This article is part of a content series on diversity, equity, and inclusion for Campaign Asia-Pacific and Greater China’s Women to Watch, created in partnership with EssenceMediacom.
Anecdotally, Gen Z appears to care more about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) than previous generations, but how do these concerns translate into the workplace? What systems do agencies need to put in place to deliver on the expectations of young talent, soon to constitute a significant chunk of the workforce? To uncover the answers, we spoke to Gen Z experts Ankit Bakshi, business director, India and Michaella Williams, planning director, Australia; as well as talent who represent Gen Z — Sushmitha Mathiyazhagan, e-commerce strategy analyst, Singapore; and Jeanette Liau, senior biddable planning executive, Singapore — at EssenceMediacom.
What are some of the key concerns of Gen Z talent in your market?
Ankit Bakshi (AB): While renowned for its diversity of cultures, languages, traditions, and religions, India is also home to significant socioeconomic disparities — from affluent urban centres to rural areas with limited infrastructure and resources. Gen Z in India is working towards bridging the gap. They advocate measures to address climate change as well as social justice concerns like gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and opposition to caste discrimination. The youth in India call for comprehensive education reform that emphasises creativity and practical skills over rote memorisation and is also constantly challenging societal stigmas associated with mental well-being.
Why does Gen Z have such a passion for DEI?
Michaella Williams (MW): Gen Z is the most racially, sexually, and ethnically diverse generation to date. This has resulted in a profound learning advantage for DEI. Social media has amplified access to issues they care about, bringing activism into the mainstream and up the corporate agenda. Particularly since Covid-19, there has been a focus on how organisations make decisions on social impact and sustainability, which affects their ability to attract and retain Gen Z workers.
Sushmitha Mathiyazhagan (SM): Gen Z is more inclined to support causes that resonate with us. We no longer believe in watching from the sidelines, waiting for someone else to be a torchbearer. Many Gen Zs around the world have leveraged the internet as a platform to voice their opinions on social causes. However, it can sometimes be societal pressure to be as ‘woke’ as everyone which steers Gen Z to speak up on DEI.
What are some of the biggest changes to working culture since Gen Z entered the workforce?
Jeanette Liau (JL): Reverse mentoring and learning, enabled by a flat hierarchical structure. As a tech-savvy generation that grew up in an increasingly interconnected world, Gen Z brings fresh approaches to tackling problems and provides firsthand understanding of trends and preferences. This has strengthened communications and inclusivity in our workplace.
MW: Gen Z workers’ digital fluency, stronger expectations of social justice and equality, and entrepreneurial mindset empower them to challenge company structures. They seek environments that are collaborative and support active participation.
Gen Zs increasingly want jobs that reflect their true desires for life — leading to more purpose-driven work and a preference for employers who recognise the importance of mental health. They value continuous learning and clear progression, and also crave regular feedback and recognition as they like to see tangible outcomes of their efforts.
What does Gen Z talent expect from an organisation?
AB: An organisation that has a point of view, an authentic digital personality, and a clear mission that aligns with their core values is much appreciated by Gen Z. Flexibility, remote work, and a culture that facilitates work-life balance are paramount. Gen Z also values roles with room for experimentation, innovation, and creativity.
MW: If they believe a brand is not living up to its DEI commitments, Gen Z will protest or call it out online, even leaving jobs or declining offers. This differs from previous generations who were encouraged to stay in careers, climb the ladder, and then fight for change at the top.
SM: Gen Z expects work to be continuously interesting, empowering, and meaningful, and appreciates a more collaborative team structure that allows members of all positions to interact. Also, we do not equate long hours to hard work. Sometimes, it can simply mean you are overworked or inefficient. We must find ways to become more efficient and ensure we are not making this sad truth a ‘best practice.’
Have any company policies and initiatives been created or tailored for Gen Z?
AB: EssenceMediacom India takes immense pride in being among the most active markets of WPP Unite — a group of LGBTQ+ thinkers, doers, and creators across agencies, businesses, and markets. It is not only a safe space for queer employees but also works towards sensitisation, best practices, and representation.
In addition, our Mental Health Allies programme destigmatises mental health by encouraging open, supportive conversations between volunteers trained in mental health and their colleagues.
JL: EssenceMediacom Singapore recently held a one-day FutureFest event, which provided immersive experiences from partners like influencers and gaming streamers, along with panel discussions and a hackathon for innovative ideas in targeting Gen Z. This event helped employees be more aware about what makes Gen Zs tick, and also engaged Gen Z by tapping into their fascination with the latest technology.
The company also provides many training programmes and internal mobility opportunities to develop young talent. For instance, SpeakEasy provides talent in GroupM Singapore with public speaking opportunities and a space to address topics that they are passionate about.
MW: Gen Zs are passionate about the state of our current planet and the damage that is being done to it for future generations. As part of GroupM, EssenceMediacom has a whole-of-business sustainability approach named Project Alpha. As a sustainability champion, alongside many Gen Zs, part of my role is to ensure our internal teams are trained and aware of how to calculate, track, and reduce the carbon emissions across our clients’ plans. We also have activation dashboards to understand campaign results in real time, based on emissions of activity across each media type.
I also form part of the Culture Captains team. We collectively raise internal awareness and celebrate and drive initiatives surrounding all things DEI. Most recently, a DEI task force was formed, with three subcategories based on key DEI areas.
Within progressive companies that advocate authenticity, how do you navigate the complex mix of backgrounds and beliefs?
JL: Honestly sharing one’s emotions and opinions about difficult topics — in the appropriate space and time — is important for building better understanding and trust. That said, it is never alright to be insensitive, disrespectful, or discriminatory under the guise of ‘being authentic.’ In a diverse organisation with a complex mix of backgrounds and beliefs, keeping an open mind and practising empathy by acknowledging others’ feelings and experiences are key.
SM: Freedom of expression is necessary for an organisation or society to grow. A diverse organisation should have constructive platforms for people from different backgrounds and teams to bond. Such platforms should give the opportunity to every individual to share their opinions on issues, even difficult ones, so we learn how to understand and accept different people.
What advice would you give the next generation entering the workforce?
AB: Aspirations and ambitions are very personal and individualistic. It’s important to have a goal and strive towards it irrespective of externalities, and to cultivate a mindset of continuous learning to stay adaptable in an evolving professional landscape.
Make meaningful connections that can offer guidance and potential opportunities. Amid all this, maintain a healthy work-life balance, prioritise your well-being, and seek feedback as a tool for growth.
JL: Never underestimate the importance of networking. It helps you discover your passions, develop new ways of thinking, build professional relationships, and open doors to opportunities. In the early stages of your career, it is more important to find your passion, be a sponge, build a strong network of people to learn from, and soak it all up. Be fearless and curious — a hunger to learn and expand your skills will make you more valuable.
Embrace mistakes and setbacks as learning opportunities. It will not only make you better at your job, but a better leader.
MW: It’s ok to take some time to find your feet, as long as you learn and evolve as you go. We spend a lot of time at work, so it’s important to enjoy what you do. Find work friends you can be in the trenches with and who offer respite, and mentors you admire and can bounce ideas off. While everyone can add value, I find it’s always helpful to have mentors who are more senior. Their prior experience can often help troubleshoot situations.
Finally, while work is important, we aren’t making life-or-death decisions. Speak up if you’re overwhelmed. You aren’t expected to be a superhero, and a problem shared truly is a problem halved.
SM: Being your authentic self is very important, and despite being busy, hold on to values that matter. I was often told to be more politically correct and separate my work and real self, but being myself has allowed me to create authentic friendships at work and enjoy my time. It has also allowed me to be less cautious at work and to find my identity — you should never be afraid to raise your opinions or share your thoughts.
Lastly, have fun. Talk to people, find different interests and opportunities, and always put yourself out there. Sometimes it can be embarrassing when you make a mistake, but you learn from it and find the type of leader you want to be in the next five years.