Building Your 21st Century Workplace


I have written before about the need to understand the millennial generation (the largest work group today), and making our organizations “millennial friendly” as we compete for the best and brightest talent from this generation.   The reasons should be fairly obvious – There are 80 million millennials and only 76 million boomers in the US today (and I assume the statistics must be comparable in most countries that experienced a post World War II “baby boom.”)  About half of the millennials are already in the workforce, and millions more are arriving each year.  (see The Millennials Speak-Up, The Millennials are Coming and What Workers Want in 2012).

Whether we are ready or not, Gen Y is here and are a force we should be paying attention to.

I know of some very successful companies who have established policies that run strongly in the face of what the research says are the expressed preferences of this important new worker group.   What’s on the list of items you might want to reconsider?

  • Dress codes that many young people find irrelevant and needlessly restrictive
  • Work hours and rules that are inflexible (not allowing for remote workers and forcing people to an arbitrary time schedule)
  • Restricted access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter (while at work)
  • Non-compatible technology (not smart-phone friendly)

. . . to mention a few.

The more your organization aligns with “boomer” era values and practices, the more unattractive you will appear to a growing number of candidates.   Sure, the economy is weak now, but as it strengthens over time and you are seeking new hires again – you may leave yourself at a distinct disadvantage.

We have talked enough (I think) about some of the more obvious dos and don’ts in my preceding posts.   So what do you do with your new employees once they are on board?   What are the emerging new realities of the 21st century workplace?

Here are my thoughts on 5 New Rules of the Workplace.  The list, came from a blog by Dan Schwabel, but the explanations are mine – perhaps from a decidedly Boomer perspective.

  1. Everyone should be a free agent.   We all have unique talents that can be applied to a wide variety of problems across the enterprise.   The historical notion based on silos we arbitrarily create and the way we assign costs to different budgets makes less sense.   From a millennial perspective, they want to learn, and grow professionally as well as personally.  If organizational boundaries get in the way, this is a problem.  We must stress to our managers that they cannot be unduly territorial or protective, but looking out instead for the best way to understand what their employees seek, and find the opportunities that make the most sense.   Millennials will deliver great effort when they feel appreciated and cultivated. It is in the best interests of the enterprise to release their talents.
  2. You’re only as good as your last project.   Not many of us appreciate the possibility that we have to keep proving ourselves.   But it is important to create an understanding that YOU will be evaluated (and your value to the organization is) based on how well you face the FUTURE challenges (not the ones already passed).   The world is a changing place and every employee is responsible to adapt to it by learning new skills, technologies and behaviors along the way.   Those who adapt and grow SHOULD be the ones we reward, appreciate and give new opportunities.  If your business is expanding overseas, you’ll need to learn Chinese or Spanish, etc.  If technology changes, stay current! Better still, read and educate yourself enough so that you might actually stay out in front of it.   Learn to draw satisfaction by successfully facing and surmounting new and unexpected challenges.
  3. Work is not confined to 9 to 5. Technology has made the traditional 9-to-5 model obsolete — for all workers, of all generations. (Unless you are marooned on a desert island), no one is ever out of touch or off the clock.   When workers go home, they’re still working because who they are personally and professionally have become one and the same.   For employees, we need to consider be conscious about how we balance our personal and work selves. WE need to manage this, not our boss.   For employers we need to be cognizant of both the benefits and drawbacks of round-the clock connectivity.   Bosses need to be hyper-respectful of their workers and conscious of not taking advantage of them.   This is a main reason why flexible work hours and work venues make so much sense for working millennials. Most of us don’t mind answering an email or taking a call at home, so long as when we need some extra time off to take our kid to the doctor, we have the flexibility to do so.  It all balances out.
  4. Make change or be affected by it.  When I talk with senior executives, a common theme I hear is “I wish my people would take more initiative.  I feel like I have to drive everything.”  Oddly, when you speak to middle managers or lower level employees IN THE SAME COMPANY, they often say they feel unable to take initiative for any number of reasons that seem rational to them.   How can this dichotomy exist?     The less innovation that comes from below forces the execs to drive more from the top, which makes lower employees feel they are not involved or in control of their destinies.  It is a sort of vicious circle.   We need to spend less time listing the reasons why not and more time figuring out how to.   So be willing to take the initiative.  If your boss is threatened by it, or doesn’t appreciate it — you have a bigger problem to solve (finding a boss who is excited about your ability to think and innovate – – see item #5 below).
  5. You are accountable for your own career.  This goes along with item number 2 above.  No matter what assistance your HR department offers with career planning. Shame on you if you do not take responsibility for your own career trajectory!   Start by figuring out what your professional and life goals are.  Think through which aspects relate to your work and start planning.   You can ask your boss to help you get the kind of assignments you feel will stretch you.   You can network with others, looking for areas where you might want to work next.   You can do your own skills gap analysis and take steps to get that degree, training or certification that addresses the holes.  You can ask for a transfer, and you can start a job search outside your current employer.   I have known some people in the auto industry who spent their entire career at one company.  Now at age 50, they are in dead-end jobs with no transferable skills.

Google is one interesting company that has created a formal system to permit pretty amazing agility.   They allow all employees to, at their own discretion, work on any project or activity they feel would benefit the company.  For some they will spend their 20 percent of their time working on a project with another departmental team (if it interests them).  This places a premium on internal networking, communicating your own skill sets to friends and colleagues, and in thinking about what you might be doing above-and-beyond your day job that can enrich both yourself and your organization.

Other Resources

Millennials vs. Baby Boomers: Who Would You Rather Hire?, by Dan Schwabel, from TIME Magazine

The Beginning of the End of the 9-to-5 Workday?, by Dan Schwabel, from TIME Magazine

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2 Comments

Filed under Leading, Personal Leadership

2 responses to “Building Your 21st Century Workplace

  1. Harry BIssell

    The attitudes expressed in “Other Resources” (Millenials vs. Baby Boomers: Who would you rather hire?) seems to be the best job security for Boomers. It begs one to ask the question “why do you think they call it WORK ?” The 76% of Millenials who think the “boss could learn something from them” should consider that few bosses got to their positions by being clueless…

    • Certainly the perspective you raise is valid, and surely shared by many boomers. I don’t think the millennials I speak with mainly think their bosses are clueless, but that millennials have insights and a perspective that may be different and worth listening to.

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