I recently attended the Computing Enterprise Mobility Summit in London and among several interesting speakers was Intel’s thought leader Jim Henrys. Jim spoke on workplace transformation and providing a workplace that would attract Generation Y recruits. While much of Jim’s presentation was interesting, insightful and spot on, his observations on Generation Y didn’t match the real-world experiences I’ve had of this dynamic and above all, varied group. 

Today I’d like to play Devil’s Advocate and go through a few of the key areas where my experience doesn’t mesh with Jim’s (or indeed many other commentators), and offer my advice on how to build a workplace that will make all your users more effective. What I’m not trying to do is provide a definitive explanation of the Generation Y psyche, as the group is far too varied and rapidly changing for this. Instead, I want to explain the importance of allowing users and employees the flexibility to learn from each other and find their own most effective way of completing business processes.

A Rolling 15-21 Age Group?

Much of the confusion and inaccuracy around Generation Y in the workplace stems from the fact that the research doesn’t seem to refer to actual young people arriving in typical companies. Instead, it either examines what companies such as Google and Facebook are doing, or examines the stated preferences of later school-age or university students. The first scenario offers a very strong confirmation bias, and I’ll come back to that. The second stems from the desire to predict rather than observe, and from forgetting that Generation Y began around 1985 and continued into the mid-1990s, meaning that its older members are in their late twenties.

The Youth Of Yesterday

It seems that in every generation, adults look at their own teenage offspring and think, “this lot are going to be terrible when they go to work. They’re just so immature”. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this happens in every generation, as such quotes have been attributed to ancient philosophers including Socrates and Plato. Of course, civilisation continues because over a few years these youngsters grow up and become almost like real people (although they do seem to be younger every year).

The caveat on this process is of course that the scorn heaped on this year’s youth simply gets transferred to next year’s. In the past this was no big deal as social changes tended to happen quite slowly, and there really were considerable similarities between the outlook of people five or ten years apart in age. This meant that referring to ten-year or more generations such as the Baby Boomers, Generation X and so on provided a reasonably predictive view of any individual, but with the development of the home internet these gaps have become far shorter.

Today, two or three years’ difference in age can produce an entirely different generation. In my experience, you see very different behaviours depending on which stage of the Internet and social media they started using. The AOL generation is very different to the Netscape generation, followed by the Google generation, then Facebook, and now the Whatsapp and Snapchat generation.

These groups each want to work in very different ways. This is a particular problem in business as managers are faced with a far more diverse group than they might be aware of, and the advice given refers to people who are younger, less mature and may not have decided what they want from life.

The “Google Problem”

The other problem is that the question “what do these people want” is answered purely with respect to those at trendy companies like Facebook and Google. That means you get a picture of “what do the sort of people who want to work at Facebook and Google want” rather than the sort of people your organisation needs, and even other young people may not consider themselves to be like Google and Facebook employees.

This is a bit of a controversial opinion because we’re constantly being told that all young people want to work at Facebook and Google (or start-ups) and that it’s us that need to change and accommodate their need to share everything they do, for example. I think the reality is more complex and possibly more important for the future of the workplace.

Generation Uncertain?

One of Jim’s key points was that Generation Y don’t really care about money, and don’t want to join major companies, preferring to work for start-ups. In fact, what they really want to do is work in something they are passionate about, even if it doesn’t pay well or means volunteering. Really?

While many of these young people certainly admit to having had high ideals, and indeed still wanting to make a difference having joined companies, many say that their ideals were tempered by contact with the real world. Growing up in a world where the bills are paid by student loans or the Bank of Parents, who wouldn’t want to do something worthwhile? However the majority need to pay the bills and therefore need to get a “real job”, and in the current economic situation even high achievers can find this to be a struggle.

This has interesting ramifications in terms of what motivates this generation: most realise that they will need to learn new behaviours and ways of working in order to fit in, and see this as part of growing up. I do however think that many become disillusioned very quickly when they are presented with unrealistic expectations or treated as strange and different: they don’t want to do the same job for the next 40-odd years, but they want to be treated as adults, not patronised.

I think that their aversion to old technologies such as desktop PCs and Lotus Notes (to take an extreme example) is overplayed in the media. In my experience, they have a far greater aversion to what they may see as petty or arbitrary rules, such as heavily locked down corporate environments. This is a generation that will quickly learn how to use new systems, but who will be looking for the shortest route to accomplish tasks.

Rather than evidence of their inability to fit in, I see this as a sign of extreme keenness and desire to be productive. If you want to find new and more streamlined ways of working, get these people to live with the process and listen to where they feel the frictions are. But don’t leave them alone: have them work with some of your experienced people from affected departments, because this way both youthful drive and experience of business logic can be shared, and everyone learns.

What’s To Be Done?

This is not a question that will ever have an easy answer, nor is it a problem that will go away. I believe that in business we need to embrace the best elements of the natural workstyles of our unique employees and users, and what that really means is that we need to empower flexibility. We need to move away from a world where we worry about the devices employees use, and towards making the same business processes available across any device, allowing each user to work in the way that makes the most sense for them.

By segmenting our user base and types of task, then providing technologies that work for each resulting work style through tools like Chatter and similar, we can allow each user to choose the best way of completing the task at hand, for them. With process integration we can allow communication between platforms, with just a few simple tweaks.

True workplace transformation can be achieved from the ground up, by users finding what works best for themselves and their interlocutors (as even between generations and tasks we should not presume that older users may not see the value of video chat, nor younger ones a carefully-crafted email, especially when communicating outside of their peer group), and this means giving them a broad choice of channels, across text, photo, video, and whatever comes along tomorrow.