Engaging 5 Generations in the Future Workplace — Part 3

by Marcus Varner
, 12 min read

In a recent webinar, Jeanne Meister, founding partner at Future WorkplaceAlan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, and Steven ZoBell, chief product and technology officer at Workfront, sat down to discuss how businesses can prepare for the evolution of people, process, and technology.

What follows is the third in a three-part recap of the webinar. See part one here and part two here. If you want to watch the entire webinar on demand, click here.


Steven ZoBell: That was a really great overview from both you and Jeanne. I kind of have to admit I haven’t heard a webinar talking so much about voyeurism in the past; that was good.

I'd like to dive in a little bit on technology, and let’s take a quick look at really the history of where it came from and where we’re going with technology. If you look at this, we really have old technology to new technology.


See our video "Technology and The Future of Work: Supporting The Modern Enterprise" for more on technology in the office.


With the Baby Boomers, we had the first computers; computers that took up whole rooms. Gen X had the first personal computer, and that’s a really wonky example of a personal computer.

Millennials saw a huge quantum leap with smartphones and everything there, and they really didn’t understand the situation of how it was.

And now we have the Gen Z, people who naturally understand it and they don’t know anything about what has been before here. And as we look to the future, what they’ll see—virtual reality, augmented reality, and who knows what else?

But there’s another generation that’s now entering the workforce, and as we’ve heard so much about from Alan and Jeanne, it’s not a human generation. It’s a generation of intelligent machines and software that are doing more and more of the work that humans have typically done.

Whether we see that in simple functions such as smart routing of messages, or more recent advances where humans are not even aware they’re interacting with bots; where AI is augmenting the human capabilities in productivity and really helping us do more than ever before.

So the big question I want to talk about is how to manage a workplace with all five of these generations coexisting together, and what does that mean for the future of work?

And what technology needs to be part of your ecosystem to take advantage of it? But before we dive in, I'd like to do a quick survey. I want to see how people are feeling about this.

I know people have a lot of different thoughts about what they view. Are you saying "hey, is your job going to be replaced by robots," or "definitely not," or "somewhere in the middle?"

Or if you’re at the bottom, you may be thinking: "I hope so; maybe I can just chill on a beach. We’ll let the robot work for me and I still get a paycheck."

So, why don’t you take your time, put in your views, and let’s see what everyone says across the board there.

We’ve got actually a little bit of “hope they will be.” That’s not bad on there. It’s interesting.

I would say people are saying by and large that "they will not be" or "potentially might," but not really a lot of people having a view of that that’s negative.

Because many times as we look to the future and look at AI, people kind of get stuck in a total dystopian view that people think about it and say: "oh, you know what, my favorite image here is actually the one of the guy up top there doing the mopping around the office for all of the robots."

As we know, technological automation has really been happening for centuries now. In fact, if we look at it now, our jobs are better, they’re more satisfying. The overall level for pay for everyone is higher than it ever has been before.

And I believe a lot of that is because humans really continue to learn how to work side by side with automation in tooling at every turn. Ultimately it’s for our benefit, and for the benefit of society. I want to use an example, kind of a stodgy example from the past, to really kind of prove the point.

People have said in the past, ATMs, ATMs were actually killing human bank teller jobs. But really think about this. If you walk into a bank branch, have you ever walked into one that’s completely empty and with no humans, even though we have ATMs?

The answer is "no." Really what it was that data showed is that ATMs did not kill human bank teller jobs. In fact, there were actually more humans employed at the banks, except you see a little bit of a petering off at the end because of obviously the economic recession.

But what happened is banks could open more branches because they needed fewer human bank tellers at each branch.

So they opened additional branches, but they actually changed the job somewhat and took higher-skilled people and made sure they weren’t just doing mundane, routine tasks that ATMs could do, but their jobs were redefined to produce higher valued tasks like selling financial products.

So it’s really clear, as automation is moving into the workplace, jobs were not just replaced; some were redefined and augmented. In fact, we’ve seen that technology and automation have created whole new classes of jobs, as well as redefining old ones.

One of my favorite statistics I heard recently is there are 8,000 data scientists and machine learning experts in the world, whereas today there are right now 12,000 marine biologists.

So there are more people who know about whales right now on the planet than do about AI and machine learning. I love whales and all; don’t get me wrong. But as we look to the future, we’re going to see a lot more need in that.

That doesn’t mean you have to become an AI or machine learning genius to be successful.

Because as these technological advances really happen, it’s going to produce automation that can take over routine tasks. And employers have sought to fill the roles that are more knowledge-intensive and interacting.

This is very similar to what Jeanne showed us in the earlier pieces. When we look at it, the majority of hiring focuses on knowledge worker positions and that growth of that trend really shows no sign of slowing down. 

People sometimes say, "knowledge worker, what does that mean?"

Really as I put it there, these are the people whose main capital asset is the knowledge and thinking they bring to bear in their work.

So if you’re sitting there thinking "oh my gosh, I’m going to be replaced;" I would ask you, "do you think—and my guess is you do—and there’s a great place you can actually learn and grow to be a lot more valuable to your company."

So as we really look at this, knowledge workers as they produce their creations in consort with others, with their teams and everything, a knowledgeable, intuitive interaction across teams is becoming more and more important.

This leaves us a really great challenge for leadership of companies; how do you supercharge the knowledge workers of their teams? If you look at it, Peter Drucker, one of the greatest thinkers on actual productivity and work over the last century, I love this quote.

He says: “the most important contribution of management in the 20th century was the 50-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing.”

And then he continues: “the most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers.”

Circling back around to our theme of managing multiple generations in the workplace, including the new generation of artificial intelligence and automation, I believe Drucker’s challenge is why this technology exists.

It is the single, most powerful tool to which we can unlock the productivity of our knowledge workers.

Effectively managing this new generation of work automation side by side with the Baby Boomers, the Gen X, the Millennials, and now Gen Z is really the key to dramatically increase the productivity of our knowledge workers.

So, what factors do we really need to consider when we’re managing the five generations in the future of the workplace? And as we look at it, there are three major forces that are radically redefining everything about work in the modern enterprise.

First, it’s digitization. Look at everything that is happening with the convergence of offline work, to network, to computer-supported work. It’s the new ways that ideas are dreamt up, built, and marketed. It’s changing how business processes operate and fundamentally how enterprises work.

A recent study actually said that many businesses, as they look at this study, said only 40 percent of their work is digitized. So if you think we’re seeing a lot of digitization now, it’s just getting started.

Second of all, as we’ve discussed so much, is the Millennial Generation. As we look at it, this is now the largest percentage of employees.

These are workers who have grown up digitally and are highly networked and want more ownership and autonomy in the work that they do. These knowledge workers really require us to think about the changes in how work is fundamentally managed, prioritized, and even delivered.

Finally, if you look at the decline of the growth of workplace productivity, it’s really occurring as the nature of work in organizations is changing.

Employees are spending too much time, much like Alan was discussing, searching for information across all of these different places and applications, and trying to coordinate their efforts and report on their progress or the roadblocks that they might be running into.

I’ve got another poll for you. I want to get your quick view of what factor is impacting your business the most.

You might want to say all three, and I’m forcing you to really choose. But is digitization changing your workplace the most? Workplace demographics? Or declining productivity increases or being distracted?

I really am curious to see what this large group is seeing is impacting them the most, now that we know what demographic they fill in, thanks to Jeanne’s great question.

That is really interesting. If I was to actually predict it, I would not have guessed it is almost like a nice little race there. It looks like number one is actually the changing demographics in the workplace. And you know, it is something we see quite a bit as it goes across the board. 

I want to talk a little bit about how these actual three changes, which it looks like we’re all experiencing a good bunch of all of them, really tie into how work ties in together.

And we’ll really look at how all of these shifting pieces on the landscape are really shaping how work looks in the future.

There are four areas that we talk about as we look at this within Workfront.

We say it impacts how work gets together with the Hollywood model of work. It impacts digital natives and how they work. It impacts how leaders need to go and drive across the work they’re doing, and finally, how the systems and tools need to truly tie together.

Let’s dive in a little bit to each one of these.

If you start off, there’s the Hollywood model of work. This is very similar to what Jeanne was describing as the Gig Economy.

As we look at it in the future, work is going to be a lot more like how Hollywood makes movies. A project is defined, a team is assembled. It works together for precisely as long as needed to complete the task, and then the team disbands.

The problem is, most companies are structured in traditional teams and do not have the systems in place to form effective ad hoc teams, which is how most of modern work will be getting done.

As stated in this actual quote here, nearly all knowledge work is project work, executed at different scales. Whether it is a small team collaborating to solve a business need, or an entire enterprise working across many different departments on a key initiative.

The velocity of this work is also moving faster, and the need for reducing friction is more important than ever.

We really need to make sure that modern enterprises can use automation to eliminate roadblocks, and artificial intelligence to unlock the immense amount of creative power that’s within those teams if they tie those together.

Let’s move on next to the digital natives. Alan gave us a great overview on this. But if we really look at the digital natives and digital immigrants, there are internal and external contributors who will be our digital natives.

They are egalitarian, flexible, and task-switching with really just-in-time skills and highly networked. Think about it.

Have you seen many people nowadays who actually can watch an entire episode of television without pulling out their phone? I think it’s a rare moment.

These are our digital natives who are used to task switching. And we need to have an infrastructure in place to support these requirements. And it won’t be a "nice to have;" it’s going to be a "non negotiable."

Two out of these three digital natives expect to leave their current employer in less than three years. They will flow to the work environment that truly matches who they are. They are tech do-it-yourselfers and are very comfortable with virtual relationships and teammates.

And if you are not changing your systems and how you work, there’s a good chance your team members might flock to your competitors who might actually be setting up their environment that way.

Next, as we look really at the boundary-less integrations, and don’t get freaked out there; we’re not saying that’s what’s recommended. But you really need to make sure that your company can support deep integrations across the entire system.

This is an example made up of a tech staff shared by Cisco, where it has all of these systems tied together. And if you have the wrong systems, it’s monumental to try and harmonize this.

But if you’re able to have the right systems and platforms to pull this all together, it will allow your digital native to assemble knowledge from all of their various sources that they are very comfortable with.

But like I said, you need to have a platform that can take a process or take an idea from inception to intended impact with as much velocity as possible, but with as little friction, while tying together all the varied systems.

Also, these systems cannot be silo-centric. It cannot have it be stuck all in one system; it has to be communicated from end to end across all of these systems.

Finally, and one of the most important aspects, the leader of the future will be required to truly have transformational attributes that include the ability to pursue identity and purpose.

So they can’t just be talking about product. These leaders need systems that can tie together the mission and initiatives of the company from strategy clear through to the execution of the work.

But you need to ensure that it’s able to see in a clear, simple way that communicates to them why they are doing the work they’re doing; why it matters. That’s one of the biggest things we need to see from these Millennials.

So in closing, as you look at this, we really need to ensure as we’re looking that work automation, as it’s the fifth generation of the workplace, it’ll have to have platforms and systems that can really drive things across the board.

Because it’s going to be creating many new jobs and they’ll be redefined, along with even newer jobs created due to the automation.

Lastly, it’s wrong to go into the future to really think about your workplace as exclusively about work. That’s just not the case anymore. It’s about purpose.

In the past, life was about work. New generations, the way things that look to people now, they really want their lives to serve a purpose, and work is part of that. The current and future workplace they will choose to work in has to seamlessly enable them to live their purpose.

We’re living in the future, and it’s truly exciting. There are abundant possibilities, and there’s really a lot we need to do. Expect to hear a lot more from us in the future on these subjects and the future of work. 


To watch the entire "Engaging 5 Generations in the Future Workplace" webinar on demand, click here.

Get Blog updates straight to your inbox

When Chat Becomes Chatter: Hiring the Right App for the Wrong Job

Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen had a realization. For years he’d been asking why great companies fail (coining the concept of the innovator’s dilemma in the process), but he hadn’t yet focused on what he calls “the reverse problem”...
by Jon Ogden

Resources to gain a competitive edge

Agile Marketing Cheat Sheet

Learning and adopting the Agile Marketing methodology often requires a change in thinking, team structure, and even vocabulary. With so much new...
by Workfront Admin

What are you waiting for? Get Your free demo