Millenial schmillenial: debunking myths about generational digital working habits

February 20, 2014 by

Synopsis: It turns out that differences in how various age groups want to work are about life cycle, not generational patterns. Building effective digital workplaces and flexible working programmes requires a focus on your specific users and their needs.

Kids these days

Baby-boomers. Generation X. Gen Y AKA ” The Millennials”. Marketing people are suckers for trite encapsulated stereotypes wrapped up in a demographic cohort.

Older generations like to do two things about younger generations. One is to tut, and say: “They’ve got it easy”, the other is to worry incessantly about their future. Generation Y or the “Millennials” are constantly lauded as the digitally native generation who never knew a world of boring Sunday afternoons, or vinyl records. They were born sometime between the early 1980s and a few years after the millennium, with the equivalent of a digital silver spoon in their mouths.

Why the worry? Well, bless their cotton socks, the poor lambs are entering the workforce and large organizations are worried the new hires either won’t fit in (because they would rather lose a limb than answer a telephone) or, with their high digital expectations, they will arrive and look at the digital tools and services and recoil in horror at being required to use tools steeped in antiquity. Talent will flee. To your competitors, or start-ups, or the circus. Whatever.

Now, I am not a sociologist but both the fretting and the broad-brush stereotyping disconcert me. It is not that I don’t think that our all-consuming digital world isn’t causing social change, but it isn’t necessarily concentrated on the young.

Take this bit of counter-intuitive research. It would appear that the technology-obsessed Gen Y actually do like being in the office and working together in person with their colleagues. And what they really want is access to their managers and experienced mentors in their teams. Well, pull me up a chair.

The problem’s in the thirty-somethings

Digital work habits for different generationsThe answer is, of course, that society is a dynamic system. In southern England, and many other places around the world where there is a dominant business centre such as London, you grow up somewhere suburban or bucolic, go to university and then throw yourself at a career in the big city.

In the big city there is a chance to work for illustrious and well-paying companies, as well as culture, partying and a wide choice of friends and coworkers for coupling with. The big city is exciting. As you drift into your thirties, though, priorities change. The result of the coupling is likely to be children and the big city is less enticing, as well as too expensive to settle down in for anyone but the tiny minority.

The thirty-something parents begin to choose suburbs, dormitory towns and country retreats based on the ease of the commute. The commute is expensive and time-consuming. These days it is likely that both parents work. Flexible working seems to look very attractive, and thanks to digital workplace technology is readily available.

So we have a technological driver that is leveraging social change. But it ain’t in Gen Y! Generation X is the one that wants to be working from home, but we know that despite their fondness for gadgets, new hires are actually pretty conservative. They would like a nice office, with everyone there and beers on a Friday, thankyouverymuch. Besides, working from home would mean the shared house with a mountain of washing up, or back at mum and dad’s. The office is paradise by comparison.

Stereotypes, there must be more to life

I’ve spun you another generational cohort story. It might be true, it might not be. It is a hypothesis worthy of investigation. If I were in HR in a large organization I would certainly investigate how to ensure that knowledge gets passed generationally, probably by making mentoring a more formal requirement in more senior roles throughout the organization. It would be a factor to examine as part of a flexible working programme. But at the moment, on this page, it is just punditry.

That sort of social system might not be happening at your organization. There might be a hundred other factors. All of these things are narratives – and stories always sounds good, otherwise they wouldn’t be stories, they’d be inconclusive data.

There are dozens of other “stories” out there. These stories aren’t shortcuts to understanding user behaviour — they are more likely to be snakes than ladders.

If I told you that for a particular intranet application 75% of users were female between the ages of 21 and 35  who were interested in fashion, what would you do? Make the application colourful? What if they were male and interested in cars and sci-fi? Make it look like Star Trek TNG? This information is pretty useless to you as a design input to create an efficient interface that assists in task completion and adoption. Nothing beats good.

Observe, design and test

So, digital workplace manager, what’s the alternative to all this snake-oil? The twin salvations of user research and user testing. You’ve got to know what your users need. They won’t be able to tell you directly. Can you imagine running a focus group and asking people what they wanted from a digital workplace? They wouldn’t know. If you asked them something more specific such as “What are your motivations for working from home, and what are your frustrations with it?” you might learn something useful. Observing users, looking at metrics, card sorting etc. are all good. Once you have an idea of your users, you can create personas. Sure they are stereotypes, but they are specific to your organization and will help you to sense-check design decisions.

Then you design something you think will help.

But the ultimate test of success or failure is testing with users. Can they use it? Do they use it? If they can’t or don’t what changes can you make to solve problems you have witnessed?

Your job is to make something useful, and the best way of doing this is to look for yourself, make your own mind up and then test. Punditry is not reality and just because it’s a nice story, doesn’t mean it’s true.

Categorised in: Digital workplace, Strategy & governance

Chris Tubb

Consultant and Benchmark Lead

Chris Tubb is an independent digital workplace and intranet consultant with a long-standing relationship with DWG. Working on the management of intranets for over 20 years in IT and Internal Communications teams, Chris was responsible for Intranet Strategy and Architecture at France Telecom/Orange, until becoming a consultant in 2010. Since then he has helped dozens of large organizations take the next steps with their employee experiences. Chris focuses on strategy, governance and measurement, and on creating and implementing benchmarking models such as DWG’s Digital Workplace Maturity Benchmark.

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