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  • Susan Nicolai

Five 'Big Feels' Gen Z's and Millennials Seek in Work Culture.

Insights from 320 Micro-Interviews



Over the past three years, I’ve had the pleasure of weekly phone chats with employees working for a mid-sized national company that genuinely cared about their well-being. These 18-minute (on average) calls gave me a glimpse into the culture–a micro-view of the vibe of the tribe–through the lens of one individual.


My 320 micro- interviews were exclusively with Millennials or Gen Z’s who had reached a company milestone. Because I have three children in that demographic range, I was eager to hear their stories and thoughts. Particularly, I was curious to learn about their motivations, perspectives on what is success, the challenges and stress they faced, and how they found happiness on the job.


My findings are qualitative and subjective, yet there arose such a like-mindedness that the big themes could not be ignored. Culture is mostly about how people feel. Feeling is the root to thoughts. Thoughts are the roots to words. Words are the roots to behaviors. How people feel on their job cascades outward, creating a ripple that leads to the success of your company.


Here’s the five 'big feels’ important to a happy workplace that echoed throughout my conversations.


1. Feeling like a Family.


This one struck me as a bit of a surprise. It seemed that my kids couldn’t wait to leave the nest and be out on their own. Isn’t every family dysfunctional? Isn’t working for a family business less glamorous than venturing out and carving out your own career? What about the joy of escaping sibling rivalry? My old-school assumptions were uprooted.

Turns out that despite any dysfunction or troubles, the concept of family is still something people innately crave. My interviewees often would preface their comments with, “I know this sounds cliché or corny…” but we’re like family here. Leaders were even referred to as “my work dad” or “our office mom.” They spoke of things like “tough love” and “being close knit” and “held accountable.”


Even more amazing to me was that these young men and women were quick to text or call in order to bring their parents in on their success. This discovery led to parents being extended invitations to office events where they were proudly introduced to leaders and coworkers. Recognition videos were built with the extended family audience in mind. Birthdays, graduations, engagements, weddings, and babies were celebrated alongside work anniversaries and professional goals and group achievements.

The walls between work life and personal life are crumbling. Family is back and being family is cool again.


2. Feeling Supported as an Individual and Valued Team Member: “I belong.”


What does it take to create a feeling of support? Yes, it does take a village. But it also takes strategic mentors willing to provide one-on-one attention.


Work skills and knowledge used to be transferred through apprenticeship. Mentoring is not a new idea, but it is rarely built in as part of the cultural fabric. My interviewees said again and again, “I would not be where I am today without the help and care of my mentors.”


Mentorship as a workplace philosophy is not a role assigned to facilitators or trainers, but a way of succeeding on a fluid career journey. You begin as mentee. Then you become mentor. Then you step into a new role and become a mentee once again. A culture of mentoring each other eventually melds into everyone accepting accountability for helping each other.


Individual needs are met, but the team evolves and grows together. There is a comradery that sprouts from giving and receiving and sharing in mistakes-turned- learning-opportunities.


3. Feeling Rewarded.


When it comes to being rewarded, people are multi-dimensional. Having small daily opportunities for “wins” is important to keeping the train moving forward over hills and valleys. What I heard was, “at the end of the day, money is motivating.” Bear in mind that the people I spoke with were typically early in their career launch process, still hanging on to student debt and figuring out how to finance their own lifestyle. Yes, hitting a bonus and reaching income levels was a vital reward. I would say a foundational or first-level reward.


But—there is more to the feeling of reward. It came from doing a good job, fulfilling on the service that was the company’s mission. It came from celebrating as a team. It came from getting promoted. It came from being a mentor. It came from going on a company excursion or celebratory office trip. It came from being recognized on a company-wide call. It came from the peers and leaders personally calling to say congrats. It came from a team reaching a milestone or winning a new client. It came from seeing their company achieve industry recognition for good things.


It is essential to celebrate the individual, the team/office and/or group, as well as the accomplishments of the company. Creating the feeling of reward across all levels is how a company plants the dots for a person’s work to be connected to the big picture. Recognition by the group connects those dots; it creates the feeling of being significant to the whole, and that is a next-level feeling of reward.


4. Feeling of Trust in the Leaders.


Transparency. Integrity. Honesty. Communication. Having clear values and living them. Visibility. Openness. But it isn’t only what leaders say, it’s how they live it. They must BE the ideals they want to represent their culture, their brands/service, and the many relationships that shape the success of their enterprise.


When there is communication and trust in the leadership, it transfers into trust in the “process” or how the company does things. The employees I spoke with had great appreciation for leaders who provided information without “sugar-coating” difficulties and let them know where the business stood. When an executive set a pace of weekly company-wide communication on Zoom during the pandemic, it created a true sense of coming together to weather difficult times. His offering serious dialogue alongside humor and caring became the perfect prescription for employees concerned about their future.


5. Feeling of Fun.

Yep, fun matters to this young generation, and I think that’s something that’s been overlooked. Finding humor and joy among friends was the most frequently mentioned coping mechanism to get through what they described as “grinding.” Friendships enabled people to shake-off disappointment more quickly and move on to their next task. Friendships and fun build resiliency.


My interviewees enjoyed becoming ‘true friends,’ not ‘work-friends’. They described ‘true friends’ as people they chose to hang out with after work and on weekends because they had a personal bond.


If you’re a more seasoned worker, have you ever left a job after many years and discovered a few weeks later that your work friends were mostly friends of convenience? Wouldn’t it have been nice if that daily grind had been alongside people with a sense of humor and fun who really cared about you? Yeah. Fun and friendship matters.


Get the Feel for these Feels Now.

If you are looking to attract talent and help them thrive, creating an environment where people feel good about coming to work each day will be a priority. Do you want engagement, resiliency, and trust? These five “big feels” are your indicator.


This article written by Susan Nicolai

Writer/Storyteller, Speaker/Facilitator and someone who cares about creating company cultures where everyone thrives.




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