Generational attitudes to technology and working style: why HR should care

My dad used to get frustrated because I didn’t know what happens inside a car engine – ‘the bits’ as he used to call them - but I could drive a car and knew how to phone the mechanic, so why did I need to know? I’m actually quite technically-minded; I’m the one who fixes things at home. I’m of the generation where we understand ‘the bits’ inside a computer unlike the generation today who, more often than not, don’t really care but arguably use these tools more naturally than my generation.

I’m fascinated by the distinction between millennials and the previous generations. We’ve done tons of research on it. I was also lucky enough to be involved in a senior leadership meeting with a global FMCG organisation in the US a while ago. It was a brilliant event, focused on how the organisation could make sure it was as exciting a place for millennials to work today, as it was in the late eighties and early nineties. For one of the sessions they had invited four millennials from outside the organisation with diverse geographic backgrounds. The interesting thing was that as I listened to their perspectives about what was important to them, I could visualise myself as one of them, saying exactly the same words back in 1989 when I first started working:

  • Reward is actually really important.  
  • I need to see how I can develop and grow. 
  • I want opportunities to travel the globe. 
  • I want to be mentored by the best. 

To me, the crux of the difference between these generations isn’t a result of changes to the basic hierarchy of needs that ambitious graduates may have when they enter employment - it’s more a result of context and the increasing pace of innovation. The way they work and use technology is the dramatic difference.

This takes me back to the different attitudes we have to technology and how we work. A distinction I like to draw is the difference between ‘togglists’ vs. ‘compartmentalists’. A millennial toggles between tasks, is quite happy to do a bit of this, a bit of that and a bit of the other; maybe simultaneously, maybe not. But they can (and choose to) flip in and out of things. I, on the other hand, am a compartmentalist. When I go on holiday, I set aside a specific hour in the day to check my emails. Millennials will dip in and out throughout the day while on the beach or anywhere using the same device to interact with their social network as well as do work. To me, this is an invasion of the time I’ve set aside for being on holiday. And that, I think, encapsulates the difference between the generations.

So why should this this matter to HR? One thing, which links in to Marc Hommel’s recent blog post, is if a ‘toggling’ working style is emerging, how can we make this convenient for our workforce? What can we do to help make sure we support the productivity of our millennials if this is their preferred working style? Is it more commonplace for our employees to ‘toggle’ between work-mode and their personal life, and are they using their own devices to enable this? If they are, what measures do we need to take to protect our workforce, from data protection and policy adherence to potentially protecting their wellbeing? And beyond all of that, given that we are all going to work into our twilight years, what are organisations going to do to help people of my generation embrace toggling rather than resent it?

I’d love to hear your views, please do get in touch or leave a comment below.

Jon Andrews | UK Human Resource Consulting Leader
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