering, unavailable wi-fi, patchy phone signals, or non-intuitive interfaces on any device.
San Diego State University psychology professor, Jean Twenge, notes in her book, iGen, that ‘students switched between tasks every 19 seconds on average. More than 75 per cent of the students’ computer windows were open less than one minute.’ More so than any previous generations, Gen Zers have high expectations and a low tolerance for failure or inconvenience. Studies show that when something goes wrong, digital natives assume that it’s the technology that’s at fault, not them. They expect to access technology that is immediate and omnipresent. They pride themselves on being able to cut through fake news by virtue of their extensive experience of filtering digital media. They are globally connected and often feel closer to their circle of virtual friends than those they know in the ‘real’ three-dimensional world.
They want to be able to work in any location, whether it’s the traditional workplace or at home, always using cross-platform-friendly technology that allows work to become a secure but free-flowing activity spanning home devices, workplace computers, phones, tablets and meeting room video conferencing technology. Lifetime exposure to personal video-telephony programmes has democratised the once rarefied concept of international corporate video conferencing, making it another accessible work asset.
A different mindset
Overwhelmingly Gen Z are image- and video-led, preferring that written information should come in short-form messages or even sparse bullet points. Speed of technological change is also accepted as a fact of life and a need for instant device-gratification can lead to a reduction in brand allegiance and relative indifference to big company names or sometimes even whole sectors.
Bloggers give an insight into the Gen Z mindset. Blogger Ryan Jenkins includes the following in a cohort-defining list of Gen Z quotes: ‘A wedding trend I have noticed is not having a photographer …just having friends take all the pictures.’—Female, 18. (1) This tendency holds sharp lessons for any technology company that clings too firmly to traditional R&D patterns or even to its own past reputation. Also, there are few roadmaps when planning the future. Seeking to define a typical home use computer set-up (or even a typical workplace set-up) is to miss the point. For Gen Z the point is not to have a fixed home set-up conforming to some supplier-defined expectation, but rather to maintain a changeable smorgasbord of readily available devices, services and platforms to best respond to the needs of the moment.
‘Futureproofing will mean identifying trends and being able to respond rapidly…’
This tendency was already present in pre-formed teenage Gen Zers. A 2013 Opinion quote from the then 13-year old New Yorker Ruby Karp, now a writer and comedian: ‘When I was 10, I wasn’t old enough to have a Facebook. But a magical thing called Instagram had just come out … and our parents had no idea there was an age limit. Rapidly, all my friends got Instagrams. Now, when we are old enough to get Facebook, we don’t want it. By the time we could have Facebooks, we were already obsessed with Instagram.’ (2)
So, loyalties shift. For technology providers, futureproofing will mean quickly identifying trends and being able to respond rapidly to them. This comes more naturally to some organisations than others. While the major global players like Microsoft and Apple clearly embrace the need to keep up with the preferences of new and future customers, their size and all-encompassing nature mean that they cannot be instantly reactive in terms of their operating systems because they are still obliged to satisfy established users while engaging with the aspirations of younger ones.
Positioned for innovation
Against this background, it can sometimes be the designers and marketers of peripherals who are best positioned to respond quickly to Gen Z needs. A clear example of this happening is Swiss company Logitech, established nearly 40 years ago and known worldwide for its mice and keyboards. Today, it has positioned itself to design and develop innovative personal peripherals for PC navigation, video communication and collaboration, music and smart homes.
Logitech’s product development has to some extent anticipated the expectation of the Gen Z entrants to the workforce to work anywhere inside and outside the organisation, using technology in the workplace to mirror the technology they have at home. This blend of personal and professional tech takes the workplace into a new hybrid landscape, as described by experts in the WORKTECH Academy network.
According to UnWork CEO Philip Ross, a leading strategist on the future of work: ‘The experience of Gen Z today and their digital lifestyle informs much of what is to come. Their approach to real-time interaction through platforms such as Snapchat, WeChat and Fortnite demonstrate an expectation of being connected, always on, interacting synchronously and transparently with their friends. A gamified workplace will be one consequence of the “Xbox generation” in stark contrast to the staccato exchange of asynchronous communications adopted by the Baby Boomers and Gen X, whose way of working is largely off-line in scripted workplaces, with days full of back-to- back meetings.’ (3)
A seamless transition
Logitech’s unified communications specialist Martin Smith identifies a key requirement with this departure. ‘People want a seamless transition from the quality of technology they use in their personal lives to the technology offered in the workplace,’ he says. ‘It’s not about equipping employees with technology they need to use, it’s about equipping them with technology they want to use.’ This observation is echoed in a report by Siemens, The Future of The Smart Office, co-authored with WORKTECH Academy. This describes how ‘demographic change brings a younger, more entitled and more digitally comfortable generation to the fore’ with a central requirement for seamless connectivity.(4)
‘Not technology they need to use, technology they want to use…’
Research by architects HGA with the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces (ICHW) at UC Berkeley took a ‘deep dive’ into Gen Z attitudes to the workplace, commenting: ‘While connection has been a recurring theme in the research, Gen Zers look to control when and how their connections occur. From on-demand learning opportunities to how and when information is shared, designing the workplace of the future should include choice-rich environments. Just as the boundary between digital and physical is blurred for this generation, we saw a similar blurring between privacy and connection in 100 per cent of participants.’
A good example of Logitech’s response to the expectations of this emerging workforce can be found in video, as personal video usage transitions into corporate environments. Logitech has partnered with video conferencing expert Zoom for its latest product development. A new system integrates Zoom’s video conferencing system with Logitech’s one-tap user interface.
Logitech’s Martin Smith explains that employees can easily transition video calls on their phones onto conference screens, thus connecting the private and professional spheres. Nichole Izzo, Logitech’s Head of Marketing North and West Europe, adds: ‘The quality of video is
increasingly important in consumer technology, and that same level of quality is now expected in the workplace to connect with employees in different geographical locations. Employees now want the same ease of use in their office environment as they have in their home.’
More generally, the proliferation of more distributed working patterns in the digital economy require technology to bridge the gap in terms of human interaction. Collaboration technology is set to become a pivotal tool in enabling the workforce to work together effectively, with a growing reliance on deep collaboration across multi-generational and multi-cultural teams.
However, Gen Z expectations don’t stop there. As the workforce shifts towards a more varied mix of freelancers, contractors and permanent office workers, organisations not only need to consider more sophisticated digital tools to accommodate new patterns of work, but they also need to be mindful of growing environmental pressures around climate change.
In this respect, in contrast to their more passive predecessors, Gen Z have an action-driven approach – organisations must do more than give lip-service to supporting environmental movements. Investment in workplace technology must therefore give greater focus to quality of materials and longevity and reusability of products. Again, Logitech has considered this longer-term outlook when designing its tech products. It has designed with quality and longevity at the forefront of innovation, with many customers using the same products for many years.
Extension of themselves
According to Forbes magazine, which has assiduously charted the emergence of the Gen Z workforce, ‘Generation Z addresses new technology as an “extension of themselves” rather than an addiction or compulsion.’ This is an important distinction. As Jack Mackenzie, executive vice president of market research firm PSB, explains: ‘With Plurals [Gen Z] and technology, there’s almost no division. I don’t even know if they think of it as technology. They just think of it as the way it is. It’s just ingrained into their minute-by-minute behaviours.’
Across the board, Logitech’s portfolio of tablet keyboards, smartphone accessories, webcams, Bluetooth speakers and universal remotes targets Gen Z’s keen appetite for precise and intuitive technology in products designed to share information seamlessly. Once, when specialisation was more the norm, Logitech’s current family of inter-connective products might have been thought unusually diverse for one company. As we have seen, the Gen Zers, however, tend to ignore traditional loyalties and simply demand the best solutions to address their mercurial needs across all platforms and environments.
For example, Logitech’s MX Master 3 mouse refines the process of instantly copying and pasting the contents of one screen to a physically discrete device positioned alongside, even if one computer is running Windows and the other Mac OS. Featuring radical serrated steel scroll wheels that have a solid and responsive feel, MX Master 3 lets the user lock onto a single pixel or scroll 1,000 lines in a second. In the world of peripherals, unlike that of operating systems, a previous generation is not automatically alienated by innovation; Logitech also still produces its Millennial-targeted sleek and minimalist MK470 range of wireless keyboard and mouse combos in a range of colours.
It is this kind of flexible approach to which forward-looking Gen Z cohort members are likely to respond best: a choice of high efficiency products that are responsive to their immediate needs. Before too long some of their generation will be leading tomorrow’s tech industries and trying their hand at matching products to people in changing times. They will at least take with them their unique experience of being the first generation ever to inhabit a digital future without the distraction of always looking over their shoulder at the mindsets of a recent analogue past.
(2) Mashable opinion column
(3) The World of Work in 2019, Philip Ross (WORKTECH Academy 2019)