This semester was unprecedented across colleges and universities when all classes moved online. Admittedly, the first week of classes was challenging. Rightfully so, students expressed fears, concerns and disappointments, and they needed to be reminded that it is OK not to feel OK. Some were disengaged, and we were all figuring out our new normal.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our class discussions, for the most part, focused on topics directly related to solving business cases. But as our lives changed during social distancing, it seemed fitting that the nature of our class discussions should also change. Specifically, we needed to talk about what was happening in our lives in real time. Within one week, the discussion boards quickly became the most popular feature in class.
The lesson my colleagues and I took away from this: Young adults love to communicate. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions. And, it’s a lesson that goes beyond the boundaries of colleges and universities.
An Outlet for Expression
A recent survey completed by Smartsheet revealed that young adults are feeling disconnected from their work. I would argue that one reason they are disconnected is that they don’t have an opportunity to self-express.
I am certain organizations are having meetings, team brainstorming sessions and the like. In those discussions, do the young adults at your organization have a chance to react to the changes we’re all experiencing?
Think about it in this way. What’s something that scares you the most? Losing your job? The death of a significant other? Your child’s safety at school? Becoming terminally ill? Feeling out of control?
What happens when your fear becomes your reality? And now, you have to face your biggest fear daily, but you can’t talk about it! Instead, you have to continue with life, do your work and get by day to day.
That is what we’re asking young adults to do. We’re asking them to ignore their biggest fear—uncertainty—and focus on completing their daily tasks, all while their world as they know it is turned upside down.
We have to give young adults an outlet at work to talk, process their feelings and truly experience this moment. It doesn’t mean that we lower expectations and no longer hold them accountable for their work. They want to work, and frankly, we need their contributions.
But they should not have to choose between focusing on work or life. They can do both with the help of managers.
The questions managers ask young adults count. Arguably, one of the best ways to engage young adults and help them reconnect with their work is to ask questions that generate interest. The following describes several conversation starters that you can try:
- What are our competitors doing that we’re NOT currently doing?
Why it works: Young adults love to do research. And they love looking for trends.
- What are the strengths of our organization? What should we market to attract other young adults?
Why it works: Young adults have often considered more than one option before joining your company. More importantly, they’ve made this decision recently. Figure out what made them say “Yes!” and use it to attract other talent.
- Are there any new tools we should be using to manage projects better? Are there any new tools we can use to improve communication among teams?
Why it works: We know most young adults value technology, and they do a great job of incorporating it into their daily lives. They will enjoy providing ideas that will help solve real day-to-day issues.
- Who should we invite to speak during_______?
Why it works: Due to the amount of time young adults spend online—on podcasts, blogs and social media—they are open and willing to share ideas about speakers. It could be speakers for quarterly meetings, or virtual lunch and learns, or any presentation during which employees have a chance to learn from subject matter experts.
- Describe a leader that inspires you. Which traits do you most want to develop?
Why it works: Young adults enjoy talking about their journey and the legacy they want to leave the world.
- How did you feel when ________ started? How do you feel now?
Why it works: Young adults enjoy self-reflection. And honestly, they should be encouraged to self-reflect (e.g., projects, new leaders, cultural shifts).
- What is your advice on __________?
Why it works: I believe managers undervalue the experiences that young adults bring to work. Sure, they have worked fewer years, but they’ve been exposed to so much more information at this point in their lives than other generations were. Empower young adults to give advice at work; a fresh perspective often moves the needle forward.
- What’s been your best day on the job? What about your worst?
Why it works: Young adults experience many challenges when they are entering the workforce, but they also have great days. It’s helpful to know what happens on those good days, as ultimately that will drive retention. However, we also need to know what support they need on those bad days.
During the pandemic, the best way managers can help young adults reconnect to their jobs is by giving them a chance to talk. Depending on the culture of your organization, ideas may be shared in real time, through internal chat boards, or at the end of meetings.
Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as in staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.