How to Navigate the Generational Shift in the Corporate Landscape

It’s easy to forget that the Computer Era began not with Gen X and Y but with baby boomers. It was the generation born right after World War II and into the 1950s that created the PC and the Mac, desktop publishing and the World Wide Web. Now the boomer generation is retiring en masse, passing this infrastructure, and the jobs that go with it, along to children and grandchildren who continue to build on the digital world’s technology base.

The transition is not easy. Many a 25-year-old company is operated by boomers schooled in a scheduled world; working in the office from 9 to 5, news at 6 and 11, hourly rates and sign-up times for conference rooms. Now these managers are finding they must work with an influx of millennial employees who don’t even wear a wristwatch. Corporate cultures are being reconfigured like the landscape of a tremor-ridden island.

For millennials, the clock is a decoration. They consistently use the same digital tools all day long and prefer to work whenever they are most productive. They bring their own devices to work and use them there and at home, rather than switching to the company’s technology during the day. That is creating a security headache for many IT departments.

Millennials meet via text, instant messaging or Skype. Social networks have furnished an outlet for a generation that disregards privacy and is eager to share everything from their dinner to the winning proposal they have presented to a new client. Communication never stops for millennials — it’s like air, always there, always on, always essential.

All of these traits, it turns out, are essential for businesses that operate on a global scale, which affects all generations. Gen Y employees are comfortable working with colleagues in different geographies and thrive on instantaneous communication. In the end, businesses are confronted with two crucial questions: How can we attract this new generation of technology-driven workers to our company? And how can we adapt our culture to retain them?

First, businesses will need to focus more time and energy on measuring the degree to which employees are engaged in the company, its offerings and values. Engaged employees translate to better customer service, product innovation and productivity. By measuring engagement — and determining how the organization can improve upon engagement — managers can ensure that each employee understands his or her value to the broad goals of the company and drive them toward those goals as a technological and cultural challenge.

Second, managers must understand that Gen Y workers are motivated differently from generations of the past. For hiring and retention, it’s important to advance the corporate culture in a way that allows for effective communication and new types of motivations. Employees might be encouraged to bring their own devices to work. They might be given free rein to post to Facebook and Twitter and use those networks for global collaboration. The company might reward risk-taking rather than safety. It might treat its office as a gathering place, rather than only a workplace, to enable employees to work wherever they want and view the office in the casually collaborative way they view a coffeehouse or college union.

That’s not to say that accountability must be discarded, but the way accountability is measured may need to change, a third consideration. Perfect attendance may need to be valued less than perfect projects. Revenue generation may need to be measured by the dollars generated from digital prowess rather than hours filled on a timesheet.

Most important is the necessity to realize that the world has changed. Millennials are more likely to watch a video demo on their smartphone than a television program on a monitor, more inclined to wear ear buds than lapel pins, and more likely to change the way an organization does business than managers currently realize.

John Tobin is national general manager for Slalom Consulting. He can be reached at