A note from the series editor Didier Elzinga, Founder & CEO, Culture Amp.
What I like the most about this article is the way it has made me rethink the Worktok phenomenon. What you may view on the surface level as cynical criticism should instead be studied for what you can learn about how people experience work today.
New York-based journalist Alyse Maguire interviews a range of experts and content creators to explore what Worktok is, what it reveals and what senior leaders should take away from it.
We’ve been swapping stories about our jobs – the good, the bad, and the confusing – with others for centuries. But it’s only recently that we’ve been able to expand our conversations beyond the people in our immediate vicinity, or even people we know.
“WorkTok,” a trend on TikTok providing commentary on the modern workplace with 1.9 billion views as of recent, is one great example.
“Everybody out there has had jobs where they’ve been like, ‘I don’t like this. I’m just putting in enough to keep a paycheck,’” Alexandrea Ravenelle, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Culture Amp. “But it takes Gen Z and TikTok for us to really give this an official name and to really start bringing it more into the public attention. And quite frankly, this tells us that they have a much healthier relationship with work than their Millennial and certainly their Gen X and Baby Boomer peers.”
Gen Z, consisting of those born from 1997 onward, is the most diverse and the most educated generation yet. In 2021, the World Economic Forum reported that Gen Z represented 30% of the global population, and by 2025 would make up more than one-fourth of the workforce. They’ve been shaped not only by the COVID-19 pandemic but by digital transformation, climate change, and an unstable social and economic landscape — and as a result, “Gen Z especially has missed out on some of that job security that earlier generations had,” Ravenelle said.
But it’s not just Gen Z that’s been drawn to, and influenced by, WorkTok. “TikTok has become that forum where people, when they’re experiencing challenges at workplaces, are finding a sense of community and connection with an audience that is much, much broader than what we would’ve normally found in our own company,” Julie Lee, a clinical psychologist and Gen Z consultant, said.
WorkTok isn’t just a valuable resource for online-savvy job seekers and professionals looking for advice or solace. It also offers CEOs and CHROs a valuable look inside the mind of today’s newest wave of talent, helping them to better understand Gen Z’s expectations in the workplace.
In this article, we’ll explore what “WorkTok” is, why it’s so popular, and what it can teach companies about building a culture that plays to Gen Z’s strengths and values.
What is WorkTok?
Erin McGoff, who runs AdviceWithErin, said she first went viral for posting about the workplace in January 2021, hitting one million followers two months later. She’s since grown the TikTok account to 2.7 million followers.
WorkTok’s rise in the last couple of years was in part a result of TikTok’s substantial and rapid growth – the app reported in March it had hit 150 million monthly active users in the U.S., up from 100 million in 2020 – and in part a result of the pandemic, which isolated workers at home and from one another. Without any clear guidelines for navigating this new norm, self-appointed influencers took it upon themselves to translate what was happening in the workplace. These videos particularly caught the attention of Millennials and Gen Z, who were not only the most online but had already started to shift how they viewed their jobs compared to previous generations. Suddenly, all their fears and frustrations about work were out there in the world, being echoed by strangers on the internet.
Gabrielle Judge, also known as Anti Work Girlboss, recently rose to TikTok fame – doubling her TikTok follower count in just a few months, she said – for coining the term “lazy girl job.” She believes people clung to the idea because it spoke to how powerless they felt when faced with meaningless or uninspiring work.
“It makes us feel validated that we’re not alone – what we’re experiencing is normal and expected,” Lee said. “It also gives us the agency to say that if I’m not the only one feeling this way, it may not be just about me.”
She added that this cuts across industries and professions. McGoff, for example, credited her TikTok success to posting about common issues she faced as a freelance video editor that happened to resonate with workers in other sectors.
Perhaps more importantly, WorkTok has motivated many workers to speak their minds, ask for what they want, and pursue jobs they once thought were out of their reach. “Viewers have said, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know there was such a job that existed,’ or, ‘I’m now considering this career path because of what you shared,’” Lee said.
Work-related TikToks don’t just humor and inspire their audience — they also speak to what today’s emerging workers really want and need from their employers.
Here’s a look at some of the biggest themes about Gen Z to emerge from WorkTok:
Gen Z wants to work for companies that align with their values
McGoff said activism is top-of-mind for many of her Gen Z followers. They want to join companies that stand for the same values as they do and do work that directly or indirectly contributes to the causes they care about.
“They want to make an impact on the world,” Jenny Fernandez, a professor of behavioral marketing and leadership at NYU and Columbia, said. “Things are moving too slow, whether it is climate action or social responsibilities. People want to see change faster.”
A recent KPMG survey supports this: It found that 33% of 18- to 24-year-olds said they’ve turned down a job based on a company’s ESG commitments.
They want to do work that’s meaningful and appreciated
Judge has noticed, especially in the wake of her “lazy girl job” trend, that Gen Z is frustrated with work they think is “busy” or “unnecessary.”
“I actually timed all my hours one time at my last job, and only eight of my hours a week were necessary to my job responsibilities and actually necessary when it came to keeping my job,” she said. “Everything else was fluff – meetings, or creating reports that no one’s even going to look at anyways.”
This doesn’t mean that Gen Z refuses to do work they don’t enjoy or their employers deem important, she added – rather, leaders should “define what meaningful work is” so employees understand how the work they do adds value or makes an impact.
Ravenelle argued that “quiet quitting,” another trend made popular by TikTok, stood for a similar message. “What it’s really saying is, ‘You’re not valuing me, and I’m not appreciated,’” she said. Being able to understand, empathize with, and meet Gen Z’s job expectations is key to engaging and retaining them, both now and in the future.
They want flexibility and autonomy
Both McGoff and Judge noted that their Gen Z audiences resonate with conversations around flexibility, being able to choose how and where they work without fear of someone constantly looking over their shoulders.
“Empowering them to do their work on their own time and to meet expectations, that’s something that they would truly value,” Fernandez added.
They want to be mentored and invested in
While Gen Z is generally pro-remote work, they also value mentorship and facetime, and are looking for companies that invest in their long-term career growth – Culture Amp research has shown that learning and development is the #1 reason employees today leave or stay at their organization.
“This is one of the generations that actually wants to get back to the office, whether it’s hybrid approach or full-time because they want the social interactions,” Fernandez said. “They crave having their friends sitting next to them, having the ability to talk to people, to be mentored.”
Beyond Gen Z’s working style being defined by socialization, they also learn by doing and tend to multitask, which means leaders should be fairly hands-off and provide physical space, such as private conference rooms, for their younger staffers to be able to focus.
They want companies to respect their mental health and identities outside of work
Gen Z, on the heels of the burnout movement started by their older Millennial peers, have made mental health a primary focus for companies. Lee emphasized how much they value benefits like insurance coverage for mental health issues, as well as the flexibility to say, take a therapy session in the middle of a workday.
Work-life balance and integration, too, is a priority, particularly for Gen Z workers who have other hobbies or side gigs outside their day jobs.
“They’re not just going to be your employee,” McGoff said. “They want to have their own identity.”
How to build a workplace culture Gen Z can get behind
Building a company culture that keeps Gen Z workers engaged and happy, Lee said, starts with managers. Executive leaders should invest in manager trainings and encourage regular check-ins to ensure bosses are equipped to oversee different generations and learning styles and have the bandwidth to effectively manage each of their team members. Building a cohesive and comprehensive onboarding process, she added, can help new Gen Z employees integrate quickly and set them up for success long term.
Finally, CHROs should loop younger team members in on discussions and decisions around workplace culture whenever possible.
“Listen more than you speak,” McGoff said. “They’re great communicators. They want to talk it out…make them feel heard, and then meet them in the middle.”
Lee called Gen Z a “transformative” generation for the future of work. “Gen Z, entering and contributing to the workplace at the time of unparalleled technological and societal changes, are poised to transform how we work, contribute, and expect from the workplace.”
It’s unclear what that future looks like in the long term, but if WorkTok can tell us anything, it’s that people of all ages are feeling more empowered than ever before to create the careers they want. While that may scare some leaders, others may find that by listening to and learning from their employees, they’ll have no problem attracting and retaining top talent.
“WorkTok is helping people to realize that their feelings of work frustration are pretty much universal in the US and empowering people to think about change – whether that’s an individual job change or larger company changes through unionizing or striking,” Ravenelle said. “Until we see wholesale change – where workers have stable jobs, with good benefits, and an opportunity to be heard in the workplace – WorkTok will continue to resonate with multiple generations.”
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