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Gen Z: High Tech/High Touch

John Naisbitt first developed the concept of high tech, high touch in his 1982 New York Times bestseller, "Megatrends." He theorized that in a world of technology, people long for personal, human contact. Since then, however, we have seen the proliferation of technology and instant connectivity with anyone around the world. But, technology has increasingly isolated us from face-to-face human social interaction. Indeed, the trend with each subsequent generation seems to move toward greater technological sophistication but increasing social illiteracy. In other words, the high touch part of Naisbitt’s prediction seems to have been left behind.

Or has it? The 73-million-strong Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2012) are beginning to enter the workforce, and i4cp's data shows that this new talent pool may truly embrace the high tech-high touch world.

High Tech

Technology rapidly became part of the generational dialogue of Gen X. When the war for talent first exploded during the 1990s, we clearly heard from Gen X that they expected their employers to have the latest technology; companies that didn't were considered dinosaurs. This trend was further reinforced by the arrival of the Millennials, who pushed employers to explore and implement social media. As the first generation born into a world in which nearly every physical aspect (people and places) has a digital equivalent, Gen Z's concept of the real world and the virtual world naturally blurs and overlaps. Virtual is simply part of their reality. Whether they load groceries into a cart at the supermarket or their online Instacart, it’s one in the same, and this notion is not a new phenomenon to Gen Z.

Previous generations grew up in a world in which physical and digital were at war with each other. Take retail for example—at one time, it was Borders, Circuit City, and Best Buy vs. Amazon. Brick and mortar businesses struggled to establish online presence and remain competitive. Now, Gen Z is growing up in a world in which digital companies are now experimenting with physical retail spaces. From Birchbox to Warby Parker to Art.Com—these digitally native companies are wading into the brick and mortar pool. Digital and physical work with each other, not against. Case in point: Amazon recently opened its first brick and mortar store in Seattle (Green, 2015).

This trend creates an interesting and different dichotomy for Gen Z. For years, corporate America has been battling between working at the office and working remotely. In most industries, Gen Z won’t see a battle. Whether an employee is physically present in a conference room or digitally logged into a meeting, Gen Z sees this as the same thing—you’re at the meeting and that’s what counts. All the policies that have gone into monitoring where, when, and how work gets done in the office or remotely will seem irrelevant and confusing to Gen Z. Gen X remembers a time when the Internet was banned from the workplace and Millennials remember when social media was banned. Those policies became eradicated because a new generation found ways to make the technologies useful on the job rather than distracting. Business will adapt—and hopefully leverage the fact that now another new generation is entering the workforce with a unique, and ideally productive, approach to where, when and how works gets done.

High Touch

But Gen Z is throwing a curve into this trend. New data suggests that they will want more high touch than the previous generations. For example, when asked if they prefer to shop online or in a store, the majority said they prefer to shop in a store.

This is just the tip of the high touch trend because it appears to extend into the workplace.

In our first survey of Gen Z, we were surprised to see that the majority (78%) said that they prefer face-to-face communication in the workplace, especially when it comes to receiving feedback from the boss. In our second survey with Gen Zers, we again asked questions on this issue and again, the majority of over 700 respondents said they prefer face-to-face communication. Most want face-to-face feedback from the boss and over half said that when learning a new skill they prefer an in-person presentation vs. only 25% that said they prefer watching a pre-recorded sessions. Both surveys asked if Skype is the same as face-to-face communication: the overwhelming response was from this generation: "no."

The main driver of this high tech/high touch trend with Gen Z appears to be the socio-economic environment they grew up in. For this generation the world can be a scary place. Gen Z has experienced a post-9/11 childhood combined with the Great Recession, the war on terrorism, school shootings, and climate change. The result is a generation that doesn’t trust institutions or the people who lead those institutions. They don't trust educational institutions to deliver the knowledge they need to get ahead. They don't trust government institutions; they want to kick out the “establishment.” And, they do not trust corporations - politically correct corporate babble will not only turn them off, it will turn them away. Gen Z wants to look the institution in the eye, face-to-face, to determine for themselves if they a trust.

Implications for employers

For employers, this means that the role of direct supervisor will become more important and more challenging as the burden of building trust will fall on their shoulders. They will have to be experts at face-to-face communication especially when delivering feedback. And, Gen Z wants lots of feedback, but they do not want lengthy feedback sessions—five minutes is preferable.

To build an engaged workforce that retains the best talent, leaders of Gen Z will have to be better at influencing others, building collaborative environments, and most of all, be developers of talent.

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Jay Jamrog
Jay is a futurist and has devoted the past 25 years to identifying and analyzing the major issues and trends affecting the management of people in organizations.