Millennials to baby boomers: Building a work culture for everybody

By Thomas Davies, Director, Google for Work

Photo: Brad Romano

Depending on who you’re asking, the word “millennial” indicates many things. On the negative side, it can mean a generation that’s narcissistic, entitled, and obsessed with their smartphones — but on the positive side, it can identify purpose-driven, tolerant, and passionate young people who want to feel good about their jobs and the companies they do business with. No matter which side you come down on, there’s no denying that millennials are making a huge impact on the world around them.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than the tech industry, where more and more established and emerging companies rely heavily on the most plugged-in generation ever. Not only are young tech companies heavy on millennials, they’re also early adopters of new technologies and management theories to accelerate market leadership. The media adds to the buzz, chronicling every workforce mini-trend coming out of high-profile companies.

Technology tends to be a lightning rod for “us vs. them” discussions.

The problem is that the hype is drowning out the reality. For every company that relies on millennials, there are dozens more with employees from all age groups, leaving non-millennials wondering if and how they can contribute.

Technology tends to be a lightning rod for “us vs. them” discussions. When people are afraid of change, they tend to focus on technology — especially the tools that companies believe will help change work culture, such as cloud document creation and internal social networks. But I believe when you turn down the volume on the millennial-hype machine, two things become clear:

  1. If you make every choice about business and productivity tools based on whether millennial employees want them, you’re doing your company a disservice.
  2. The problem is not the technology tools you want to bring to employees — it’s the way you’re talking about them, and the way you want people to adopt them.

Let’s start with the first idea: choosing technology because you think millennial workers want and need it. No argument, millennials are a force to be reckoned with; they’ll make up about half of the workforce by 2030. And they do work differently than employees from other generations. They’ve grown up in a connected world, with mobile devices always within reach, and they’re early adopters of new technology.

Photo: Brad Romano

But what about the rest of the workforce — people (like me) who are older than millennials, and sense the rapid acceleration of change in the workplace? If half of your workforce is made up of millennials, you still need to be concerned about the other half. If you choose a slew of new tools solely because you believe they’ll help millennials thrive, you run the risk of alienating everyone else.

The second problem is focusing too much on technology, and not enough on the people who will use it. If your conversation around technology is along the lines of, “We like these tools and we’re all going to use them, end of story,” then you’re having the wrong conversations.

It’s not about the software. It’s about what it can do to make employees’ jobs productive and drive business growth. When you frame the conversations as, “We’ve got a new way to help you save time and work together better,” that’s a message that resonates with employees of every generation.

Focus conversations away from gee-whiz technology and toward outcomes.

To avoid creating a schism between eager early adopters and somewhat skeptical older workers, lay the groundwork. Focus conversations away from gee-whiz technology and toward outcomes. What are your goals: faster turnarounds on projects, reduced costs, a more mobile workforce?

And request feedback about the culture change you’re asking employees to embrace. Answer the “why” questions, which — surprise — will also come from millennials, who want to understand their employer’s big-picture plans.

Give employees choices. Allow people to use different tools to get to the same goals, since those goals are what you want to achieve rather than blind acceptance of technology. If you’ve carefully prepared employees for these changes, and you’ve chosen the right tools to match business pain points, adoption will come organically.

The pace of change in the workplace is dizzying. Millennials are driving much of this change, and of course, we’ve got Generation Z (those born right around the millennium) right around the corner ready to shake things up even more. However, it doesn’t hurt to put the brakes on the revolution until you know how it will affect your business. With well-paced trust in your employees, and transparency about your technology decisions, you can count on buy-in instead of resistance. Focus on the user, and everything falls into place.