“The ‘surplus society’ has a surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices and similar quality.� Funky Business, Kjell Nordström and Jonas Ridderstråle

The Funky Business guys have a point. In most industries, the world has been “flattened” and its very difficult to differentiae competitors these days. We’re selling similar products and services, to the same clients, at about the same price, delivering through similar channels, using similar techniques to advertise in the same media, and making similar promises. We even swap staff every few years. If that’s not entirely true in your industry, it probably will be soon. In an environment like this, competitive advantage is found less and less in what you sell, and more and more in who you are and how you sell. And if “who you are is who you hire”, then the ability to attract and retain the most talented people in your industry, and get more out of them than your competitors could, are core strategic competencies to be developed and maintained.
Our problem is, that at just the time this “war for talent” started, a new generation of young people started entering the workplace, 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.
In particular, today’s young talent do not accept the old contract of employment. That old contract included terms such as “paying your duesâ€? and “the system will provideâ€?. They know that the system will not provide for them. The old contract swapped 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), 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?
Not one!
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. You can get (a form of) loyalty, if you’re willing to provide employability.
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 anyway. 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!â€?
You see, there really has never been a clear distinction between what goes on in the “work” 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. Today’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.
What today’s young people are looking for in the workplace can be summarised as follows:

  • Work-life Integration – an acceptance that I will take work home, and bring home to the office. That I will work Saturday night, but will take Tuesday morning off. I need that flexibility and freedom. And having some fun wouldn’t harm anyone either.
  • Outputs-driven environment – an understanding that I get paid for the value I add and the work that I do, not for filling a seat from 9 to 5. No clocking in and clocking out, please – just payment for my outputs! And recognition for the speed, quality and accuracy of those outputs.
  • A better use of technology – this goes without saying, if you want to achieve the first two things.
  • Mentoring – I don’t just want job-specific training, I want access to the senior leaders of the organisation. I can learn all the information and data I need to know from the Internet, but what I really need to succeed in this industry is to get the “gut feel” that the experts have. If you provide me access to those wise “grey beards” and teach them how to mentor me, I’ll stick around. And, I need feedback, feedback and more feedback.
  • Significance – Giving back is critical. What we do – formally and informally – must make a difference in the world. We also need to be environmentally conscious.
  • Responsibility – I want to learn and develop and grow. I want to be challenged. Give me a full in tray! My biggest fear in life is being bored.

Its not about putting hammocks in every office, and begging lazy young people to come to work every second Tuesday, if they feel like it. This is a misperception. This young generation will work hard – really hard… in order to achieve their goals. The key is to align your company’s goals with theirs. You are looking for superior, consistent performance. They are looking for a place that will challenge them, and allow them to express their creativity and individuality. This is the new contract, as each gives a bit of what the other wants in order to get what they’re looking for. Companies that are prepared to think about ways to attract and retain and energise talent will be rewarded with a team that creates and sustains a competitive advantage!
by Dr Graeme Codrington
Expert on Talent and the Future of Work, TomorrowToday
graeme@tomorrowtoday.uk.com

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