What Generation Z Wants at Work in the Era of COVID-19

How to recruit and retain the next generation of talent in a transformed professional landscape.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about massive changes in the way we live and work. But what does that mean for the newest generation of employees, who are just entering the workforce for the first time?

Since 2018, RippleMatch has surveyed Gen Z college students on what they value when searching for jobs and internships. Throughout the pandemic, we have conducted several surveys of the class of 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 to understand how the global event has influenced what these students are looking for as they begin their careers. 

We found that in order to effectively appeal to Gen Z, companies need to heavily emphasize opportunities for these new employees to thrive personally and professionally through a flexible work environment, high compensation, and a clear commitment to diversity and inclusion. Read on, or download our report here, to find what matters most when recruiting – and retaining – this generation of talent.

Compensation and Benefits Matter the Most When Job Searching

A comparative analysis of RippleMatch data from 2019 through 2021–including sign-up surveys when students create their RippleMatch profile and pulse surveys sent throughout the year–reveals that Gen Z candidates’ job priorities have shifted during the pandemic. We found that in Spring 2019, students ranked professional development, company culture, and career advancement as the top three factors they considered when searching for a full-time role. 

But in the COVID era, job security has become more important than ever for Gen Z candidates. College students surveyed during Fall 2020, Spring 2021 and Fall 2021 indicated that two of their top three factors included compensation & benefits and work-life balance. For these students, professional development was the fourth or fifth factor they considered when job searching.

So which benefits do students care about the most? Drilling down further into our data, 70% of student respondents in our Fall 2021 survey indicated that high salary relative to cost of living was the most important criteria they evaluated. Other notable factors included affordable health care coverage (47%), 401k matching (46%), and flexible work options (45%). 

A lack of competitive compensation could be a real factor in losing prospective employees. Among interns who accepted a return offer for a full-time position, 51% indicated that If they were to renege, it would be for another position with higher compensation.

Gen Z Wants Efficiency and Personalized Communication During the Hiring Process

A positive candidate experience is key to attracting top talent, and Gen Z’s preferences during the recruitment process are clear. According to RippleMatch data collected in Spring and Fall 2021, college students believed that the top attributes for a positive candidate experience were timely updates regarding application status (chosen by 70% of respondents), as well as personalized follow-ups from recruiters (53% of respondents). 

About half of the students surveyed indicated that a clear job description or a reason for being rejected from a role contributed to a positive candidate experience, underscoring that clear communication begins as soon as the job is posted and continues through the offer or rejection phase. Interestingly, only 36% of students considered face-to-face interaction with recruiters to be a hallmark of a positive candidate experience–likely a result of the shift to virtual and hybrid recruiting during COVID-19, when in-person opportunities were limited or nonexistent.

As for where to reach those students for personalized communication, our Fall 2021 survey found that 92% of students prefer to be contacted via email. Only about a third of students want to be contacted via LinkedIn and a quarter want to be contacted over text messaging.

For Gen Z, Work Flexibility is Key

When shelter-in-place orders went into effect early in the pandemic, many workplaces transitioned to a remote work environment. Research from Gallup found that 70% of workers were working from home at least some of the time in April 2020. While some companies have launched full return-to-office plans in the ensuing 18 months, remote work is still going strong; a follow-up survey from Gallup found that 45% of workers in September 2021 were working remotely either all of the time or some of the time. Gallup also found that 54% of workers prefer a hybrid work environment, while 37% want to work-from-home permanently. 

When it comes to candidates who are just entering the workforce, preferences for work environments are more mixed. Only 18% of students surveyed in both Spring and Fall 2021 indicated they were “very interested” in only seeking remote jobs. Some of the main reasons that students provided for wanting to work remotely included greater flexibility and control over work (71% of respondents), living somewhere with an affordable cost of living (60% of respondents), living near family (49% of respondents), and being able to travel (42% of respondents). 

On the other hand, 16% of students surveyed in Spring 2021 and 19% surveyed in Fall 2021 were only interested in roles that would require them to return to the office full time. These students were primarily interested in social opportunities at work, with 75% indicating that it’s more difficult to form bonds with coworkers when working remotely and over 60% expressing a preference for in-person experiences after a year of virtual learning and networking.

The majority of respondents in both Spring 2021 and Fall 2021 were equally interested in permanently remote jobs as well as jobs that would eventually have an in-person work requirement. An important caveat here is that even among Gen Z candidates who are interested in working in an office, there is a strong preference for a hybrid work environment that provides in-person and remote opportunities. RippleMatch research further shows that 64% of the students surveyed would prefer to go into the office three days a week or less.

Regardless of work environment, Gen Z generally prefers for their work projects to have some structure. In fact, 52% of survey respondents expressed a preference for assigned structured projects with clear objectives, timelines, and ways to measure success, while only 14% wanted autonomous projects where they were responsible for determining the scope, method, and metrics for success.

Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Are Top of Mind, Especially for URM Candidates

Generation Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to date. According to Pew Research Center, 52% of Gen Z’ers identify as non-Hispanic white, compared to 61% of millennials and 70% of Gen X’ers when they were the same age. 

RippleMatch data indicates that diversity and inclusion (D&I) issues is another strong factor impacting the Gen Z job search. The Fall 2020 survey found that 68% of respondents believed a company’s diversity and inclusion efforts were more important to them as a result of racial justice movements. The following year, 43% of respondents said that during their job search they considered how a company had followed through on its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

When it comes to evaluating a prospective employer’s commitment to D&I, students were most likely to look at if the company had diverse leadership and executive teams (60% of respondents) and whether the organization hired and promoted diverse talent (59% of respondents). Respondents who identified as women and URM candidates were also more likely to place a higher importance on diversity and inclusion efforts than men. More specifically, 77% of URM women considered diverse leadership and executive teams when evaluating companies. Likewise, 65% of non-URM women and 60% of URM men considered the hiring and promotion of diverse candidates as top priorities.

As for other D&I initiatives, women candidates were also more likely than men to prioritize inclusive health benefits and professional development programs specifically for URM employees. More than half of URM women surveyed indicated that inclusive health benefits were an important factor in an organization’s D&I efforts, compared to 27% of non-URM men. Similarly, 45% of URM women cited professional development programs for underrepresented groups as an important D&I initiative, compared to 28% of non-URM men.

*RippleMatch defines URM as students who identified as Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, Native American/Alaskan Native, Two or more races, and Other.

Key Takeaways

When it comes to Gen Z in the workplace, our data paints a clear picture of the priorities and preferences of this generation. Here are some steps we’d take to succeed when hiring Gen Zers:

Offer a personalized candidate experience

Candidates are seeking a recruitment process that focuses on frequent, timely updates on their application status, as well as personalized follow-ups from recruiters. Consider investing in tools and technology to improve communication efficiencies. 

Highlight how your company approaches flexible work

Gen Z candidates may have previous internship experience in fully in-person, remote, or hybrid environments. While most are not only seeking remote positions, the data clearly shows a preference for a combination of on-site and remote work. Develop your work policies to incorporate the flexibility that current and new employees are seeking.

Offer competitive compensation packages for entry-level employees

The pandemic has caused a major shift in Gen Z priorities during the job search, with compensation and benefits earning the top spot. Ensure your entry-level salaries account for the rising costs of living, while also investing in benefits and career growth programs that will enable new employees to thrive personally and professionally.

Walk the walk when it comes to D&I initiatives

Gen Z is the most diverse generation to date and cares about social impact. These candidates are looking at your diversity and inclusion initiatives, ranging from diversity in leadership to professional development programs for underrepresented populations. A clear D&I strategy is important for attracting and retaining diverse talent, so invest in D&I at all levels from recruitment, to pathways for promotion, to getting involved in the community at large. 

Want to know how Gen Z candidates are faring during COVID-19? Download our What Gen Z Wants report here to understand the full scope of how to attract and retain the next generation of talent. 


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