Survey Finds Gen Z Prefers To Work Alone And Managers Are Not Pleased

Every generation has its own reputation ― and that shapes how its cohort is seen at work.

Take Gen Z, the people born around 1995 to 2010. They’re known for being a politically engaged and digitally savvy generation who launched their adult careers during a pandemic and an economic crisis.

“They’re used to having information real-time on the tip of their fingers, and kind of managing their own schedule and having the type of autonomy and independence that older generations didn’t have,” said Jenny Fernandez, a leadership coach and startup mentor for the entrepreneur accelerator program Techstars. “So all of these [factors] contribute to their desire to be a little bit more self-driven and self-directed.”

In a recent survey of over 1,200 U.S. professionals by global recruitment firm Robert Walters, under 1 in 5 Gen Z workers said that they preferred working in a team environment and 31% said that instead they “work better alone.”

If I can do it by myself, I will 99% of the time just prefer to do things by myself.Andrea Lopez, a tech professional

Andrea Lopez, a 26-year-old account manager at a big tech company, said the findings resonate with her experience. “I view collaborative projects as time-consuming,” she told HuffPost.

“When I know that I have to collaborate with people in order to carry out a certain project, that’s when I’m really happy to work collaboratively ... because that’s going to help get the job done,” she said. “But other than that, if I can do it by myself, I will 99% of the time just prefer to do things by myself.”

For Lopez, working alone helps her efficiently gather insights and data before she has to be in a team setting, and allows her to finish work on time.

She is aware that over-communication can be necessary, but said that it “feels like a drag. I honestly prefer to preserve my energy and over-communicate when it’s drastically needed.”

Why Gen Z Prefers More Solo Work

At work, Gen Zers’ independence can sometimes create the negative reputation that they are disengaged from the rest of their team. Managers in the Robert Walters report said that issues like a lack of communication skills (53%), teamwork (21%) and critical thinking (17%) were the primary barriers to younger workers being better collaborators.

When asked, Gen Z workers said that there is more nuance in why they might want to work alone than these generalized findings suggest.

Tony Guevara, a 23-year-old who runs Latino engagement for nonprofit Gen-Z for Change, said his preferred working style is situation-dependent. He likes working alone when he does not need help and can listen to his music uninterrupted, because that allows him to be productive. But at the same time, he appreciates when there are colleagues around, too.

“I’m going to ask for help, because I’m not going to make it harder on myself,” he told HuffPost.

He said Gen Zers might prefer doing things solo because they work in a judgmental environment. They might be in a workplace where they cannot listen to music uninterrupted, or where eating a snack during a meeting could cause colleagues to think, “Oh, is this really the time to be eating?”

With other colleagues present, “you kind of have that magnifying glass on you,” he said.

Lopez said that managers can also misconstrue Gen Z colleagues not showing up to the office as a lack of team spirit. “I just want to clarify, ‘No, I am literally just preserving my energy,’” she said. “And I want to come in when I know that I can bring my best self to work.”

For example, she used a month and a half in which she did not have to be at the office to save up energy for a week when her program managers were in town and she could do the face time necessary to build relationships.

“I think workplaces just need to start adjusting to work preference diversity, and allow employees to show up in the way that they feel like they’re going to be able to best present themselves,” Lopez said.

What Gen Z And Older Generations Can Learn From Each Other

Fernandez said that there should be flexibility for remote work and working alone, but said it can also be helpful for Gen Z professionals to know that “you cannot be efficient with people. As logical as we are, we are emotional beings.”

Even though it can be inefficient, physically showing up at work can increase relationship-building, and it’s “where you learn to manage dysfunctional teammates, where you learn to negotiate or, frankly, even influence others about your idea,” she said.

Guevara said that when he advises Gen Z friends who work remotely and alone, he asks them to separate the situations where it’s comfortable to work alone versus where it’s necessary.

“If you need music to work, that’s one thing,” he said. “But if you just prefer to be in a quiet space, that’s also something that you can do with other people, like within reach to ask for help.”

It shouldn’t be all on Gen Z co-workers to bridge the generational divide, though. In a 2022 Gallup poll, Gen Z was the demographic most ambivalent and disengaged with the workplace, but it was not because young workers were slacking off and not caring about their jobs. Most reported missing a close connection to their colleagues, manager or employer.

Fernandez said that because a lot of Gen Z workers started their first jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, “they did not have as much of the social routine interactions that older generations had when they graduated.”

That’s something managers can change. Fernandez said that “reverse mentoring” — by pairing a younger colleague with an older one — can be a way for the two to learn from each other.

Try talking to them like they’re a co-worker, and not a co-worker who’s Gen Z.Tony Guevara, a professional with Gen-Z for Change

And managers should directly solicit feedback from their Gen Z colleagues, and be open to changing their workflow. When Fernandez teaches university students, she said that she asks for class volunteers to be her internal focus group, so they can tell her what’s working and what’s not in the classroom.

“[Gen Z is] going to be the next set of managers,” Fernandez said. “So we need to ensure that they’re successful.”

Guevara said that it can also help for older managers to avoid talking down to Gen Z colleagues.

“Try talking to them like they’re a co-worker, and not a co-worker who’s Gen Z,” he said. “There’s that preconceived notion that ‘Gen Z is lazy, Gen Z doesn’t like working with other people’ that they’ll use to influence how they approach a situation with someone who happens to be Gen Z.”

Guevara said that he has Gen Z friends who “get talked down to” by others at work, “as if they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“The way that they talk to people is obviously going to have an impact, especially when there’s a huge age difference,” he said.