Generations at Work 2020
February 10, 2021

How millennials shape their jobs: A meme-free guide to generations in the workplace

By Alex Shootman

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This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. 

Imagine a business that built a go-to-market plan based on anecdotes and memes about its target customers. No CEO would ever do that; you would commission research and get to know what was driving customers’ needs. The same approach should be true when developing a workplace strategy—understanding the needs and desires of our employees is fundamental.

As each of us looks to improve productivity and culture, why should we assume that top-of-the-head guesses about millennial and Generation X behaviors are enough to build a business upon? A workplace strategy defined by generational stereotypes doesn’t come close to scratching the surface of what your current and future workforce expects and needs from you. You need to run the numbers.

Generations shape their work.

My starting point is a basic principle: Work doesn’t impact the generation; rather, the generation impacts work. History shows that who is in the workplace changes what gets done and how it gets done. Cultural and organizational norms continue to shift with every generation who enters the workplace. We’re on the cusp of the most diverse generation in global history, Gen Z, entering the workforce en masse. The impact on work as we know it, even in this "new normal," is likely to be profound. 

In 2017, I gave a speech in which I made some workplace predictions. I can’t claim any special powers of foresight; these were observations from spending time with customers. I ruminated on emerging trends of digital transformation and a “Hollywood model of work” in which teams of geographically dispersed talent would assemble to complete great work and disband when done. But my observation about the generational changes occurring, the one that I described at the time as the “rise of the digital natives,” is having the longest impact. My hypothesis was that a new set of generational attributes had emerged in the workplace:

• Egalitarian, not hierarchical.

• Nomadic and task-switching.

• Just-in-time skills rather than acquiring skills ahead of time.

• Connections trump knowledge.

This anecdotal hypothesis was three years ago, and since then, we have continued to welcome a new workforce with a unique perspective and approach to work, as well as new expectations on workplace technologies. It's important to try to understand, adapt to and nurture the differences these rising generations bring to the table.

Setting new standards.

Branded by some as the "snowflake generation," millennials have received a bad rap. I would argue from personal experience that this generation, which makes up the largest segment of the workforce and is the most educated and socially conscious on the planet, is far from the entitled, flaky generation they’ve been portrayed as. Upholding fiercely high standards that draw focus on work culture is something to be applauded and supported.

My company's research into what matters most to millennials and Gen Xers in their work environment supports this. We partnered with Jason Dorsey and the Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK) to interview more than 5,700 knowledge workers from across the U.S. and Europe. Some of the key findings were:

• The most internationally appealing work value is a caring culture.

• Almost two-thirds (61%) of millennial workers believe the ability to collaborate across many teams is key to their job loyalty and longevity.

• While pay continues to be important to Gen X workers, being able to do their best work is equally important. 

Driving digital work experience. 

The largest segment of the global workforce is also the most digitally savvy—demanding the same caliber of digital experience at work as they do in their personal lives. In fact, according to CompTIA, the trade association for the global information technology industry, "71% of millennials say that the degree to which an organization embraces technology/innovation is a factor influencing where they work."

My company's Generations at Work Study findings echoed this: 

• One in four millennial knowledge workers say they’ve quit a job because workplace tech made their jobs harder. 

• More than a third of those interviewed in leadership positions, from managers to executives, have walked away from a new job opportunity because the technology was outdated or hard to use. 

• Millennial leaders are 6%-18% more likely than Gen Xers to turn down jobs because of bad tech.

The risks (and impacts to business bottom lines) of providing outdated and disconnected workplace technology are far-reaching, including turnover, lower productivity, engagement, performance and the inability to attract the best talent.

Building the right culture has always been vital. And now, thanks to the rising generations, ensuring the workforce has access to the right technology and an optimal digital work experience is critical, too. 

The takeaway.

If you think this is all highfalutin and abstract, let me share some advice on how we’re using this approach inside a business like Workfront, which has a workforce that is 78% millennial or younger. Rather than the CEO and other senior leaders Gen X-splaining about how your company should do things, mobilize multigenerational teams around specific new product and go-to-market initiatives to help your company evolve the experiences and products you create for your customers. This is something my company has done, and the experience has left no doubt that generational diversity is critical to success.

The final lesson I’ve learned from the research is connected to my original observation of the new egalitarian (not hierarchical) generational attribute. To deliver the future workplace, leadership needs to shift from giving directives to providing people with context that empowers them to find solutions and plans of action themselves. Your culture and technology need to give every level of the organization the same context leaders have. This visibility and clarity will instill confidence and encourage smart, autonomous decision-making. That shift from task dictation to context communication is hard, but it makes work meaningful and, ultimately, makes work matter to us all.

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