Workplace in motion

Millennials are having an impact – is your organization keeping up?
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/15/2015

The workplace is undergoing fundamental shifts — in how we work and where, what employees’ needs are, even what constitutes a “job” — and the pace of change keeps accelerating. 

But with new capabilities and technologies, there are tensions at work, according to Brenda Barker Scott, instructor of organizational development at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. 

“What’s  happening is these new ideals are clashing with the way we’ve always done things,” she said at the recent Queen’s University IRC Workplace in Motion Summit in Toronto. 

Most organizations began in a different time and the cultures, processes and norms were passed down to us, she said. But do workplaces still fit our needs? 

In a sense, it’s a matter of the old world of work versus the new world, said Barker Scott. 

“The old world represents the legacy systems — the way things used to be,” she said. 

“In the past, it’s been very much job-based. We go to school and we develop a disciplinary expertise and we come to work in something called a job with a job description, and it defines what we do. And there’s this assumption that you can actually write down what you do and codify it.”

Employees work with others who are primarily within their disciplinary or functional boundaries, so there are cohesive work units. Tools and technologies are very much geared toward our own work; our relationship with our boss is one primarily of alignment and direction; and we have a yearly performance review, she said. In terms of career, the expectation is we will climb that career ladder.

“The way that we progress is by putting in our time and developing our disciplinary expertise. In terms of our learning, it’s primarily directed towards our disciplinary knowledge, and we think about work and life as two separate things.”

But not anymore. As millennials enter the workforce en masse, they — along with the other overarching trends of globalization, knowledge work and technology — are beginning to totally reshape the workplace. 

Two large PricewaterhouseCoopers studies, called Managing Tomorrow’s People and Millennials at Work, represented more than 8,000 millennials from 75 countries around the world — and revealed how the generation is changing work. 

“Millennials, apparently, think very, very differently and have a very different set of expectations. What’s important to millennials is that they have interesting work and they really want to work for an organization that they’re proud of,” said Barker Scott. “They want a lot of variation, so they want to work on projects that are with people from all over the organization… they’re naturally collaborative.”

They’re digitally driven and fully expect the technology that empowers them at home to also empower them at work. If not, they will simply bring their technology from home to work, she said. 

“In terms of their career, they want a lot of mobility and variation, and they don’t believe that moving should be based on seniority or tenure — it’s about contribution.”

They expect speedy progression and have a strong focus on learning and development, said Barker Scott.

“They place a great emphasis on organizations that not only develop their skills at work but their life skills as a whole person.”

Work and life are blended for them and it’s important they have the flexibility to work when they want, where they want and how they want, she said. 

“We know, of course, that people are individuals, and that there’s lots of variation between the generations. And there’s probably lots of similarities between the generations as well,” said Barker Scott. 

“However, the research does suggest that millennials have different needs, expectations and values than other generations.”

Examples of the ‘new’ workplace

Me to We, Free the Children 
Me to We and Free the Children are examples of workplaces that meld with employee values and needs, according to millennials James Prince and Courtney Jolliffe.

“What makes my job attractive is really… I get to be a part of something that is bigger than myself, I get to travel and continuously work with new people, and I also get to continuously develop my role, so everything is forever changing,” said Jolliffe, who is a resource and logistics co-ordinator of We Day at Free the Children in Toronto. 

The organization focuses not just on one bottom line but a triple bottom line, said Prince, who is manager of We Day retail distribution and sales, consumer engagement for Me to We in Toronto. 

“The triple bottom line (means) when we’re making business decisions, we’re not just focusing on how many dollars we’re making, we’re also focusing on the lives that we’re changing, as well as the social and environmental impacts that we’re making,” he said. 

Mobility is another factor both Prince and Jolliffe find important. 

“This is mobility not just in my personal life — I used to live in Kenya so I love to move around the globe, I’ve been to many different countries — but I love the idea of that career lattice… this is actually my fourth role with the organization in only three years,” said Prince.

There is also a great deal of trust and autonomy for employees, as well as collaboration. 

“Our philosophy and how we live is that we know that if we can take the best part of everyone’s brains, we’re going to come up with the best possible product — and so we don’t want to do anything alone. Teamwork and collaboration are very important to us,” said Jolliffe. 

There is also no real work-life division, said Prince. 

“What we look for in our organization and the places that we’re working is an alignment between the values that I have at home and the values that I have at work. And it’s that value alignment that allows me to be the same person everywhere.”

At Shopify, innovation is a key value.

“How do you innovate? Well, it’s by consuming all the information that you can about a certain subject. And so what does that mean? It means doing all the research that you can, understanding all the different perspectives around the issue at hand,” said Brittany Forsyth, vice-president of human resources for Shopify in Ottawa. 

“At Shopify, we do that in many ways. We do that by having a very open culture, where we encourage people to challenge each other all the time and ask questions and collaborate.” 

And at the 500-employee Shopify, innovation and learning are never finite — constant learning, development and pushing boundaries are critical, said Forsyth. 

“If you’re not innovating, you’re stalling, and you’re not going to (improve).”

Continuous investment in training and development is important, but so is giving employees autonomy over their own careers, said Forsyth. 

“We do a lot of budgets that encourage people to be the owner of their own career, but decide how they’re going to learn.”
So how did the organization build a culture to support this?

“When we interview people, we always interview first and foremost for potential. And when I say potential, it’s not just new grads coming in that we’re saying, ‘Are they going to be able to do this job?’... We also look at it when we have a very seasoned, experienced manager coming in, we say, ‘Do they still have the potential to learn more? Are they going to push their boundaries?
Are they going to experiment and challenge other people? And are they going to be OK with being challenged?’”

The organization has a head office with a mixture of quiet or private space and a great deal of collaborative spaces, she said. 

“We have about 84 per cent introverted (employees)… so a lot of people would think ‘You need to build an environment that allows them to go out on their own and think by themselves.’ That is important but it’s even more important to force the collaboration, the conversations. So we have a lot of coffee shops, meeting rooms, big open spaces that encourage that.”

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