Bakers Journal

Managing gen Z employees

May 1, 2024
By Scott Greenberg

It’s about seeking to understand young employees, just as you would your customers

Photo: yacobchuk / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Making great bakery products takes more than using the right ingredients. You must also know how to prepare those ingredients, how to combine them, and how to bake them. The same is true for building a crew of generation Z employees. It’s not enough to hire the best candidates. You must also connect with them, engage them, and unite them into a top-performing team. 

My audiences are composed of people relying on generation Z employees, and they really struggle with them. They complain that they’re hard to recruit, harder to keep and almost impossible to motivate. 

But in researching my new book, I’ve met many restaurant operators who’ve cracked the code with generation Z. They’ve developed management practices that have increased their influence over young workers and improved team performance. Here are three parts of their recipe:

Mind the gap. Generation Z is different. But it’s management’s relationship with them that makes the difference. Many employers complain that generation Z lacks a strong work ethic, is soft, and is unresponsive to traditional workplace expectations. “Kids these days,” they say, echoing the same grievance employers have said for centuries. Generation gaps have always created tension in the management-employee dynamic. 

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Better employers reduce the gap by putting their subjective opinions aside. They instead make objective observations about young workers and adapt to their needs. They don’t coddle or enable them. They just seek to understand them and manage accordingly, just as they seek to understand their customers and serve accordingly. They appreciate this generation values life balance more than ambition. They realize they’re more emotionally attuned (sensitive, but also empathetic). They respond to their need for a lot of feedback and, when earned, positive reinforcement.

Your criticism about generation Z may be correct. But it’s not helpful, not if you want to manage them. Put your judgment aside and try to better understand them. Manage them as they are, not as you think they should be.

Meet their “soft needs.” Most restaurants focus on hard needs – the tangible things people want from a job. This includes money and benefits. It’s what they get in exchange for their work. “Soft needs” refer to their emotional wants. These include respect, praise, personal growth, safety (including emotional safety) and a sense of belonging. You may not be able to pay them more, but you can create a superior work experience. Their soft needs may be different than yours and from each other’s. While one person may appreciate schedule flexibility, another may be desperate for a pat on the back. Some may just want to be someplace less toxic than home. 

The more you can determine what drives individual workers, the easier it’ll be for you to motivate your team and win more loyalty. Salary alone won’t do the trick. Employees should be paid fairly, but those workplaces who also strive to elevate the emotional experience of the workplace (just as you strive to elevate the emotional experience of customers) will become employers of choice. 

Make culture tangible. Mission and value statements are often way too abstract to be meaningful for young workers doing manual, repetitive work. Are you sure your employees know what “Integrity” actually looks like on the job? I encourage my clients to make their values more tangible by emphasizing behaviors that reflect each value. For “Integrity” they might say: 

  • We always tell the truth.
  • We follow through on our commitments. 
  • We admit our mistakes. 

These agreements reflect the value but are easier to understand. They also make it easier to hold employees accountable. Discuss these behaviours a lot and celebrate those who consistently demonstrate them. Reprimands should also reference these behaviors as a breaking of the values agreement.

You may not believe it’s possible to build a strong, reliable team of gen Z employees. I sympathize, but I can’t ignore the results I’ve gotten in my own businesses, or those of the many diverse employers I’ve observed. They’ve proven it’s possible. Gen Z is young, but still growing. If you seize the opportunity to help facilitate that growth through more understanding, a more satisfying work environment, and a culture they understand, you may find it’s the best way to facilitate your business growth and enjoy piping hot performance. / BJ


Scott Greenberg is a speaker, writer, and coach who helps leaders grow their business. He’s the author of The Wealthy Franchisee: Game-Changing Steps to Becoming a Thriving Franchise Superstar and the new book Stop the Shift Show: Turn Your Struggling Hourly Workers into a Top-Performing Team. More information at ScottGreenberg.com.


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