The Changing Workplace
The average American office is comprised by Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, and Millennials who, according to the US Census Bureau, are nearly 1/3 of our current workforce. Born between 1980 – 1999, Millennials grew up with Google, tablets, smart phones, and iPods. For Boomers and Gen-Xers, “multitasking” is what mainframes do through threads. In the US Chamber of Commerce’s Millennial Generation Research Review, science has revealed that Millennials’ brains are actually wired differently to allow them to multitask and process more and varied input than older generations will ever effectively absorb.
So, if we – as senior technologists and consultants – struggle to effectively outpace evolving technology, and the new generation of technology consultants quite literally think more like computers than we ever will, what is the path forward? Business is only as successful as its ability to adapt. How do we apply our own Change Management methodologies to ourselves? How do we leverage the very same tools we give clients to succeed, and how do we pave the path for our own continuous growth? If one-in-three employees are Millennials, then how do we very quickly get past the “us” vs. “them” mentality and discover the best of what we collectively know, understanding what we together can accomplish?
Changing the Equation
Problems can be solved for a finite answer. Change is a process, not a problem. Therefore, pulling together the diverse workforce requires analysis, thoughtful approaches, and considerate execution.
While Millennials thrive on change, the older generations must work to understand the type of changes that drive different young people of this generation. Millennials want to make an impact, and they likely don’t yet know how that plays out in a corporate setting, nor do they know precisely how to make a sustainable impact. Some Millennials look for organizations where they can become part of a community, which is consistent with the generation’s overall commitment to volunteer service and giving back. Some Millennials seek employment with firms that offer opportunity to exchange experience, grow skills, and become part of the fabric of the organization. The third type of Millennial wants to join a firm where they can leverage their knowledge to quickly advance through the ranks into leadership.
Building that bridge of understanding between the generations of coworkers is the key to establishing common ground. Certainly, the process begins with learning more about what our fresh-faced colleagues bring to the workplace, what they expect from us, and what they need to know about and from us. Boomers and Gen-Xers will be best served to understand the types of Millennials, differentiate between them, and create positions to exploit their strengths. The older generations will also need to be ready with coaching, mentoring, and the appropriate training to help guide these younger colleagues to overcome challenges, build their confidence, and develop critical consulting skills.
Generally speaking, the Millennial generation:
- Thrives on change. The word “innovation” drives much of what they want from work and relationships.
- Enters the workforce later than Boomers and Gen-Xers, which means they bring a different degree of know-how to the workplace.
- Are primarily visual learners and conduct business differently than older generations do. They prefer to communicate via text messages and/or IM apps (gone are the days of AIM and even Google chat; WhatsApp is where it’s at) first, then email, social media, phone calls, and face-to-face communication.
- Prefers “the bullet” when it comes to communication, and they want to see their communication rather than hear it.
- Challenges the norms and seeks to create inventive solutions.
- Are tenacious, enthusiastic, and wants to contribute.
- Joins the firm with specific expectations about flexible work schedules, work-life balance, and how they can contribute.
- Believes – because they were taught – they are capable of anything they put their mind to, and they think big.
Understanding and adaptation is a two-way street. So, as the Boomers and Gen-Xers adapt to their new, younger colleagues, so must the Millennials adapt to their older coworkers.
Generally speaking, Boomers and Gen-Xers:
- Graduated with degrees in Data Processing and Information Systems, moving directly from college in the programming workforce.
- In some cases, worked their way through the ranks, starting from the mailroom, taking the “Road Warrior” consulting route and crisscrossing the country 50 weeks per year, or making a career change to a DBA while raising children, learning DB2 with a book perched on the kitchen counter, and attending night school.
- Spent the better part of their careers designing, building, and maintaining complex technical ecosystems to support the businesses of major industries, such as Federal and State government agencies, banking, medical and pharmaceutical, and defense.
- Spearheaded the critical IT consulting transition from “data processing” to collaborative, client-focused, business-enabling system development.
- Made Y2K look easy (and took the heat for it!).
- Think critically and with a crucial “big picture” perspective, gleaned from years of drawing system flows on white boards, stepping back to survey the entire solution, and bounce ideas off one another to assure all predecessor and successor processes still made sense.
- Remain the invaluable link between why the legacy systems were built and function as they do. Boomers and Gen-Xers understand how the smarter, sleeker, and more elegant technologies will address clients’ business needs as their legacy systems are incrementally replaced.
Evolving the Workplace
So, what is the best approach to provide an optimal work environment for these very different groups of people to flourish and grow to their best potential? How will coaching and mentoring be designed to harness these very different types of creative energy? How will the Boomers and Gen-Xers preserve the decades of their professional experience sharpen Millennials’ tools, guiding them to good use? How will workplaces adapt to remove the rigidity that no longer serves the American worker, attracts Millennials, and yet provides a solid structure for all to succeed?
First, the older generations must remember our own Change Management tools and “take our own medicine.” We have to navigate our own change, using the very techniques we teach our clients. We must identify change champions, and without judgment, we must examine our strengths and our areas for improvement. We will plan to preserve what works, buttress what can wait, and develop short, intermediate, and longer-term plans for change. We must communicate, communicate, communicate and solicit feedback. Taking a page from our own playbook, we have to be unafraid to fall or fail and operate nimbly. We will collaborate and course correct whenever necessary. Remembering that change is constant will be key to success. Change is a continuous process, which cycles without ending. It’s all about incorporating lessons learned, pulsing the workforce, creating opportunities for involvement, and pacing change against the organization’s saturation point.
Next, we will all be aware, as there will be plenty of opportunities for all of us, from all age brackets, to learn from each other. That is the beauty of a diverse workforce: there are endless occasions to learn. We are seeing it already: to foster collaboration and continued development, firms have been reconfiguring office layouts for a more modern and open environment to promote teamwork and communication.
Talking is one way we discover shared experiences or skills, interests and aspirations, areas of improvement or where we can help support each other. Firms are also recognizing that their employees crave opportunities to learn new skills. To that end, organizations may choose to actively work and plan and shift team composition to offer both seasoned and eager, younger colleagues new work to develop fresh abilities. Assuring that these staff shifts will not impact client delivery, well-timed moves expose employees to colleagues with which they wouldn’t have otherwise worked. This small change helps build the critical bridges between generations and develop a workplace culture of the best of both worlds.
And finally, all generations must remember that there will be teachable moments as well as moments of coaching and correction – on both sides. Millennials should be prepared for both guidance and policies, the former of which are likely recommendation and the latter absolutes. Boomers and Gen-Xers must be mindful to avoid the “but we’ve always done it this way” trap; there is much that can be learned from younger colleagues about communication, creative problem solving, and thinking outside the box. The older generations will provide the space for Millennial colleagues to test their wings and to know their contributions are meaningful. The younger generation will have to be patient with Boomer and Gen-Xers stories and what may seem to be laborious processes; there is value in the experience and the way work has been done.
The workplace has become a Culture of Continuous Change and is welcoming the generation that was taught if they believed they can, they will. Let’s give them the room to try, and let’s be there to offer support, experiential advice, and course correct when needed. Together, by adapting to change and working through the process, we will deliver future-looking, unique, and innovative services and solutions to our clients.
By Amanda Tate, Senior Manager
Business is only as successful as its ability to adapt
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