Did you know that (depending which survey you read) between 25 and 54 per cent of the US companies block social networking sites such as Facebook at work. Eight per cent also fire employees for posting criticism of the company outside of work. That is one way to handle such problems, but in fact that is both wasting talent and squandering an important opportunity. The cause is misunderstanding that different generations work differently.
Companies are right to have concerns about how employees use work time and about activities that affect their brand. However, most of the time, the employee’s intention is not destructive – if it is, then there certainly is a need to act. But in the typical case the issue is not a breakdown in trust, poor work attitude or even inefficiency, but just different perceptions and habits. Young, highly social employees need to be thought of and treated differently. There’s been quite a lot of research on this over the last year or two, particularly comparing “baby boomers” (now aged in their 40s to 60s) and generation Y, aka “millennials” or the “net generation”. A company with a good mix of ages can gain from the strengths of both generations – but only with knowledge and careful management. Here are the key findings of the research:
What makes the generations different
- Generation Y like to share personal information and thoughts on social networking sites and make little distinction between company and personal stuff. Baby boomers are more cautious.
- Generation Y often judge people’s abilities by their technical competence. For baby boomers, technical competence is more of an add-on.
- Baby boomers tend to perceive knowledge as a useful card to hold onto until needed – a private source of power. Millennials gain kudos by sharing it.
- For baby boomers, who had been brought up with a linear, teacher fronted learning style, knowledge is assessed by coherence and depth. Generation Y prefer to learn by selecting from a mass of information, and judged it more by relevance than coherence.
- Generation Y’ers are attracted to jobs by how interesting they are. Can they be creative, use their own technology, express themselves? Job-hopping is seen as normal. Baby boomers, on the other hand, are more likely to look at the overall employment package, and pay more attention to the promotion ladder.
- Generation Y are particularly intolerant of being told “This is the way we do it. We’ve always done it this way” and like to experiment: new is good. For baby boomers, experimentation is what you do when the normal methods have been tried and found wanting.
Now a certain amount of this is simply differences that have characterised the generations for centuries. But there are deeper differences. Millennials have not learned about the world from books, but from the Internet. What they have been learning is changing year by year, requiring a different and more flexible attitude to knowledge.
The main thing is to value the different generations within the company so each learns from each other. How would that work in practice?
- Safety vs. self-expression – employees need an outlet to share experiences and be creative but be aware of consequences for the company of careless online behaviour (they of course also need to understand and adhere to well deisgned policies).
- Internet time is not downtime – many creative and younger employees use all kinds of resources for information. Imposing rigid rules about how to use the Internet at work will feel too restrictive and insulting, will stifle creativity and create resentment. If an employee wants to do a good job, they need the tools that suit them.
- Balance different knowledge bases – wikis need to work alongside accumulated specialist knowledge in formal documents, and companies should not forget the institutional knowledge that senior employees have – which can be sorely missed when they leave.
- Be transparent – being explicit about differences in work attitudes and openly seeking practices that make good use of all talent will motivate employees and increase their productivity and creativity.