How do bosses solve a problem like Generation Y?

Well, first of all, it would be helpful to realise that Generation Y is not a problem! These are your most technologically switched-on and savvy employees, tripping over themselves with genuinely bright ideas on how the digital revolution can be harnessed to improve a company’s morale, profile, products and/or services.

But Generation Y does need to be carefully managed, so that all those talents and skills I have mentioned can be kept within your stable, rather than fleeing towards your rivals. Near the end of last year, a survey by recruiter Robert Half found that almost 40% of Gen-Y workers in Singapore would quit their current positions straight away if they were denied a pay rise. That statistic, which could be readily applied to other territories, should give employers everywhere pause for thought.

Could you afford to lose such a large contingent of your workforce overnight – especially one that is largely self-taught in crucial matters of hardware, software and social media? With an innovative, open-minded approach, managers can provide more reasons for Generation-Y staff to stick around than simply the level of pay they’re receiving.

Time to get tuned in to the Generation Y psyche…

Who is this ‘Generation Y’ lot anyway?
A quick breakdown: the workforce currently comprises three, distinct age groups:

i) Baby Boomers (born between the mid-40s and mid-60s), whose careers were steeped in command-and-control management styles and high levels of company loyalty, and are now either retired, semi-retired or nearing the end of their working lives;
ii) Generation X (born between the mid-60s and early 80s), who have experienced more collaborative – yet still hierarchical – forms of leadership and, while broadly loyal, have changed jobs more often, and
iii) Generation Y (born between the early 80s and mid-90s), who are far more likely to be loyal to themselves, rather than a company.

What really sets Generation Y apart from its predecessors is that it has grown up with the internet as a fact of life, rather than seeing it emerge. As a result, it has developed a keen awareness of the teeming business opportunities that may call for its natural, digital flair. But Gen-Y members’ constant online activity has spawned two factors that employers should watch out for: i) an ability to network at the drop of a hat, and find out about job openings very rapidly through social media, and ii) a short attention span, with impacts not only on how many web pages staffers consume on the way in to work – but how often they are likely to rethink their commitment to their present roles.

Another crucial, non-digital factor to bear in mind is that the ‘Age of Deference’ – which the Boomers actually chipped away at in their heyday, with such weapons as Flower Power and early TV satire – is waaaay back in the rear-view mirror for Generation Y. I’m talking long gone. That’s not to say that Gen-Yers are, by definition, rude. But it does mean that you can’t automatically count on them to put you on a pedestal, just because you’re wearing a badge that says “I am a manager”.

As our blog section has already pointed out this month, employers need to exercise copious common sense to retain staff even at the best of times. But the Gen-Y challenge clearly requires a more tailored approach. Here are some tips for ensuring that your younger staffers’ outlook isn’t Generation Y-bother, but Generation Y-not:

1. Maintain a culture of transparency
Gen-Y workers are big on transportable skills, particularly in areas such as coding and digital design, and are much more likely than either Boomers or Gen-Xers to have a ‘gamified’ approach to their work tasks, treating them as an outgrowth of their immersion in the web and videogames. As such, they’re more likely to use their networks of like-minded friends to help them solve technical challenges – so it’s quite common for Gen-Y workers in different companies to instant-message or email each other about those sorts of hurdles during office hours. This means that other companies could easily find out about the talents and abilities of your Gen-Y staff through osmosis. So you need to instate a climate of honesty in which Gen-Y workers can be open about their networks, and you are able to assess those networks for competitive conflicts of interest, the threat of poaching and related data-protection issues. It is also important to ensure that any, proprietary software your organisation is developing is not being freely traded as though it were open-source material.

As our next point explains, though, that need for transparency cuts both ways…

2. Give as much feedback as humanly possible
Generation Y is the demographic that has grown up with Facebook likes and comments, responses to Instagram pics and countless retweets as part of its everyday vocabulary. This is the interactive generation – one that thrives on a constant buzz of acknowledgement and recognition. Added to that, Gen-Yers’ natural scepticism of authority figures means that it’s important to constantly let them know where they stand, and justify key decisions. Some critics of Gen-Yers (usually the very type of senior figures that the generation has issues with!) have accused them of harbouring an unrealistic, “all-must-have-prizes” mentality, but it’s really information about performance, pay and position that they’re after.

Naturally, this calls for a complete rethink of the whole appraisals process. A quick scan of the corporate landscape should tell you that the pace of business is accelerating all the time, and world events have immediate impacts upon how companies carry out their work. With that in mind, it’s clear that the traditional business schedule based around key, annual calendar dates is, itself, out of date. Junk that once-a-year appraisals regime and ring in a far more regular system of one-to-one meetings structured around very clear KPIs and deliverables. That will be the most effective way to encourage and monitor progress.

3. Encourage flexible working
The typical Gen-Y worker doesn’t want to be chained to the same desk, incurring the same travel and lunch expenses, day after day. But there’s a lot more to this issue than brass in the pocket. Thanks to the remote-working capabilities opened up by smartphones, laptops and tablets, firms can readily extend or shorten working days to fit around people’s lives without diminishing output, harnessing wins for wellbeing and productivity alike. Many organisations now practise hot-desking, where employees don’t have set work stations and must therefore work in much more collaborative ways with their colleagues, wherever in the office they are required – boosting agility and innovative behaviour.

Moreover, online videoconferencing facilities such as WebEx and GoToMeeting are changing the dynamic of how companies interact with staff and clients. Just check out this article about MGM Resorts holding a ‘virtual careers fair’ to fill 700 upcoming summer jobs. None of the interviews will be carried out face to face. On the client side, many firms are now finding that they have more videoconferences with their business associates than in-person meetings. Given the potential for digitally skilled, younger staff to contribute so much to this new way of working, it is clear that organisations must direct resources towards training that will help Gen-Y employees to present themselves effectively.

4. Expect ruthless efficiency, not ‘above and beyond’
When I went to a client’s office recently for a late-ish meeting, sometime around 6:00pm, I noticed that there was just a handful of people still at their desks. The finish time was 5:30, and my client explained that most of the staff left either at that time, or shortly after. This was a surprise for me, because at one of my previous workplaces, we never left at 5:30! It was de rigueur for employees to work well past the close of play as a demonstration of commitment. But that has a considerable downside: instead of focusing on completing their tasks within contracted hours, employees tend to think that they always have two or three more at the end of each day when they can make up time… but that leads to a pattern of work spilling over into the evening, or even the start of the following day. In other words, valuable efficiency is lost – and working hours should be about quality, not quantity.

Generation Y is not the group that will be found amid a pool of lamplight past 9pm in an otherwise deserted office, burning the midnight oil. They are juggling lots of different commitments, to friendships and other extra-curricular activities, and are sure to be out the door at 5:30. But while this may sound like a group that can’t be counted on to dig in when the going gets tough, Gen Y’s intuitive knack with digital tools means that it is more likely to be hardwired with smarter-working methods and innate time-management skills. Whatever evidence of ‘above and beyond’ commitment may be lost on the back end of the day is more than made up for by steep efficiency gains on the front end.

5. Demonstrate high levels of global cultural awareness
While Gen-Yers are generally sceptical of authority, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily cynical – in fact, at heart, they are really a group of hopeful idealists, who are highly conscious of their personal and environmental impacts. With that in mind, it’s important for leaders to be able to show where their organisations fit into the broader scheme of things, in terms of ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Do your suppliers of materials and resources comply with key sustainability standards? Are you alert to the employee-focused elements of CSR – maintaining strong development programmes, forging links to staff-nominated charities and encouraging new ideas through a process of non-punitive trial and error? If you’re not doing any of those things, then some Gen-Y staffers will almost certainly call you out on it. Others will simply up sticks. (Find out more about employee-focused CSR in this previous Inemmo blog).

The power of Y
The most talented Gen-Yers are independent, entrepreneurial thinkers with the potential to surpass previous generations in terms of their innovation, performance and productivity. With the right management and guidance, that wealth of talent and energy could be applied to the achievement of your most critical business goals – and could therefore be the key to your organisation gaining and maintaining a competitive edge.

Learn about the workplace areas where Inemmo can help every generation