Redefining jobs and career paths. Gen Z is coming into the workforce with an immediate ability to teach existing employees new approaches on technology, ways to engage with social media and bring cultural relevance to more traditional organizations. This is an ambitious group, who expect to have a quick impact. Organizations that hold them back to dated standards, or established and archaic career paths, will quickly lose them. Lean into Gen Z thinking, and watch how innovation takes off.

When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.

As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Marcie Merriman.

Marcie Merriman, EY Americas Cultural Insights & Customer Strategy Leader, is an internationally recognized leader in brand strategy and cultural anthropology. Marcie has spent over two decades working with boards, CEOs and their teams to anticipate disruption and propel growth through human-led strategies. She speaks globally on topics related to millennials, Gen Z, changing consumer behaviors and corporate strategic response. Her work has been featured on CNBC, BBC, and Bloomberg TV, and in publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Wall Street Journal and The Economist.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.

Having my daughter and becoming a single mom shaped my life in a million little ways. As any parent will tell you, having a child changes your perspective on life. In addition, as a single parent I had challenges that were often different from my colleagues. Or maybe they were the same, but rarely talked about (i.e., flight delays and snow days required plans a, b and c). I think this helped me to be more empathic of others, and try to understand the why behind the what.

Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?

Some of this will depend on the industry, but one thing that will remain a constant is the need for collaboration because diverse perspectives generate the strongest ideas and solutions. That said, the way we collaborate is likely to shift. Pre-pandemic, most of us gathered physically in a room to work through ideas. Now, with the support of technology, we have new ways of working and collaborating that are likely to evolve. For instance, as companies explore how to tap the metaverse, they may increasingly use this technology to replicate certain in-person meetings.

We can also expect the workforce to become more diverse at all levels. Generationally, Gen Z is the most diverse yet, and in 15 years many of them will start filling senior roles. Importantly, diversity will be defined more broadly to include education and geography in addition to gender, race and many other elements. More employers are broadening their aperture for talent, recognizing the value of hiring from outside the traditional path of higher education. And with the addition of remote work, companies are less limited by proximity. They can access and hire people with skills and experiences they need to diversify their staff, irrespective of where they live.

The typical need gaps and benefits for the increasingly diversified talent pool have changed. Society has changed, lives have changed, priorities have changed. Companies will need to diversify and personalize their offer, so that employees can individualize to their specific needs. This is already a reality in the consumer world — where a customer can personalize product, service and communication to their need. They will expect the same in their place of work.

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

When it comes to future-proofing, it helps to consider who the employees of the future are. Gen Z is the newest generation in the workforce, and while they are not a monolith, they generally value authenticity and empathy, as well as flexibility and intuitive digital processes. This generation sniffs out inauthenticity with ease. They won’t overtly demand trust and transparency, but they will silently block a person or brand (literally and figuratively) from their lives and will have a distaste for anything that looks, feels or is, to them, “fake.”

This generation and all generations to follow grew up as digital natives — but it isn’t about the technology itself. Instead, it is the ease and speed this technology enables their day-to-day behaviors — from how they approach relationships, entertainment, transportation or how they buy their dinner. As they move into the workplace, they will similarly expect processes and technologies they encounter to be absolutely seamless and intuitive. Anything less will create friction that is a barrier to success. A company’s internal processes should be continuously assessed against the ease that has been found in the customer world.

What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?

Gen Z expects choice, transparency, and authenticity. They want to make the world a better place. Addressing these requirements can pose a challenge for many employers. Gen Z wants the control and the adaptability to decide how to live their best life, including choosing when and where they work, and how they work — and even with whom they work.

Rather than focus on work/life balance, Gen Z will be looking at balance and finding work that fits into that life versus the other way around. It’s not a 50/50 split in their mind. To adapt, employers need to consider where they can build adaptability into their workplace, whether it’s a flexible choice around work hours, where employees work or if being on camera is required for video calls.

Don’t mistake this to mean Gen Z is not up to the task. They are motivated to do well and will put in the time and effort to strive for emotional, work and financial success. In fact, Gen Z will gravitate to organizations that reward productivity, collaboration and innovative ideas, versus time sitting at a desk. They will help make this the new standard, just as Millennials did with open workspaces and flexibility.

Gen Z’s demand for authenticity and the truth will challenge companies to walk the talk. If an organization isn’t what it says it is or doesn’t live up to their high standards, Gen Z won’t shy away from telling the public. They feel an obligation to make the world better and that includes how employers treat employees.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

The last two-plus years have forced companies to embrace change. The need for digital solutions allowed younger employees to lead some of the change. Over two years ago, it was uncommon to offer universal remote work options. Now, it is the opposite. Fewer companies require staff to be in-office full-time.

It is also worth noting, some of Gen Z joined the workforce within these last two years and never experienced the traditional office environment. Instead of companies always trying to replicate the office experience while virtual, it’s time to adopt new practices reflecting the virtual office. Between Covid’s work-from-home lifestyle and Gen Z’s desire to work when they feel most productive, the days of the rigid 9-to-5 are on life support. They are inherently wired into an always-on digital world, so what makes 9am the magical hour that makes their workday most productive?

Companies will need to recognize that Gen Z expects to be trusted to work the time and place where they are at their best — maybe someone is more productive early morning or late at night or if someone needs to schedule around caregiving needs or even to make time for their passions — the flexibility to work when it works for them can be impactful.

We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought tremendous hardship and heartbreak to people across the world. Societally, we need to build empathy into all parts of life, including the workplace. EY’s Empathy in Business Survey of more than 1,000 American employees proves the importance of empathy in the workplace for productivity, retention and overall success. The survey confirmed 90% of US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79% agree it decreases employee turnover. For companies looking to be more empathetic, the survey respondents agree on the following leadership qualities being necessary: open and transparent (41%), fair (37%), follows through on actions (37%), encourages others to share their opinions (36%) and trusted to handle difficult conversations (34%).

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

I’m optimistic that Gen Z will make fantastic leaders in the workplace and society. Their hearts are in the right place. Our research continues to show how important authenticity is to Gen Z with the 2021 EY Gen Z Segmentation Study showing 92% say being authentic is the most important characteristic in a person and in themselves. It’s not just about themselves either — they feel that if others aren’t free to be their authentic selves, then no one can fully feel free.

Additionally, our data shows the top stressor for Gen Z is worrying for others who are treated badly because of who they are, whether it’s their gender, race, what they look like, etc. The stress around this ranks high: 52% of Gen Z are more worried about others being treated badly than nearly every other topic surveyed, including getting a good job, paying for college, discrimination toward themselves, or their own relationships with significant others. Gen Z’s natural compassion and empathy suggests our future workplaces will be a more supportive and inclusive environment; this is something they’re already pressuring current leaders to adopt.

Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?

  • The mental health and wellbeing of employees has become central for many employers. It is a huge focus at EY where we’ve increased benefits and access to care, including expanding our offering to 25 free counseling sessions, up from 5, for each of our colleagues and their family members, expanding our well-being fund for employees and adding additional time off throughout the year to rest and recharge.
  • Other companies are also issuing new offerings to support mental health and wellbeing, and we expect more to follow in the future. In addition to offering flexible schedules, another newer trend is that companies are offering paid sabbaticals for employees to take a break and have time to focus on the things that are important to them personally. Less innovative, but still important, are building in mental health days to take time off — similar to how employers offer sick days — offering a monthly wellness stipend, or providing insurance coverage for mental health services. For companies to walk the talk on mental health, they will need to measure their efforts and progress like any other KPI.
  • Some of the above solutions are a bit more reactive. However, real progress will occur when companies begin to proactively offer solutions to aid their employees in their journey to a more healthy, balanced life. The potential for the workplace to create a sense of community and belonging, and address their employees’ need for mental, physical and social wellness can become a component of holistic attention to employees’ wellbeing.

It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?

The majority of Millennials and Gen Z workers aren’t leaving the workforce — they are leaving their jobs for new ones. Increasingly, these new jobs are in the form of untraditional income streams that don’t fit society’s traditional definitions of “employment.” Attracting and retaining this valuable cohort — who is motivated to work hard and succeed — requires a strategic and cultural revolution that challenges an organization’s traditional “job” construct.

The EY Empathy in Business Survey also indicates how important empathetic leadership is generally and also in response to The Great Resignation. The survey found 90% of US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction, and 58% of employees have left a job because they didn’t feel valued by their boss. Nearly half (48%) left because they didn’t feel like they belonged. A staggering 89% of employees agreed that empathy leads to better leadership, and 85% report that empathetic leadership in the workplace increases productivity among employees.

This data shows that employers need to look for ways to better connect with employees and show their authentic care and understanding for each employee. A few tips the survey found for increasing empathy at work include: regularly scheduled one-on-ones, being open to feedback and reminding employees it’s a safe space to have open discussions.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”

  • The diversification of the workforce in all senses of the word. Gen Z is the most diverse generation ever so between that fact and their desire for a more equal and inclusive workplace, we will see further diversification of employees and leadership, by race, gender, age, career experience, neurodiversity, education, location, and more. In order to then attract the very best people and most innovative thinkers, companies will need to expand their reach beyond the talent pools they may have traditionally considered.
  • Digitization of traditional workplace processes. Gen Z simply expects everything at their place of work to function as seamlessly as their phone. They only know a world where they can buy, order, learn and know, instantly. This will roll over to their expectations in a job — they will expect easy and frictionless backend processes, training modules and enterprise tools. This is the generation that grew up with the iPhone. They expect to open the box, and turn it on — everything else happens intuitively.
  • Focus on productivity, creativity and collaboration. During the past two years, the traditional phone conference call accelerated into video conferencing (with screenshare, whiteboard and chat functionality) as part of our everyday routine. Collaboration will continue to evolve, as companies dip their toes further into the immersive metaverse. What will this bring to our ability for creative prototyping, ideating and collaboration? Certainly, the addition of virtual meeting spaces, whether it’s simply video chats or the metaverse eliminates some need for business travel, but that doesn’t mean it’s going away. Instead, companies will need to rethink the purpose of business travel, deciding when it makes a difference to gather.
  • Prioritizing environmental and social good. Gen Z cares deeply about environmental and social issues, and they aren’t afraid to share it. The 2021 EY Gen Z Segmentation Study found 81% of Gen Z feel climate change is a problem. Companies are already building thoughtful ESG programs, and Gen Z will hold them accountable to their goals. Gen Z wants diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to be a priority where they work and will seek ways for their employers to be more sustainably minded. They truly care about leaving the world a better place than they found it.
  • Redefining jobs and career paths. Gen Z is coming into the workforce with an immediate ability to teach existing employees new approaches on technology, ways to engage with social media and bring cultural relevance to more traditional organizations. This is an ambitious group, who expect to have a quick impact. Organizations that hold them back to dated standards, or established and archaic career paths, will quickly lose them. Lean into Gen Z thinking, and watch how innovation takes off.

I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?

“A change of feeling is a change of destiny.” Neville Goddard

We are very lucky that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

Jane McGonigal. I’m fascinated by her views on how technology, including gaming, can be used to improve for good — to solve societal issues, including conflict, mental health, obesity, and many more. From what I’ve seen through my work, we can’t fight the advance of technology. Given this, how can we use it for good?

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.