2010 Trends: Generations at Work: Flexibility is Key

For the first time in history, four generations will participate in the workplace at the same time. And although the integration of these generations can happen smoothly, for many companies this poses significant challenges. There is, however, one common denominator between these widely varied groups: they are all looking for flexibility at work.

Due to the recession, many baby boomers have been forced to delay their retirements, albeit temporarily. Baby boomers still want to play an active role, but do so on their own terms, so flexibility is still the key demand. A survey of employees in the G7 countries conducted by the AARP shows that many baby boomers have a new view of retirement that includes continuing to work in some capacity after exiting their primary careers as a result of better health and longer life expectancy. They want to work part time, as coaches and consultants for example, to stay active, connected, and engaged. The social dimensions of work as much as financial considerations motivate them.

The Millenials, people born around the 21st Century, have a more liberal attitude towards the workplace and believe that flexibility is a not a luxury, but a right. They are not concerned with boundaries, having grown up in a digital world that is always connected and where help is just a mouse-click away. They live in large networks, and expect fast and easy access to anyone in the company. In return they show their commitment and engagement by offering opinions and advice to colleagues at all levels. The Millennials have adopted a 2.0 mentality: they perform best when working in teams and within flatter hierarchical structures. They define success not in terms of seniority or title, but in who can supply the right knowledge and what matters to them personally. Millennials will push companies to embrace internal use of Web 2.0 tools such as wikis and social networks, which encourage collaboration, give employees a greater voice and flatten hierarchies.

Companies already are hiring short-term independent contractors and consultants and fewer traditional employees because these forms of labor are cheaper and more flexible. Having multiple generations in the workplace allows companies to create a flexible workforce that is not so interested in moving up, but views the career ladder as a lattice that accommodates their lifestyle. Millenials drive this trend, demanding a better work-life balance, but also young parents with children and baby boomers who look to ease gradually towards retirement. New job profiles must be designed, that allow employees to move laterally into a new role – changes that may come with a pay cut. These jobs focus on results, however that happens best, in a three-day week, at night, from the office or at a local coffee house. Studies show that result-only work environments result in an increase in productivity. Flexibility therefore is a compelling workforce strategy that HR must put into practice, and design tools and strategies to accurately define and measure results.

As an HR professional, you must prepare for this. You will manage a diverse population, ranging from younger workers to older workers and everyone in between, working all over the world. What can be troublesome is the unprecedented differences in everything from work ethic, and communication styles, to behavior and work-life expectations. You need to be pro-active in devising new strategies to accommodate these diversities, like wellness programs, education and ergonomics that allow people to be productive and avoid workplace accidents.

As businesses become more flexible and the economy begins to grow once again, the workplace will change, becoming increasingly decentralized and geographically dispersed. People that work together in teams may seldom if ever interact face to face, as they are scattered all over the globe. The tools that are collectively known as Enterprise 2.0 – blogs, wikis, and social networks, support the more flexible, faster nature of business. They allow for collaboration and social networking and help to capture and preserve knowledge from workers, which is important in a business environment with loose, flexible labor contracts. As the lines between professional and personal communications become increasingly blurred, HR leaders will need to incorporate enterprise social networking into their overall unified communication and collaboration strategy and policies.