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Take Off Those Headphones!

I was speaking about Gen Z trends to a meeting of real estate executives last week when one announced, “I have a kid I’m probably going to have to fire, even though he’s really sharp, because he just won’t take off his darned headphones. Half of the deals we do start as informal hallway conversations, and he’s missing all of that. If he can’t take off the headphones and talk to his co-workers, I’m just going to have to let him go.”

The “headphone problem” is something I hear about frequently when I’m working with management teams on improving the engagement and productivity of their young employees. The good news is that this problem is not as difficult as it may seem.

First, if the headphones are directly interfering with your employee’s ability to do the core functions of their job, then simply point this out to them and tell them they are expected to work without headphones.

But before you do that, consider benefits you may be getting from that young employee’s headphones.

In the case of this particular young employee at a busy real estate investment firm with a high number of informal and impromptu hallway conversations, there was more to the story than the CEO may have considered.

It’s quite possible that this young employee is using the tools he has developed in his earlier years to reduce distractions in his work environment, so he can be more productive and thorough for his employer. To reprimand him for this would both confuse and demotivate him.

The CEO came from a generation where real estate deals were done almost entirely in person and by phone. As the demographics of investors shift younger, more deals are being closed online than in the past. Direct, online sellers, such as Zillow and Sharestates, are completely changing how the real estate business and many other industries’ business are being done.

It’s very possible that this young employee has a better skill set to begin leveraging and competing with online platforms than the leaders in the organization, and that this very set of competencies will be necessary to keep the company profitable and competitive as the markets continue to change.

At this, another real estate CEO (who’d been in the industry since the late 1940s!) turned to his colleague and said, “It sounds like it may be time for you to think about changing how your company handles investment discussions rather than just making every smart kid you hire take off their headphones.”

After further discussion, we agreed the best solution was a compromise.

  • Encourage experienced employees to proactively invite younger employees into important discussions where they can learn the business.

  • Provide younger employees with role models and mentoring as needed while they refine and further develop the communication skills valued by older employees and clients.

  • At the same time, respect younger employees’ different work styles as much as possible, as long as they continue to be productive members of the team.

  • Let employees know that headphones may be a good idea when working on a complex task that needs intense focus, but not on less intensive tasks, when they may miss the opportunity for informal networking and learning with co-workers.

  • Ask young employees to share their thoughts on how current tasks and processes could benefit from automation, because they will often embrace new ideas more readily than more experienced employees.

Like any employee, younger employees work best in an environment with open communication, clear expectations and a willingness to develop employee skills.

Jamie Belinne is the author of The Care and Feeding of Your Young Employee: A Manager’s Guide to Millennials and Gen Z. Millennials are currently the largest segment of the work force, but Gen Z is more than a quarter of the population, and they will soon outnumber Millennials at work. Belinne surveyed more than 13,000 Millennial and Gen Z employees as well as hundreds of their employers, to write this straightforward book, where she shares stories and data demonstrating the differences and best practices for managing expectations, communication styles, productivity, motivation, and recruiting with the youngest and largest generations in the work force today. She originally wrote this article for the National Association of Colleges and Employers blog.

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