Beefing up flexwork for younger generations

‘Their world has never been broken up into eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours of play’

Beefing up flexwork for younger generations
Millennial and gen-Z employees expect flexible work environments to be available. Credit: By Sata Production (Shutterstock)

In an era of low unemployment rates, flexible work arrangements are the way of the future for companies seeking to attract and retain millennial and generation Z workers, according to Laura Hambley, organizational psychologist and president of Work EvOHlution in Calgary.

Distributed work is on the rise across Canada, and the success of such programming is largely contingent on leadership and team capabilities, she said at a recent SCNetwork event in Toronto.

“The world is moving in this direction,” said Hambley. “Some of us will adapt easily to working remotely or no longer having a dedicated office. Some of us will love the idea of working from home; others will struggle. So, it’s really important to have those conversations and not assume one size fits all.”

The vast majority of global organizations offer some form of distributed work — be that remote work or virtual teams, she said.

“Oftentimes, it just happens organically,” said Hambley. “When we had our big flood in Calgary a few years back, it forced a lot of organizations to work in a flexible way, work from home. And once they did, they said, ‘Hey, we actually like this.’”

Soaring real-estate costs, long commutes and the war for talent are fuelling the rise in flexwork, as are geographically dispersed teams, improved technology and the pursuit to reduce environmental footprints, she said.

The rise in flexwork is also a result of repeated demands from young workers, said Giselle Kovary, president of n-gen People Performance in Toronto, who also spoke at the event.

Millennial and gen-Z employees expect flexible work environments to be available. Millennials will even take on two part-time jobs or sacrifice salary for greater flexibility, she said.

“It’s an expectation employees have that ‘I come in and that’s what you give me from Day 1,’” said Kovary. “Trust is automatically bestowed… It’s not necessarily earned.”

“This is a generation whose coming of age was at a time when there was a huge focus on self-esteem,” she said, noting that has translated into an expectation of open dialogue and transparency at work.

For millennials, flexible work opportunities are a no-brainer, she said.

“Their world has never been broken up into eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours of play,” said Kovary.

“They’ve never known that world.”

Appeasing young workers

Millennials (ages 24 to 38) and gen-Z workers (age 23 and under) have very different goals when it comes to their careers, according to Kovary.

Millennials want to find work experiences that hold meaning and co-workers that serve as a second family, while gen-Z employees are more concerned about creativity and engagement, she said.

The arrival of gen Z to the workplace also brings with it a spike in employee loyalty similar to generations that have come before, said Kovary.

“Traditional values are coming back,” she said. “This generation is going to expect employers to be able to really commit to them in a more substantive way, and they’re going to commit back.”

“They’re really tapping into the work ethic of the baby boomer, the independence of their gen-X parents, and the innovation and creativity of the millennial cohort… They’re bringing a realism to the workplace.”

It is important to note that not all millennials and gen-Z workers think alike, and employees may view perks differently — especially when it comes to generational differences, said Kovary.

For instance, when it comes to flexwork, senior workers may believe millennials are wasting time at home by surfing the internet or playing with their cat, she said.

Misunderstandings about work style can often lead to assumptions about work ethic, said Kovary.

“We have that default to the negative… It goes to that notion: ‘Well, they’re not working hard’ or ‘How come younger people put their earbuds in? And they’re always on their phones, and they must be looking at their YouTube.’”

But YouTube is the new training ground, she said.

“People can go to YouTube to learn. They can go there to be educated... to create content.”

Building trust

Often, managers’ trust is more fragile when colleagues are working from a distance, said Hambley.

“‘How can I manage someone that I can’t see?’ My answer to that is how do you know someone is working when you can see them? Are you looking over their shoulder? No. You’re emailing them from down the hall. It makes no sense.”

Nevertheless, change will need to happen quickly if leaders want to stay on top of the next large cohort of workers. Managers will have to adjust their style to an individual employee’s generational mindset, said Kovary.

“These different mindsets can potentially impact the way in which we engage with each other and co-operate.”

Flexwork forces leaders to be more intentional with their direct reports, said Hambley.

Lazy leadership such as “My door’s always open, come and see me” needs to be replaced by proactive check-ins, she said.

“It’s easier when you’re co-located to lead on the fly and let things happen naturally. When you’re at a distance, you have to be much more intentional,” said Hambley.

Determining the extent of distributed work that fits for each new hire is a start.

Other leadership skills include bolstering team unity, fostering relationships and effective meeting management, she said.

“Ineffective meetings are one of the biggest time-wasters in corporations today,” said Hambley, noting it can be even more difficult for employees to maintain focus in virtual or telephone meetings.

Even a decision such as requiring video capability for meetings or gathering a team to kick off projects can help retain the human element in virtual teams, she said.

Introducing new team members with a video or photo can also help in terms of team cohesiveness, said Hambley.

“It builds trust and you can start to get to know the people, and some fun facts about their life outside of work, because we lose that human element and it becomes all about work.”

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