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Collaborating with the New Generation Workforce


I had a troubling thought. If I can no longer be considered part of the new generation, am I now the old generation? Generation X used to sound so modern, but we’re no longer the cool kids. After all, I’m driving a Prius and doing fourth-grade homework with my kid after dinner instead of chasing Skrillex. Now we have the Millennials who, according to Wikipedia, are Gen Y. (But, really, what generation wants to be saddled with a name based on the one that came before it?)

We recently invited a small group of MBA students from University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business to meet some of our customers for a panel on what companies can expect from the new generation entering the workforce.

They provided first-hand perspective about what it’s like to be new on the block and work with, well, er, an older generation. Compared to our learned comfort with technology, theirs is nearly ingrained based on its presence in their lives since childhood. This difference comes through in their expectations, habits, and predictions for the wonderful world of technology in front of us.

Think Technology First
Not surprisingly, the “we’ve always done it this way” mantra doesn’t resonate with Millennials. When problem solving, they tend to look at technology solutions before hard data. They also look to adapt existing applications and processes in new ways or for new purposes – which often generates resistance from the established guard. But there’s logic – why reinvent the wheel? Or keep using a square one?

They want to work where they want, but consider themselves very loyal and work outside “normal” hours. This tends to blend aspects their work and personal lives, for which they expect flexibility as reciprocation.

A common gripe was the overwhelming numbers of applications and processes in existing organizations. So many that it’s hard for new employees – no matter the generation — to know which to use and how to actually get things done. And there’s typically little training, but an expectation that people figure it out as they go.

Apps that “Do It Right”
It’s logical to want to find the apps that “do it right, do it well, and are easy to use,” as panelist Ka J Ho put it. But alas, companies have stacks of legacy tools that don’t adapt well to current workflows. “Because companies roll out applications individually and in different groups, they all speak different languages,” said Valerie Stempler.

Panelist Jayson Gasper had good advice: “It speaks to putting thought into why the tools are being developed before they’re created rather trying to keep updating something or adapting something… It’s focusing not only what should it do, but what shouldn’t it do. You need to make decisions based on the workforce.” Training always falls to the bottom of the priority pile, which calls for even more attention in developing tools that are intuitive and easy to use from the start.

Cube vs. Coffeehouse
Given the choice of an assigned workspace or the flexibility to work anywhere and use a hoteling space when in the office, the panel was mixed, but all agreed that in-person interaction is important to working relationships. In particular, Valerie pointed out the importance of workplace culture: “Take advantage of all the opportunities you have to integrate into the culture.”

Interestingly, Cisco’s own collaboration IT team had a group of interns over the summer. Within a day of arriving, they’d removed all of the internal walls in the cube space so they could see each other and work together more like at Starbucks.

The Social Enterprise
What do they think about social tools in context of the enterprise? Once again, it’s all about doing it for the right reasons. In particular, our panelists consider blogs from senior executives helpful in learning about company priorities and connecting management with employees.

They stress that it’s important to identify a specific purpose when implementing enterprise social tools. They’re looking for integrated ways to find and share information, express themselves, and collaborate. Creating that social experience is the way to go if it’s really focused on work. “You need to establish from the start that you want these tools to make the company better. The messaging from the top down needs to reinforce that it’s a priority,” suggested Valerie.

Will E-mail Survive?
They’re not ready to count out e-mail, but suggest adjustments in its use. For communications to a large group, they feel a community post is probably better, while 1:1 messages are best handled via e-mail. Before sending a message, they consider “do I need to copy all these people or would it be better posted in a community?”

Ka J considers e-mail more formal: “E-mail is the official communication, instant messaging is how I’m negotiating and navigating the communication piece.”

BYOD or Give Me a D?
The new-gen crew definitely wants the ability to work on mobile devices, but wasn’t particular about who purchased the device. Of the four students, three wanted a single device with both work and personal content, while the fourth wanted separate devices so he could keep his lives separate. (I’m thinking he has a healthy concept of that whole work-life balance thing.)

But the mobility conversation was less about devices and more about being able to access applications and information, such as instant messaging that follows them from desktop to mobile or the ability to access the same document on multiple devices. So, not only should the apps work, but the devices should have access to the same content. (Cloud, anyone?)

When asked to predict the future, Jayson had an insightful response: “How do you take all these technologies and just combine them? The firms that do well will be the ones that work on it now. If you have BYOD, how do you monitor usage, see people working, understand how employees use the technology? How do you develop insight? How do you incent them to work productively?”

One Word
We closed by asking each student to sum up in one word what employers and managers need to do to make their companies attractive to them and their peers.






Good advice no matter the generation. Heck, good advice no matter the person – whether at work or at home.

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