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How Millennial and Gen Z demands are shaping the workplace

20th Nov 2019
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When you think of millennials, you might picture teenagers or uni students. But the oldest millennials are now knocking on 40, with the youngest in their mid-twenties. They currently make up almost 40% of today’s workforce and by 2025 they’re expected to dominate the employee population, occupying 75% of jobs¹.

Of course, they’re not just employees. They’re entrepreneurs, business owners and your clients. You're hiring them, competing against them, marketing to them and onboarding them.

While the business world has been getting to grips with millennials, the oldest members of the next generation - Gen Z - has just graduated and is joining the workforce. Scary, isn't it? That doesn’t mean we should throw out the millennials rulebook, they’ll still be in the workforce until at least the 2060s. It does mean all businesses, big and small, need to adapt to stay relevant and competitive.  

But what do these ‘changes’ look like? And why should practices and firms disrupt perfectly successful businesses to cater to these new generations? 

Quick facts

Millennials / Gen Y

  • Born between 1981 - 1996
  • 23 - 38 years old in 2019 
  • Children of Baby Boomers 
  • Most remember dial-up internet 
  • Have experienced rapid tech advancement

Gen Z

  • Born between 1997 - 2012
  • 6 - 22 years old in 2019
  • Children of Gen X (the generation following Baby Boomers)
  • Don’t remember a time before the internet 
  • Expect technology to solve problems

Years and age ranges from Pew Research

Man remote working - using AccountancyManager perhaps? Looks pretty happy about it.
Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

What do millennials and Gen Z want?

Freedom and flexibility

Flexible hours. Flexible working locations. Today’s under 40s are much more concerned, and rightly so, with a work-life balance or rather work-life integration or blend. These terms are becoming increasingly popular, as the boundaries between work and personal life begin to blur. In this connected world, simply a laptop and a stable internet connection is enough to work remotely. But is it enough at your business? Or is your team office-bound?

74% of millennials want flexible work schedules and 88% want work-life integration.

- Forbes, 2014: ‘What Millennials Want In The Workplace (And Why You Should Start Giving It To Them)

Until now, remote working has been reserved for the freelancers of the world, the rest of us tied to the server and filing cabinets. Now, thanks to the cloud, there’s a software or app for every industry - including accountancy - designed to keep everyone connected to the people, data, dates and documents they need. 

Where millennials might view ‘working from home’ as a perk, for Gen Z it will be an expectation - with the line between work and life blurring completely.

[Gen Z] might start working on a document in the afternoon, open it on their phone on the subway ride home and pull it up again on their laptop while watching TV. They don’t have as much of a harsh delineation between work and home.

- Forbes, 2017: 8 Ways Generation Z Will Differ From Millennials In The Workplace

Ongoing education and career progression

Many millennials were encouraged through university by their baby boomer parents who may not have had the same opportunities. Next stop: massive student loan debts and a recession. Gen Zers are understandably more wary of the promises and pitfalls of higher education, opting in increasing numbers to go straight into the workforce with apprenticeships. This blend of learning and earning is expected to continue throughout their careers. Remember this when you’re sifting through Gen Z CVs. A missing degree has more than likely been replaced by real-world experience. 

Advanced college degrees are less important [to Gen Z]. 64% of Gen Z-ers are considering an advanced college degree, compared to 71% of millennials.

- Business Insider, 2014: Millennials Are Old News - Here’s Everything You Should Know About Generation Z

Gen Z, in particular, is very familiar with an extremely fast pace of change and they understand the need for constant skill development to stay relevant. This can only be seen as a benefit for the businesses they choose to join. Along with striving to get more of those letters after their names (AAIA, AAT, ACCA, ACA, ATT, CTA…) and staying abreast of accountancy law and regulations, they’ll be looking to upskill in new technologies and ideas - and share that knowledge with the wider team.

Giving employees the time to continually learn and teach each other will be crucial in the coming years as the world works to close the digital skills gap.

Convenience, speed and efficiency from technology

Both Gen Y and Gen Z aren’t just digitally savvy, they’re digital natives. Gen Y may have had the last of the brick-style mobile phones in their teens, but they witnessed the birth and rise of the internet and were the early adopters of iPods (remember them?), iPhones, Google and Facebook. 

While Gen Y have learnt to adapt to new technologies as they’ve emerged, for Gen Z the digital era has been in full swing since day 1. At school, they saw interactive boards replace chalkboards and computers replace textbooks.

It’s no surprise that technology is the go-to in every area of Gen Y and Z lives:

  • Communication - email, messaging, social media, video chat
  • Entertainment - streaming TV, movies and music, gaming
  • Travel - searching for and booking holidays, AirBnB
  • Dating - Tinder, Match.com, eHarmony
  • Job searches - Reed, Indeed, LinkedIn
  • Finance - Online banking, Apple Pay, Google Pay
  • Personal projects - Google Drive, Pinterest
  • Learning - Ted Talks, YouTube
  • Income from the gig economy (Uber/UberEats, Etsy)
  • Activity tracking - Apple Watch, MyFitnessPal
  • Managing personal time - list apps, reminders, shared calendars

It’s only natural then, that these employees expect the same level of efficiency and convenience from technology at work. In a study of over 18,000 people across 19 countries (conducted by INSEAD Emerging Markets Institute, Universum, and the HEAD Foundation), over 70% of Gen Y and Gen X professionals thought their employers’ digital capabilities are important. But only around 40% of both generations said their companies’ digital capabilities are high.

Over 70% of Gen Y and Gen X professionals thought their employers’ digital capabilities are important. 

- HBR, 2017: A Survey of 19 Countries Shows How Generations X, Y, and Z Are — and Aren’t — Different. 

As technology becomes more intelligent, people expect it to do the easy or boring jobs for them - like data entry, reminders, tracking activities and automating repetitive tasks. For years, customer relationship management (CRM) and business management software has been helping companies achieve consistency and provide a better client experience. Now, automation and integration are changing the game again.

Forward-thinking businesses in every industry are jumping on the automation bandwagon and for good reasons: time and money. In accountancy, you can now automate all client onboarding - sending out your letters of engagement, agent authorisations and professional clearances. You can populate client data direct from Companies House and HMRC and set recurring reminders for your clients to pay their tax or send records. And crucially, you can keep every member of your team on the same page with constantly updating tasks for each client and a timeline of all contact and information changes. 

Automated systems and accountancy-specific technology are now the ultimate pull for millennial accountants and the newly qualified Gen Zers. But these ground-breaking ways of reducing hours on repetitive tasks, aren’t solely to attract and retain the ‘younger’ generations. Streamlining your business with practice management software frees up every employee to give clients more face-to-face time, work on further training or growing the business.

Collaboration or competition?

This is where millennials and Gen Z are said to differ the most. Gen Y - on the whole - prefer collaboration, teamwork and open workspaces. Their younger counterparts are more independent and competitive and prefer their own space and projects.

88% (of Gen Y) prefer a collaborative work-culture rather than a competitive one. 

- Business Insider, 2014: Millennials Are Old News - Here’s Everything You Should Know About Generation Z

Rather than let this divergence of needs confuse things, there are ways to plan for both. After all, no matter what generation we’re each from, we fall somewhere on the independence/collaboration spectrum. If different people like to work in different ways, simply give them the option. 

For ‘team-workers’, offer them an open-plan space and easy ways to collaborate and communicate - whether the whole team is in the office or not. For the independent-types, offer homeworking, separate offices for hot-desking - and make sure you have full visibility of what they’re working on and when.

In summary…

The influx of millennials and Gen Zers into your talent pool and client roster is an opportunity to introduce a more agile, flexible and collaborative mindset to your firm. Bringing your office into the connected age offers new levels of efficiency, communication and speed - for staff and clients alike. 

¹Fast Company 2014, Why millennials want to work for themselves

This article was originally published in International Accountant magazine, the official publication of the Association of International Accountants (AIA)