Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Move over gen Y

Move over Generation Y

By Laurie Aznavoorian – Geyer Global Innovation Leader

In 1968 Andy Warhol coined the phrase “fifteen minutes of fame” in reference to the fleeting condition of celebrity that propels a person or object to the forefront of media attention, only to be surpassed by a new person or object that comes along on their tail to eclipse it. It is never easy to predict the future ,or the passing of a claim to fame, but I might go out on a limb and suggest that it might be about time for us all to end our obsession with GenY and start concentrating on what comes next.

It is part of the natural cycle of life that we replace the old with the new; therefore, the shift in focus from the hopes, desires and concerns of GenY to those of a younger generation of worker is inevitable. For many the demise of GenY has come not a moment too soon, the energy expelled creating experiences, environments and working relationships that appeal to the precocious idocyncracies of GenY has been downright exhausting for many employers. Particularly since many of those making the decisions belong to a previous generation that never experienced the level of coddling and attention we offered Gen Y. They are quite frankly a little tired of feeling like chopped liver.

So who is taking their place? It’s the Netgens, this cohort has been quietly toiling away in the wings and will be graduating from university and hitting the workforce in 2010. Working for a company who is in the business of designing workplaces, it is in our best interest to learn what we can about future workers. After all, our clients don’t go to the trouble and cost they do in designing their workplaces without the expectation that their investment will last for at least a few years. In fact, most smart organisations today are well aware of the link between their physical environment and business success, brand differentiation and the ability to create culture. As a result there are high expectations that go with the hefty price tags associated with workplaces today.

For these reasons we dug deeper to understand not only what makes the Netgens tick, but to also appreciate how they differ to GenY. Our experiment consisted of workshops held with representatives of both the Netgens and GenY. The Netgens were asked to think about the kind of environment they wanted to work in: the feel of the company, its values and finally they were asked to create a concept design for the workplace their company would occupy. For our GenY participants a more reflective approach was taken, we probed to learn what was important to them, particularly in terms of physical environment and the type and quality of relationships they hoped to have with their co-workers. We also asked what impact, if any, the work environment had to their choice of where they worked.

The first major difference noted between Netgens and GenY, and for that matter everyone else, is the Netgens are the first group of people to have grown up entirely in the internet age, hence their name. They were born with a mouse in their hand, they have no memory of life without access to instant information, social networks and immediate communication. They are what has been referred to as ‘digital natives’ where the rest of us are at best ‘digital immigrants’. This alone creates a separate distinct view of the world of work and what it should provide to employees. For these future workers, technology is not an add on option, it must be there without question - like oxygen.

Despite the fact that as parents we read to this generation from printed material, Netgens appear to have no preference for digital versus printed media and can happily go between the two. One Net gen we spoke to had read the entire four book Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer on line, the shortest of these novels is 434 pages the others are on average 650. By contrast, representatives of GeyY still preferred printed material and claimed they could not read longer documents on line.

For GenY a barrier still exists between how and when it is appropriate to use and view online material, the Netgens have no barriers or boundaries and therefore as a whole, they will have the ability to respond to issues and problems quicker. Having greater access to information and being able to get at it quicker, will afford the Netgens more freedom in where and how they work. And this is something they have every intention of exercising. Catering to this alone will have a profound impact on the kinds of workplaces we design and how we interact with our employees.

According to the authors of Born Digital the Netgens on average will have spent 10,000 hours online by the time they reach 20. If you consider the cycles technology goes through: beginning with critical mass where 20 - 30% of the population may own a device, to ubiquity where this increases to 30 - 70%, to eventually becoming invisible where 70% or more own the device, it is not difficult to comprehend how a laptop, something we all considered a special perk for employment, is meaningless to the Netgens. A lap top is so expected it is not worth a mention; to attract this generation’s attention, companies will need to readjust their thinking about using technology as currency, particularly older technology, as a negotiating point in the employment contract.

The technology cycle also has a profound impact on the way we design workplaces and the relationships employees have with employers. Netgens want a high degree of mobility, wireless internet connectivity, and a level of virtual interactivity through on line quizzes, games and voting forms. These types of technologies are commonly used by the Netgens and any employer who hopes to attract Netgen employees would be wise to embrace them now. Social networking must not only be allowed in the workplace, but used to the company’s advantage to pass on company knowledge and culture. In an age where the role of the physical environment is downplayed, we will look to the virtual environment to provide the ‘organisational glue’ that binds the company community and culture.

Another point of difference between Netgens and GenY is that Netgens have little or no concept of the notion of work life balance that GenY still clings to. They have crossed a barrier where a discussion around balance is no longer relevant, because for the Netgen, they cannot comprehend going to a place where activities of any sort would be restricted. By example, they intend to use the internet, twitter and SMS regardless of where they are. These technologies are their communication tools and communicating, all of the time and with a variety of devices, is what this cohort does, whether they are at work or at home. There are no boundaries to blur between work and home, both would offer comfort, communication and friends.

The descriptions of what makes a workplace enjoyable to the Netgens has the physical attributes you would expect of young people: pools, gyms, gaming rooms and roof top gardens. One group even described an environment called the ‘Hot spot’ featuring plasma screens and cameras so “you could see yourself dancing”. It is clear that the creation of a place where people can be themselves and trust the others around them, as well as an acceptance of who they are as individuals, is critical. Since GenY still has the residual home and work divide, they are less likely to look to their workplace for this type of acceptance and will hold the workplace at arm’s length.

The Netgens are a group that has a heightened sense of equality, fairness and inclusion of all. Several envisioned a workplace with no levels, hierarchy or discrimination. It is interesting to note that despite their desire to be inclusive of all, they exhibit harsh attitudes toward underperformance. Many mentioned severe penalties for those who did not meet the expectation of the team. One group went as far as to design a ‘fire pit’ into their accommodation - for those not working up to what they should, or knowing something they shouldn’t.

Security also plays a key role in the workplaces envisioned by the Netgens, many teams described spaces outfitted with sophisticated ID card security, monitors and other hidden devices. The concept of a ‘safe environments’ played a key role in the Netgen’s future workplace, but like their other attitudes about technology, the security is so integrated it is invisible. This is perhaps a response to living in a world where advanced security systems already exist, albeit more prominent that the Netgens preferred. Once again, for the Netgens they have no memory of a time without such things, so are far more accepting of its prescence than other generations of workers. They will work with it and make it their own, rather than waste energy ignoring or rejecting the idea.

Netgens are keenly aware of the impact they are making to the environment, as are GenY, but they seem prepared to accept many of the notions proposed to reduce their impact. One of these is the concept of the paperless office. Their intimate knowledge of technology and trust of it, makes them more likely to adopt and accept ideas that are too radical a departure for many others.

One of the most surprising differences we noted between the Netgens and their GenY counterparts was the lack of importance placed on real estate. For the Netgen the key drivers for their workplace is personal enjoyment and comfort. One group even made the claim that their physical environment would be so comfortable that it would “eliminate the need to take breaks”. Others said they didn’t want an office at all, they chose to be outdoors in anything but a typical office space. The GenY representatives we spoke to still aspired to not only having a dedicated place to work, e.g. not sharing, but also wanted to have an office with a view to call their own. While not a primary driver, the type of office and quality of fitout an organisation offered,was a contributor to their decision as to what company they chose to work for.

The GenY’s attitudes toward an office was a self admitted symbol of status, Netgens had no desire to prove their position through real estate or any other means. One theory for the traditional approach taken by GenY may be that the majority we spoke to were in high profile professional industries: law, banking, accounting. Their journey to get to where they are now, their first job, has been a long and often stressful process consisting of pressure to score well on their HSC, gruelling university courses and an intensive interview process. The competition and pressure leading up their first job may have been so intense, they feel they have achieved their goal and don’t yet realise their journey is just beginning.

Preparing our workplaces for the Netgen workforce is a challenge many organisations today are not prepared for. The attitudes, beliefs and technological acume of these future workers present us with a set of drivers that are quite different to those that guided our current workplaces. No one would be naïve enough to believe that these young people’s attitudes and aspirations will not change as they get older, never the less, it is hard to imagine the Netgens cranking back their expectations to any great degree.

We are living in a very unique time where a confluence of events has created an environment ripe for change. The global financial crisis, a heightened awareness of our impact on the planet - with consequences playing out around the globe and an explosion of new technologies that enable us to communicate and interact with each other instantly, all indicate that we are entering a new reality. The impact all of this will have on the workplace is going to be profound and for many businesses how they approach these issues, along with the expectation of their future workers, will be a key to their future success.

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