TopAuthor Series: Anthony Onesto on What Gen Z Talent Wants—and Why Companies Should Deliver

01/23/2023 8 min read
Anthony Onesto is Chief People Officer (CPO) of Suzy, a cloud-based consumer insights platform focused on culture, talent, and human resources. Previously, he served in executive and HR leadership roles at FreshDirect and Razorfish. He’s the author of The New Employee Contract: How To Find, Keep, and Elevate Gen Z Talent and creator of “Ella the Engineer,” a cartoon series and comic book that encourages girls to pursue STEM careers. Onesto is a founding member of CPOHQ, a network of more than 2,000 CPOs, and a board advisor to high-growth tech startups.

In this inaugural edition of the TopAuthor interview series, Staffing.com sits down with Anthony Onesto, Chief People Officer of cloud-based consumer insights platform Suzy, and a leading expert on human resources and Generation Z. In his book, The New Employee Contract: How to Find, Keep, and Elevate Gen Z Talent, Onesto shares his analysis of why companies should develop a new contract with the 69 million members of this generation, generally born between 1997 and 2012. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What special qualities or strengths do you think Gen Z talent brings to the table?

The first unique quality is that many Gen Z folks are gamers. When an organization hears that, automatically, they might think, “Gen Z are gamers, so we’re just going to gamify everything,” and that’s not the suggestion I’m making.

What I’m saying is, think about the experience and psychological factors of games and the behaviors demonstrated within these games. Fortnite, for example, is an immersive game. The company is making a ton of money, but the more interesting element is that its revenue is generated through what they call cosmetics. When Gen X grew up, if you bought something in a game, it would enhance your capabilities in the game—it would give you special powers—like you could fly. That’s not the case anymore because the gaming system now operates where everyone is at the same playing level, meaning you cannot buy anything to gain leverage over someone else. What you can do is buy skins and cosmetics so your character can look cool.

How can that play into work? The concept of a digital presence in the workforce is super important to this generation. That could manifest in badges, certifications, or other “cosmetics” from a learning and development perspective. The gaming element is definitely a strength and a profile characteristic of this generation that will have an immediate and strong impact on the workforce. Gaming can provide a fun and engaging way for Gen Z to socialize and connect with others, which is especially beneficial for those who may have difficulty forming in-person relationships or live in remote areas. It can also help improve cognitive skills and problem-solving abilities, and can be a way for young people to express themselves creatively and develop their artistic talents.

Gen Z wants a sense of purpose, as well. They want to understand that they’re actually making an impact, or their company is making an impact, in the world. They’ve experienced so much—recessions, climate change, and a pandemic—and they have experienced the impact of these crises through their parents. Watching their families affected by recessions and layoffs has made this generation think of a career as more than just a job. Gen Z has also experienced these events through their own eyes via social media, which makes it very real for them. This gives them pause and fortitude to pursue opportunities and careers with companies that align with their views on climate control, diversity, inclusion, and social justice.

Finally, Gen Z focuses on job design and reframing work as output. If they can do a job anywhere at any time and have the same output, why should they be tied to going into a specific workplace? Gen Z’s concept of productivity will change the game around the future of work: where it’s done, how it’s done, and really, more importantly, how we define value creation in organizations. All of this is underpinned by their resolve; they are not waiting for permission. Gen Z has leverage, and they’re using it to tell companies what they need to do.

How important do you think technology infrastructure is to attracting Gen Z talent to a potential workplace?

Technology infrastructure is critical. This generation was figuratively born with an iPhone in their hand. This generation has no idea about being offline. Even more so, they are mobile-oriented, so they are used to small screens.

If they come into an organization and apply for a job and the recruiting process is 20 steps, where you put your name in and connect to LinkedIn, and then it asks you for your email when it should have pulled it from LinkedIn, and then it asks for a résumé—they’re going to say “nope.” If the front-end experiences with your organization aren’t tech savvy, they are going to decide not to even apply for your job, so technology is going to be critical. The ability to do short-form texting and quick communications—all online, all mobile—will be absolutely critical to this generation.

As you have observed other companies’ return-to-work models, have you noticed any generational dynamics at play?

Absolutely. With the 2020 pandemic shutdown, if you can find a silver lining in the situation, it is that it accelerated remote work. We all had to go remote, and you saw different generations of CEOs thrust into this new environment. Just thinking about the concept of remote work was foreign to many of them.

And you’re seeing even more generational dynamics now with return-to-work plans. I think there are probably some CEOs who are boomers or Xers who are progressive and can see the opportunities. But stereotypically if you’re a boomer, you think that if someone is not sitting at their desk, they’re not productive—that if someone is remote, they’re less productive. That’s not the case; in fact, some research suggests the opposite is true.

Gen Z’s concept of productivity will change the game around the future of work: where it’s done, how it’s done, and really, more importantly, how we define value creation in organizations.

This mistrust of remote work spawned an increase in businesses using employee tracking software. How does Gen Z talent feel about that?

In my book, I talk about one technology company where, when everyone went remote, they started to track when employees turned their cameras on. Is turning on your camera in any way a measure of productivity, as if punching a clock and sitting at a desk was ever any measure?

I’ve sat next to a ton of people who worked at a desk and weren’t productive. I want to educate companies, CEOs, HR leaders, and leaders in general, that if you construct the Gen Z workplace as in-person only, you will have a very difficult time recruiting and retaining Gen Z talent.

What do you think constitutes an ideal working structure right now—fully in the office versus fully remote versus hybrid?

Hybrid seems to be the best solution for folks. When you double-click at the company level and dive deeper, it also depends on the type of work. If you’re an engineer and you’re writing code, it absolutely makes sense for you to be remote. If you’re a creative person and you need to float ideas, and you hand off—you’re passing and moving—it may make sense to think about in-person or hybrid. It depends on how much you collaborate and how much you do individually. Organizations can’t say, “We’re going to do hybrid for everyone.”

Research shows that Gen Z wants workplace flexibility and prioritizes mental and physical health. As such, Gen Z prefers (and benefits from) a mix of in-person and remote options. They see the office as a tool like email, Slack, and Zoom and want to work with their leaders to see how they can effectively use that tool for their progression and growth.

One of the challenges in HR is this approach of one-size-fits-all. I think we’ll start to see what we call in market research “segmentation.” What that means is really understanding the different personas within your organization and customizing the experience based on that persona—on what that individual needs or wants. There could be remote teams, teams that are on-site, and hybrid teams.

A graphic depicts by percentage how Gen Z wants to work: 45% prefer hybrid, 29% fully remote, 24% office-based, and 2% other.

What do you predict a workweek will look like in five years?

A customized, hybrid model. I would challenge anyone looking into this to not think of hybrid as just home and office. Hybrid could mean working from anywhere. Why not schedule your team to go to some really cool, unique location where they’ll gather and do work but also get training or experience local history? And when you’re remote, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to work from home. You could go into a coffee shop. You could work at the beach.

Early in the pandemic, we started working with a company called Codi. It’s a startup out of San Francisco, and they’ve actually taken luxury apartments and started turning them into little coworking spaces. [WeWork’s] Adam Neumann just got $350 million for his new residential real estate development company, Flow. I think there’s going to be a blur between residential and offices in some way—it’s going to be a really fun and creative time.

Gen Z wants workplace flexibility and prefers a mix of in-person and remote options. They see the office as a tool like email, Slack, and Zoom and want to work with leaders to effectively use it.

You say in your book that automation will cause job losses that will get worse before they get better. Do you believe automation is detrimental to Gen Z?

I think automation is going to eliminate some jobs. In the short term, that will be bad for Gen Z. Longer term, automation will eliminate jobs that probably should be eliminated. Automation happens incrementally. People fear that robots are taking over, but should these be jobs that someone does, or should they be eliminated and automated? A great example of this is years ago, when you went bowling, the pins actually used to be replaced by humans. That job doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s probably good that it doesn’t exist.

You also have to think about training so that when you automate these jobs, you retrain a generation of folks who may not have the right skill sets for this new world of work. Think about the automation of mining. Is mining a good job for someone to have, or should that be automated? There will be a huge impact on the workforce for people who only know one job.

How can employers give Gen Z talent a sense of control in the workplace and over their career paths?

If you think about workplaces, you don’t have a lot of autonomy. Anytime Gen Z comes into a workplace, they’re trying to grab some control, and it’s really important to them. They’re going to want to move within the organization. They want to gather new skill sets. There’s a great Microsoft article that encourages people to think about their work goals in terms of a career “playground” rather than a career “ladder”—where it’s not necessarily this upward movement, but it’s the concept of gaining skill sets.

In the book, I talk about the idea of job design—being able to almost co-create jobs. For companies, it’s thinking through this issue incrementally because you’re not going to sit down with someone from Gen Z and say, “Let’s put together your job description.” You’re still going to have a job description and a need within your organization. But after the fact, after they are hired, you work with them and identify what their passions are. What are they interested in? What are their career goals? And then start to help them formulate a path they can control.

Toptal Senior Editor and Senior Staffing Correspondent Susan Yarad conducted this interview.

Further Reading on Staffing.com:

Anthony Onesto is Chief People Officer (CPO) of Suzy, a cloud-based consumer insights platform focused on culture, talent, and human resources. Previously, he served in executive and HR leadership roles at FreshDirect and Razorfish. He’s the author of The New Employee Contract: How To Find, Keep, and Elevate Gen Z Talent and creator of “Ella the Engineer,” a cartoon series and comic book that encourages girls to pursue STEM careers. Onesto is a founding member of CPOHQ, a network of more than 2,000 CPOs, and a board advisor to high-growth tech startups.