COFFEE GIANT STARBUCKS has been promoting its hybrid work culture on professional networking platforms such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor. Though it may seem like a pandemic strategy of attracting and retaining talent, it is not.

As the world returns to normalcy, hybrid work culture and a better work-life balance is a must, especially for the Gen-Zs. “The workplace has evolved. As a leading company in partner (employee) care, we provide a flexible workplace that allows professional partners to work remotely multiple days of the week. Most roles offer hybrid or remote work, but some may be office dependent, as specified in job postings,” according to Starbucks’ LinkedIn post.

Organisations have little choice, but to focus on attracting and retaining high-quality talent. Born between 1996 and 2012, Gen-Zs are digital natives, a skillset that companies are desperately in need of. However, attracting and retaining this generation (which by 2030 would comprise 30% of global workforce) hasn’t been easy. It is a generation which is individualistic and works on its own terms. Not only does it demand a hybrid work culture and work-life balance, it’s a generation which puts greater emphasis on purpose and ethics over compensation. What are you doing for climate and environment? Does your definition of diversity go beyond including women in the workforce? How can I make a meaningful impact on your organisation? These are the kind of questions a Gen-Z employee is asking his/her potential employer. If an organisation doesn’t make a meaningful impact on society, this generation doesn’t shy away from choosing an employer, who is more purposeful.

New-age skills of Gen-Zs have made them indispensable, and organisations are going all-out to woo them with attractive packages and flexibilities. According to a report by Amazon Web Services and US-based advisory firm Gallup, 97% of companies in India feel digital skills are the need of the hour, but 88% say they find it difficult to identify the right kind of talent.

Gen-Zs are, therefore, entering the workforce at a time when talent pools are shrinking. World over and even in India, companies, from Hindustan Unilever and Titan Company to Maurti Suzuki, Bajaj Electricals, Panasonic and Boston Consulting Group, are going all-out to woo this generation with carefully crafted, impactful messaging. The LinkedIn page of Starbucks, besides highlighting its hybrid work culture, also talks about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), sustainability and work-life balance, among other things.

“You will not only be outdated, but irrelevant if you don’t catch up with them,” says Manish Sharma, chairman, Panasonic Life Solutions India. In fact, 53% of this generation, according to a Deloitte report, has already changed jobs in the last two years, which indicates that organisations are finding it difficult to meet their aspirations or ambitions. Companies, therefore, need to urgently bring about a 360-degree shift in perspectives and even re-write their value propositions.

For legacy companies, embracing change has been even more challenging. The 84-year-old Bajaj Electrical’s dilemma has not just been to attract Gen-Zs into its workforce but also to completely change the organisation’s cultural fabric. Suman Kumar Ghosh, chief human resources officer (CHRO), Bajaj Electricals, gives the example of a 26-year-old who quit the company within two months of joining. In his exit interview, the employee said he was not getting ‘the kick’ he wanted. “I told him that quitting an organisation in two months wouldn’t look good on his CV, but he said it didn’t matter to him. This generation is extremely frank and honest; they have no qualms about even walking into the CEO’s office to speak their mind. If you give them what they want, you have their loyalty.”

In the past couple of years, Bajaj Electricals has introduced a hybrid work culture, not only because of Covid, but also due to demand from Gen-Zs, says Ghosh. “Working from home or coming to office only on certain days was unheard of in the consumer durables industry. But we had to change since that’s what employees wanted. We even had to bring about changes in our age-old appraisal rating system, where we rated our employees as ‘radical’, ‘excellent’, ‘good’ etc. A few youngsters felt we were labelling them,” he adds. The company is trying to do away with the ‘labelling’ system.

Aarti Subramanian, partner, McKinsey & Company, says youngsters today have a clear purpose in mind which needs to match with the company’s objective, and only then are they willing to work. She talks about a large materials manufacturing company, which "took into account feedback from a young employee on looking beyond only women in its diversity programmes – the company then went on to hire 15 transgenders at their mining site".

Homegrown lifestyle major, Titan Company, has even changed its brand narrative to be seen as a Gen-Z friendly organisation. For instance, Mia from Tanishq has always been positioned as a light-weight jewellery brand. The company claims Mia is the country’s only ‘recycled gold’ brand. “The Mia business has always used recycled gold, but it was important to bring it out before both Gen-Z consumers and employees. ESG is a big deal for Gen-Z, they want to be more responsible for the planet,” says Swadesh Behera, CHRO, Titan Company.

Deeper Conversations

Conversation and attitudinal shifts are occurring right at the time of campus hiring. “Ten years ago the question on campus was simple — does BCG do implementation or just strategy? Today, the questions are sharper and pointed,” says Akshit Shah, executive director, India HR, BCG India. The questions now are more varied as well.

Most Gen-Z employees want a clear insight into their career growth in the organisation, going ahead. They also ask questions about what the company is doing for the welfare of the community where it has set up its business. “How do I know I am adding value to the brand, what is it that you specifically do with the government, how do you measure your impact, will I have a say from the day I join in – their questions are diverse,” explains Shah. He says unlike the earlier generation, which came in with a mindset of learning, Gen-Z’s are clear which sectors they want to work in. Whether the company has robust sustainability or climate practices is yet another important criterion for this generation to decide whether to join an organisation or not. “Even those in traditional sectors such as oil and gas companies are talking about how they are getting to net zero, what their targets are etc. What earlier used to be boardroom conversations, are today happening on campuses,” explains McKinsey’s Subramanian.

India’s largest chocolate manufacturer, Mondelez India (makers of Cadbury Dairy Milk and Bournvita), is also changing the tone of messaging in its advertisements in order to woo this generation. Be it its Dairy Milk ad or the recent ‘Faith Not Force’ commercial of Bournvita (which tells consumers that it is ok if a child wants to become a guitarist or a sportsperson and not an engineer or a doctor) both are trying to create a deep-rooted impact on the society rather than merely hard selling their products. “Gen-Zs are not deciding on jobs based entirely on compensation, their decision is largely based on the kind of job they are going to do and the relevance of it,” says Nagina Singh, executive director, HR, Mondelez India.

Car manufacturer Maruti Suzuki has created a vibrant workspace especially for Gen-Z employees at its Mobility and Innovation Hub in Gurugram. Unlike the conventional open office that the company has at its headquarters in Delhi, it has created more personalised, fun spaces at its innovation hub. “Gen-Zs are private people. They want a blend of privacy and openness and that is what we have tried to give them. It’s a big move for a legacy company like ours which is used to a certain way of functioning,” says Rajesh Uppal, CHRO, Maruti Suzuki.

The company is also engaging with students right from the second year of college. It organises quizzes and case-study competitions to help students understand company values much before they join the workforce. The carmaker is also running a start-up engagement programme on several IIM and IIT campuses and even invests in them. “At the Mobility and Innovation Hub, we launch a cohort once in six months and invite applications from these campuses. We select 8-9 start-up ideas for each cohort and mentor them. We also help them to experiment with the ideas in our ecosystem and if it is successful we invest in them,” explains Uppal.

These engagement programmes, according to Uppal, are a great way to bond with this generation and make them believe that even a legacy organisation such as Maruti would give them the space and experience they are looking for. In fact, Nexaverse, Maruti’s metaverse experience, is created by a student from a Hyderabad-based engineering college, in which the company has eventually invested in.

Image : Photograph by Nishikant Gamre

Shift in Attitudes

While the Gen-Z population is ethical and impact-focused, and also entrepreneurial, they prefer the safety of stable employment, according to a Deloitte report. One of the reasons for their preference is that they have grown up amidst slowdown, recession and job losses as a way of life. Many of them have seen their parents and family members lose jobs, which has made them cautious. Companies are trying to capitalise on this by offering them experiences that they are seeking and bringing about shifts in their attitude.

Gone are the days when companies had a say in assigning roles to employees. They either need to tailor work around the curated skillset of a worker or give the employee the freedom to choose the role he/she wants to do. “They can pick and choose what they want to do and have a large say in what they are doing. Sometimes they even wait for projects to come their way. For instance, if they want to work in the social impact space and they know there is a project coming up in 2-3 months, the organisation has to let them work in a support role till the project comes,” explains Shah of BCG.

“Today they are vocal that they will not serve a tobacco company as it is against their purpose, and organisations are ok with that,” adds McKinsey’s Subramanian. Shah of BCG says if companies don’t offer Gen-Zs what they are looking for, they won’t hesitate from quitting as they know there are jobs available.

Gen-Zs says Ishan Bose, chief marketing officer, fintech platform Kreditbee, wants to have a deeper understanding of their role in an organisation. “Back in the day, you would assign tasks and people would just do it and go back home. But this generation asks questions. They want to be more aware of why we are doing a particular thing. They are more inquisitive about how the firm is doing. They want to interact more with the larger leadership, and seek more visibility. The overall idea of work for them is not just salary anymore.”

This generation also seeks variety in the roles they do. As long as they are given job rotations and newer roles which make work exciting, they stay on. “They are not too obsessed about compensation. What they do ask is if I am doing data analytics, will my job be limited to analytics or will I be involved in design, too? If they have career paths within the organisation, they don’t look at moving out in six months,” points out Singh of Mondelez.

“We realised the Gen-Z generation wouldn’t be attached to a company or brand if they don’t find meaningful jobs. From a typical hierarchy driven organisation we have moved to a broad-based one. It’s not about getting promoted every year from one level to another, we are saying you have to learn certain skills and develop certain competencies to move to a new role. That’s what Gen-Zs are asking for,” explains Ghosh of Bajaj Electricals.

The other difference between Gen-Zs and millennials is the former’s passion to learn and upskill. Millennials idolised school dropouts and rags-to-riches entrepreneurs. But Gen-Zs consider a traditional four-year college education more important than ever before. “Gen-Zs are quickly becoming the most educated and debt-laden generation in history. So, organisations that focus on investment in learning and skill/capability development become more attractive to this education-oriented cohort,” according to the Deloitte Report.

No wonder ‘upskilling’ is the buzzword in organisations across sectors. From signing up with platforms such as Coursera and UpGrad to setting up online skilling programmes, firms are going all out to offer upskilling opportunities to employees.

Gen-Zs, says the Deloitte report, is looking for entrepreneurial opportunities within the comfort and protection of a large organisation. Maruti Suzuki recently launched its ‘Interpreneurship’ programme, as part of which it runs two contests every year and asks employees to share innovative business ideas.

“They pitch, we reward them, and also implement their business ideas. We recently got an idea for a new business model in the EV business which we have incorporated in our plan. Similarly an employee came up with an employee-wellness engagement idea, which we have also commissioned,” says Uppal.

“This segment of the population is more interested in why a firm exists, and not in just what they do. They want to be connected with companies which have a strong community purpose that matches their aspirations as individuals,” says Sirisha Palepu, director, people & communities, Cisco India & SAARC.

Behavioural Changes

Change doesn’t only mean adopting policies. Organisations need to work on training their leaders how to talk to this generation, their body language and so on. The change could be as basic as addressing team members as “folks” instead of “guys”, which is considered stereotyping. “I am conscious about what I am saying. If we hang out with the team in the evening it’s a strict no to force people to drink. Even asking team members if they are married or have a partner is not accepted. Gen-Zs are extremely particular about their privacy and organisations and leaders have to be conscious,” points out Subramanian of McKinsey.

“They have much stronger views and we need to be sensitive to that,” adds Shah of BCG. Maruti has done away with uniforms in all its offices barring its manufacturing facilities. Its offices have flexible working hours, flexible dressing as well as personal spaces for employees. “We are trying to change the way we work and accommodating Gen-Z thinking,” says Uppal. On the other hand, Bajaj Electricals, says Ghosh, has broken down silos associated with a legacy organisation. Once an out-and-out hierarchical company where senior leadership called the shots, employees can now walk freely into the CEO’s office and ask questions without feeling ostracised. “We have done away with the culture of addressing seniors as ‘sir’,” adds Ghosh.

Companies don’t have an option but to change, else they will lose out on employees as well as consumers. For them, it’s almost a do or die situation.

(With inputs from Rukmini Rao)

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