We live in a world where companies are working exceptionally hard to attract, retain, engage and motivate their bright young employees. A new generation of young people has started entering the workplace in the last decade, bringing with them new values, different expectations and a fresh outlook on work and the workplace. The shift in the values of these young people is necessitating a shift in workplace culture and environments. Those companies wishing to attract the attention of these young stars must take these shifts seriously.
How Times Change
Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, and TIME magazineâ€™s “Manager of the [20th] Century”, was asked on his retirement a few years ago what the most significant change in the workplace was during his career. As recorded in an article in Newsweek (4 April 2005), he answered as follows:
â€œIn the 1960â€™s and 70â€™s all my direct reports were men. Many of those reports were fathers, and fathers were different then. They did not by and large, attend ballet recitals on Thursday afternoons or turn down job transfers because they didnâ€™t want to disrupt their kidâ€™s sports â€˜careersâ€™. Most of their wives did not have jobs with their own competing demands. All that changed of course.â€?
For Welch, the workplace of his early management days was one where employees were expected to work overtime without question, to be in the office over weekends on a regular basis, and where these things happened with no reference to the personal and family life of the employee. Today’s workplace is very different. Typically, when a boss asks someone to work overtime, the employee first phones home to get permission. Sometimes, permission is not granted. Either way, though, the person on the other end of the telephone line is a more powerful influence than the boss standing across the desk.
In a nutshell, that picture sums up one of the major changes that has taken place in the workplace over the past decade or so. In order to attract and retain and motivate talent, companies need to accept this shift and create a “new deal” for their employees, by actively changing the corporate culture.
Who Are These People
This new generation of workers were born in the 1970s and 80s, and have often been labelled “Generation X” (learn more about generations). They were born during a time of radical social, political, technological and economic change. Change was so constant it felt like chaos. As they looked around them they realised that the adults of the world had no idea what was going on. They realised that the system would not provide for them. They understood that “the only person who can look after me, is me.” They have become fairly ambivalent towards authority, they are not scared to experiment and fail, they demand change and actively seek it in their lives, they want instant gratification and they know that there is a war for talent that is making them very much in demand (Read more about Generation Xers).
In particular, they do not accept the old contract of employment. That old contract included terms such as “paying your dues” and “the system will provide”. They know that the system will not provide for them. The old contract swapped a loyalty for security. In essence, the employee would come into an organisation and sell its products and services to its clients at its price through its channels, using its systems and processes. In exchange for the employee becoming that unmarketable (think about it – the more you learn about one company’s systems and processes, the more unmarketable you become at another company), the employee asked for one thing in return: Security. It was a simple contract, and it worked! But how many companies can offer security these days?
But that does not concern today’s young workers. They are not looking for security, because they know that it is an illusion, even if it is offered. So, if your company cannot offer security, why is it still asking for loyalty? That’s what today’s young people want to know. If you can’t give a long-term commitment, why are you asking for one?
Today’s young people are looking for more than just a secure pay cheque at the end of every month. They are desperate to find deeper meaning, self-development and fulfillment. They want to remain employable – having skills beyond just the current job description, and a confidence that they could get the job anywhere at any time. The more confident they are of that fact, the more likely they are to stay exactly in the place that is giving them that confidence. This is a paradox – but understanding it is the beginning of success with today’s young talent.
Wells and Fences
It might be helpful to tell a short story at this point.
A South African sheep farmer went to Australia on holiday. In South Africa, a lot of his time as a Karoo sheep farmer is spent on maintaining the fences at the edges of his farm. The government even knows how important fences are, and provides many incentives to help farmers keep them perfectly in tact. Of course, the sheep often move to these fences and graze at the edges of the farm – sometimes even putting their heads through the fence to taste the sweet, green grass on the other side.
But, in Australia, the focus is not on building fences. In fact, many outback sheep stations don’t even have fences. Their focus is on building wells at the centre of their farms. They know that the best way to keep sheep on their stations is to dig deep, clear, cool wells of water at the centre, and to draw the sheep in and keep them close.
The same applies in our businesses. Too often, we spend our time building fences (contracts) to protect the edges, and don’t take the time to focus on making the centre attractive. We focus on stopping people leaving, rather than giving them a reason to stay.
In the past, companies have been almost exclusively concerned with the employee as an employee. An employee or workerâ€™s private life was their own affair, to be handled in their own time outside of working hours. But of course, in reality, nobody really ever functioned like this.
I heard a great story of a top personal assistant, who needed to take some time off on a Friday afternoon to get a haircut to prepare for her daughter’s 21st birthday party. Her boss refused to give her permission to take the time off. In the end, on the particular Friday, the boss was called out to an urgent meeting and she decided (as staff members sometimes do when faced with difficult and unjust circumstances at work) to simply ignore the consequences and take the time off to get the haircut. On her return to the office on Monday, she was met by an enraged boss, who demanded to know why she had taken time off in contravention of his direct command not to. She let him rant and rave and let off steam, until he said to her that it was entirely inappropriate for her to do personal stuff during work hours. At that point, so the story goes, she stopped him and explained that getting her hair cut was not a personal issue. Completely bemused, the boss demanded to know how she could come to that conclusion – surely it was obvious that getting one’s hair cut is a personal, not an office issue. Her reply was profound in its simplicity: “My hair grows during office hours!”
You see, there really has never been a clear distinction between what goes on in the work of part of our lives and what happens in the personal part of our lives. For many years, and in many different ways, we have pretended that such a division exists and is even possible. The reality is that our lives are integrated. Todayâ€™s young people no longer pretend, and they want to work in a culture where there is an understanding that they live integrated lives with concerns beyond the workplace. In fact, research shows that most young people place work as only a fourth or even fifth priority, behind family, self, health and even friends.
Three Spheres of Life
Every human being operates in at least three spheres in their lives. The first is their personal life, which relates to their self, their body and soul. The second sphere is the social, which includes family, friends and community interaction and involvement. This third sphere might be called professional, corporate or work, and involves the income generating activities of a person’s life. These three interlinking spheres of life all need to be addressed by the individual. Historically, companies have focused almost exclusively on the â€œworkâ€? part of this trio, leaving the individual a few hours a day or one or two days a week to look after the other two areas of personal and social interaction.
That situation is untenable. Companies are now expected to have some input and contribution towards an individual’s personal goals and development, as well as their social and family commitments, over and above their interest in the person as a worker and employee.
Creating an Attractive Environment
We would suggest that in each of the three spheres are of life, there are two things that companies can consider focusing on that are absolutely essential to creating an attractive environment for talented young people. These are six wells that can be dug deeply into the refreshing water source of the organisation.
1.1. Work-life Integration
One of the most commonly written about themes when talking about attracting and retaining talent is the issue of work-life balance. We do not like this label, for two reasons. Firstly, we do not like the implication that work and life are opposites. Work is part of life, and our lives include work. Trying to create a separate box for our work experience is part of the problem that today’s young people are wanting to move away from. The second reason that we do not like the concept of work-life balance is that we do not believe it is possible. On one hand, balance means different things to different people. On the other hand, if we are talking about attracting and retaining talented young people, then we are talking about people with ambition and bright eyes for the future, who are prepared to work long, hard hours in order to get ahead (note that they are willing to work long and hard hours and go above and beyond the call of duty – as long as they get ahead, quickly, by doing so).
If you have a group of talented but the lazy people in your organisation, and believe that what we’re about to say would backfire in your company as it would simply open the door to shirking responsibility and abuse of flexible working time, then you’ve got the wrong people working for you. Our focus is on talented people who will put a foot in, if suitably rewarded.
So, we believe that we need to begin thinking of integrating all the various aspects of our lives. Let me illustrate. Most people I know make some use of electronic reminders and a digital diary. But even those who use paper-based diaries and calendars normally do not have separate diaries for their work and personal appointments. Most people whether using digital or paper-based systems, have a single diary that covers work and personal engagements. The technologies used to manage our diaries, including e-mails and text messages to confirm meetings and the Internet to look up details and directions, all were designed for improved efficiency and productivity in the workplace. We have integrated these technologies into our personal lives. So much so, for example, that my wife and I will often schedule a date with each other by using e-mails and Outlook meeting requests.
Meeting request: from Jane to Graeme: movies, Tuesday night, 7 p.m?
Reply: Accept? Reject? Alternative arrangements?
Now, we do have three children to prove that this is not the only way that we communicate. Nevertheless, we make good use of workplace technologies to enhance our interactions in our personal lives. The reverse situation must now also become more of a reality.
“If I answer e-mails on a Saturday night, can I go and watch movies on a Tuesday morning?”
“If I allow my Blackberry to interrupt my family dinner time, will you allow me to let my family interrupt your executive committee meeting time?”
If not, why not?
These are the types of questions that today’s young talented people are asking of organisations. And they’ve got a point. One person who seems to have got his mind around this concept is Ricardo Semler, of Semco in Brazil. This conglomerate, including 24-hour factory operations in Brazil, is the non-US based company with the most case studies written about it for Ivy League business schools. Semler has written a number of books, including Maverick and The Seven-Day Weekend. In the latter of these books, he outlines a plan to democratise work-life integration/balance.
The concept of the title of the book – a seven-day weekend – is not what you think. It isn’t about having seven days of weekend. It’s about recognising that in the 21st-century most of us, especially people in the professions, do not to get a weekend – two consecutive days off a week. We need to stop feeling guilty about this, but also realise that we do need to take some time out for ourselves and for our families and friends. So, what we need to do is find a way to have a weekend during every seven-day period. And that maybe means taking Tuesday morning off because I worked Saturday night.
Flexibility is obviously one of the keywords in this type of approach. But let me give a word of warning here: you are not being flexible if you allow everybody to work an extra half an hour every day so that they can take every second Friday afternoon off. That isn’t flexibility, that’s just a different deal – a different type of contract. If you claim to be flexible, then you need to be flexible. Flexibility means being able to take Wednesday morning off because my child is sick. Flexibility means being able to leave at lunchtime on Thursday to take my dog to the vet, and working extra hours in on Friday to make up for it. Flexibility is not about a new type of schedule, rather it is about freedom, choice and the ability to respond to circumstances.
This topic has been discussed to death by many other authors and speakers, and most of what needs to be said has already been said elsewhere. Work-life integration is key to attracting talent.
Virtually every piece of research done on todayâ€™s talented young people indicates that for them, one of the most important deciding factors when selecting a job is the â€œsignificance factorâ€? of that job. By this they mean two specific things: (1) that the job must have some ability to impact of the world and change society; and (2) the job must have the ability to help them develop as individuals and grow in their self awareness, skills and person.
The number of young people who take months off of work to volunteer in non-profit organisations has skyrocketed over the past two decades – a simple indication of their desire to make a difference. These young people want to feel that they are doing more than just a job, and that the work that they do benefits others and society. Obviously, there are some jobs that lend themselves more easily to demonstrating a sense of significance, especially as it relates to changing the world, but every company should be able to demonstrate tangibly what difference they make.
There are some fairly simple ways to ensure that the sense of significance pervades your organisation. The senior leaders within the organisation need to become storytellers – finding the story of how your company impacts and changes the world, and then consistently representing that story to everyone in your organisation. This implies, of course, that you have a company which either directly or indirectly has an emphasis on making a difference in society, rather than just chasing the corporate bottom line profits. The concept of triple bottom line reporting has aided young talent to analyse companies at deeper levels than before, in order to discover a company’s commitment to the environment, society and communities.
End of part 1. The other four areas of focus, as well as specific ideas for implementation, will be covered in next monthâ€™s ezine, read it here.
Dr Graeme Codrington is the â€œChief Treasure Hunterâ€? of TomorrowToday.biz, a strategy consultancy focused on helping companies get the most out of their leaders and talented staff and customers. He can be contacted at .