Blog Articles

Young, Fun, & Remote: How Gen Z Is Bringing Fun to Work

What do junior team members want when working from home? We’ve asked them directly!

Reza Farahani - WFhomie

by Reza Farahani - April 19th, 2023


It’s no secret that working remotely has brought on new challenges — and benefits — for knowledge workers of all age groups. But it’s become increasingly obvious that remote leadership efforts have been skewed towards mid-career employees.

So, what do junior team members really want when working from home? What are they missing, enjoying, and craving? What kind of support do they truly need from a remote leader? We’ve asked them directly!

In this post, you’ll hear from Jad, Harneet, Hannah, Emily, and Tess, whose distinct perspectives all share a common element: deep gratitude for their employers’ kindness, and the sense that work-from-home could be even better.

We forget there’s a difference between being professional and being serious. Seriously! On the one hand, professionalism is associated with the high standards of a given discipline. In other words, being ‘professional’ means belonging with and representing the best in your field.

Meanwhile, ‘serious’ brings to find grim faces and drawn brows. A quick search on Google shows synonyms for ‘serious’ include: solemn, grave, somber, unsmiling, stern, and stony-faced...There may be a fine line between ‘professional’ and ‘serious’, but the best leaders know how to walk it.

They know how to teach their team the difference, and they recognize the value of creating an informal, low-shame atmosphere. Gen Z employees? Not so much. All too often, young workers feel the need to appear serious, at the expense of embodying their authentic selves, properly integrating with their team, and loosening up at work. According to business scholars Sheila Pisman and Andy Molinsky, “The main reason young people struggle isn’t generational — it’s cultural."

In particular: the very significant, but typically underemphasized, cultural transition between college to the professional world.” In college, for instance, relationships evolve naturally between peers with very similar interests. At work, there’s a sudden flurry of barriers to relationship-building, just as young professionals realize they need both personal and strategic connections to thrive. The stiffness this creates for them can easily taint their workplace, both in-person and especially remotely, where the smallest details matter.

The main reason young people struggle isn’t generational — it’s cultural. In particular: the very significant, but typically underemphasized, cultural transition between college to the professional world.

Sheila Pisman and Andy Molinsky

As a result, remote managers and Gen Z professionals alike can benefit from infusing their days with the informal. Harnessing a low-shame environment in work-from-home powers your productivity, teamwork, and innovation, while putting a lot of thought into your remote culture can redefine your younger employees’ experience. Why create a low-shame environment at work?

First off, you can stop wasting your remote team’s time. In a GitLab Unfiltered interview, GitLab Head of Remote Darren Murph highlights the negative correlation between shame and efficiency. “In many organizations,” he says, “you take a risk when you put forth any work that's not perfect — where you haven't spent endless cycles planning for contingencies or counterpoints.

Because of this, you're incentivized to invest a lot of time and effort into preparing for 'What if?' scenarios before any work is presented.”Add that to the typical anxieties young professionals already grapple with at work, and the drawback is painfully obvious. If your Gen Z employees work hard to present polished ideas to peers and managers, but some of these are fundamentally flawed, they’ve already invested a lot of time moving in the wrong direction.

The costs of inefficient project management are even higher in remote workplaces, where nobody will peek over your shoulder unless you share what you’ve been up to. By contrast, “having a low level of shame requires you to combat a natural inclination to conceal work until it's perfect, and instead celebrate the small changes.”

Recognizing every step of the process — pretty or not — also contributes to innovation at work! After all, the opposite of shame is trust and psychological safety, or “the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.” And as Stanford Professor Laura Delizonna explains, low-shame environments encourage “moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.”

Consequently, research shows that companies with high trust levels outperform companies with low trust levels by 186%. Moreover, their employees are more engaged and 2.5 times more likely to stay. They even experience 74% less stress and 40% less burnout. And while no study has yet looked at the impact of trust for young workers specifically, there’s no question that those numbers would be even higher for this demographic.

That’s because Gen Z as a whole typically leans towards cynicism.  They grew up in a time of rampant misinformation, dishonest leaders, and constant negativity in the media and on social networks. In one study, less than half of those surveyed said they saw themselves as trusting or very trusting people.

Therefore, young professionals tend to take extra precautions around coworkers and managers, because they are instinctively wary of being judged or taken advantage of. This tendency is exacerbated with remote work, where you receive less data points overall, from your boss' body language to your peer's morning habits. The bottom line? It’s just hard to get goofy and build trust with your team if you’re worried about your colleagues’ perception of your performance.

“They didn’t pressure us into doing too much, and they never shamed us if we did less.”

— Hannah, at RBC

When I interviewed Hannah, who interned at RBC last summer, she didn’t come off as cynical at all. If anything, Hannah seemed almost too grateful for the empathetic leadership she’d received as a young software developer. “They were just very supportive,” she said, “and they understood that we were new in the industry. They didn't pressure us into doing too much, and they never shamed us if we did less.” Is not being shamed at work a perk, or a necessity? This kind of reasoning conveys Hannah’s work ethic, on the one hand, but perhaps also a practiced caution, a vigilance I detect in many of my peers. Smiling, Hannah added, “I would've felt really bad if they were like: ‘Oh, we thought you would get more done.’ I don't think anyone would say that, but it was nice that they didn't.”

The best remote leaders know there is value to infusing their workplace with the informal.

Although work-from-home is a fantastic opportunity for young workers, it can exaggerate these doubts, adding some confusion about the workplace culture to the mix. Harneet, who’s recently joined Hamilton Health Sciences from home, captures the feeling exactly: “All our lives, we were taught to be professional in a certain way.” Half-serious, she draws air quotes with her hands. “This is how a workplace is, and this is what good behavior looks like in the office, and this is how you attend meetings. But none of that is true now, with remote work. It’s very unexpected, all of it.”

Clearly, your team can only gain from an informal workplace that allows for constructive feedback, increased team building, and greater recognition. The best remote leaders know there is value in infusing their workplace with the informal. Problem is, the culture you want won’t magically appear on your screen. In reality, informal, trust-building moments will never ‘just happen’ when you’re working from home.

Water cooler chats won’t happen, because there is no water cooler. Coffee breaks should be a thing — but aren’t, except that one time you onboarded a new hire. As a result, remote leaders must create and nurture ‘the informal’ with intention alongside their people. Easier said than done, perhaps.

Joining the workforce in a health Org remotely, Harneet noticed that “sometimes, it’s just one meeting to the next. It’s just one Zoom call to the next Zoom call, right? There’s no ‘in-between’ chatter, like ‘Hey, my dog did this over the weekend’. Yet those little tangents that people go off on sometimes are really appreciated. Those are the mundane things that you really miss about life right now.”

“Those little tangents that people go off on sometimes are really appreciated. Those are the mundane things that you really miss about life right now.” ”

— Harneet, at Hamilton Health Sciences

While social interaction is particularly scarce with Covid-19 at the moment, Harneet is right to point out that “there’s a common theme around keeping “work life” as work and “personal life” personal.”  Most people, she highlights, “have a professional persona and a personal persona,” an artificial distinction that’s hard to maneuver working from home. Yet there has to be some way of combining the two in a healthy manner, Harneed adds, “when so much of our days are spent at work.”Building trust within your Org suddenly becomes a priority when you know up to a third of your life will be spent at work.

According to Payscale, the average American actually spends 13 years and two months working in their lifetime, compared to 328 days socializing with friends.These are shocking statistics knowing the majority of Americans are not just unhappy with their job but very lonely at work. If we don’t invest in virtual team-building activities, remote workers could struggle to socialize the most.

To quote Harneet, “Having a work friend makes the workplace so much better,” but when you’re working from home, “it’s so much harder to find that friend.”

As Jad puts it, “When you're in an office, it happens naturally. You come in, you have five minutes to talk, and then you start working.”

Last summer, however, he found it hard to replicate this dynamic during his remote internship at the United Nations.

“You don't have that natural time where you get to say informal things,” Jad says, “because everything is put on a schedule. When you're joining a meeting online, you can’t arrive early, and you know what you're supposed to talk about right away. Then, you just leave the meeting.”

Regarding this, Hannah shared one of her favorite trust-building mechanisms from her time at RBC. “It might’ve been an accident,” she says, “but when we’d have wrap-up calls at the end of the day, our boss would always leave the call running when she left, in case people wanted to stay.”

It’s moments like these that have the potential for real bonding because they occur regularly throughout your week, and offer a low-stress environment for your team. Or, as Hannah puts it, “Something as simple as that can be really cool.”

When I picked his brain about scheduling times to chat with colleagues, Jad says it was difficult for him to ask busy peers (and parents) to make space in their calendars just to talk.

In the office, he shares, you might grab two or three minutes together at a time; but when you’re scheduling chats, it’s harder to set a call under 20 minutes. And even during breaks, it could be a bit awkward to initiate if there isn’t a culture for it. “You're not going just to email your colleague,” Jad adds, saying, “Hey, I'm thinking about grabbing lunch now.’ It just doesn't seem right."

Beyond scheduling issues, it’s also difficult for young professionals to maneuver around virtual etiquette, which can lead to a “one emoji away from being fired” feeling. As Harneet puts it, “Some things like social skills just translate better in person. You don’t always get a feel for the environment remotely, especially depending on the organization’s culture.”

Indeed, the values of a workplace can be hard to grapple with remotely for Gen Z employees, especially new hires like Harneet. “I guess our team meetings are informal, but they’re also still a bit formal,” she adds. “With that kind of mix-up, I don’t know what the environment at work is exactly outside of the office.”

Harneet and Chloe being interviewed virtually.Tess, who’s been interning at the Carter Center, was blunt about her own experience: “I know about the interpersonal relations because I sit in on meetings, so I can see how casual or how formal some people are, but I don't know what the workplace culture is like at all.” She also emphasizes the importance of video calls with smaller groups, “so that it could be more informal.” Then, she says, “There's actual contact, there's actually stuff going on,” as opposed to massive ‘chats’. “With 40 people on the call, you don't know if you can respond to things casually or not,” she adds, lightly shaking her head.

Hannah echoed the feeling, explaining that you “can’t connect with people as individuals when it’s like that. And I’m really bad at remembering names when there are 30 people on the same call, so then I don't even know who's talking,” she added. Enshrining the informal into your work day in and day out is not as hard as it may seem.

By this point, you’re well aware of the roadblocks that prevent trust-building within your remote team, especially among Gen Z employees. You know why informal team-building is crucial, and you may recognize that large events, poor etiquette guidelines, and back-to-back meetings are not the way to go about it. Rather, it’s all about cultivating your remote culture top-down, middle-out, and bottom-up — as recently discussed by Future Thinkers. The first thing you should do to get started is write down your values.

“Documenting everything,” executives at Gitlab share, “enables an ever stronger, more informed, more trusting, and more connected team, as there's no physical space to debrief in.” This is particularly true with Giftlab’s values. “Often, company values get diluted as they grow, most likely because they do not write anything down." The ways in which these values can and should be practiced — through virtual experiences and communication practices, for instance — should also be set in stone online.

“When key concepts like values aren’t a click away from your remote employees, they are left to vanish in thin air. And thin air isn’t a great place to lay the bedrock for your employees’ motivation, engagement, and communication. ”

What next? Once you’ve documented your key values, it’s time to practice what you preach and build a long-term culture of trust for your Gen Z employees. Jacquelyn Kress, VP of People & Culture at Smokeball, makes clear that “a truly strong company culture is an intentional one,” yet “many companies approach culture with a ‘set it and forget it’ mentality — they throw some perks and benefits at employees and call it a day.”

Kress counsels not to fall into that trap and instead to recognize that your team’s “culture is a living, breathing thing and must be nurtured intentionally.” Start today by making informal gatherings a regular occurrence for your remote team. Use Slack Donut or a randomizer of your choice to pair people up for weekly coffee chats and lunch breaks. Drop it into their schedule, and make things tasty.

For instance, Tess tells me her colleagues used to bring in bagels for the interns at the office every Friday afternoon. Shrugging, she added, “I guess they can't just send us all bagels at our homes.” But why not? With Uber Eats credits and an integrated culture platform, you can streamline your remote team’s food deliveries in no time.

A tiny investment like that could boost your team’s productivity for the entire week! Otherwise, biweekly events and game nights are a great way to share some team fun. These inherently informal meetings help cut through the awkwardness that permeates remote workplaces all too quickly, giving your Gen Z employees some much-needed psychological safety.

Emily, who worked at RBC as a digital writer last summer, says it helps transition between “work time” and “fun time.” And there’s another unexpected perk to game nights, as opposed to unstructured coffee chats: clear ending times. Frankly, your youngest workers may be reluctant to drop off a call first, even when they have prior commitments scheduled right after — who wants to give their manager the impression they don’t want to spend time with them?

For Emily, “It's important to cap how long a Zoom happy hour goes on. Otherwise, you just don’t know when it's going to end, and... It can be awkward to leave.”  On the other hand, if you're playing a round of a game like This or That, “it makes sense to leave when you finish the game.” Even if you don’t end the call right away, letting people stay on like Hannah’s manager, a game’s structured end time creates a natural exit point for Gen Z workers who may otherwise feel compelled to Zoom on.

“A rarely discussed, yet crucial component of low-shame workspaces is coherent messaging.”

In reality, maintaining coherence in your culture communication matters the same way keeping a consistent brand voice matters in marketing. We find this matters with event planning especially. As Emily says, “It’s such a small thing, but if you're using a tool like Slack where you have different channels, you should share your plans in a random, fun channel.” Do so in a friendly way, too, and feel free to sprinkle some emojis! Whatever helps delineate “when people should interact” and “when they should just take note of business information.”

This ultimately helps you facilitate a transition between what is fun, what is chill, and what is serious. In the end, the positive impacts of trust-building activities stretch beyond psychological safety, a sizable asset in and of itself. Coffee chats, shared lunch breaks, virtual experiences, and fun game nights all play their part in helping Gen Z employees understand the meaning of professionalism, as opposed to being serious, or inauthentic. As a remote manager, you can be sure they’re ready to lead a team of their own when they stop asking themselves questions like, “Is this a professional meeting, or is this a fun bonding time?”

Subscribe to Beyond The Desk to get insights, important dates, and a healthy dose of HR fun straight to your inbox.

Subscribe here