AdWeek Panel: Meet Your Future Boss

Last week I was really chuffed to be asked to chair a panel on millennials in the workplace on behalf of Bauer at Ad Week Europe.  It’s a subject close to be heart, probably in part because in my heart of hearts I still aspire to be a millennial, but our whole business at Box is focussed on the demographic and so most of my waking life is spent thinking about how we can engage and entertain them.  Perhaps it’s just the (business) press I read but there seems to be an obsession with millennials at the moment.  I suppose in terms of spending power and attractiveness to marketeers and the ad community, it doesn’t get much better, but in quite a few articles, when talking about employing this group and bringing them into the workforce, they seem to get a rough ride.

To me, to be a millennial (and there are many definitions) you need to be born between 1982 and 1999 (or be 18 to 35 years old), which covers roughly 15.5 million people in the UK (according to ONS) or 24% of the UK population.  First off, from my POV, the size of the group pretty much if immediately discounts any generalisations you’d care to lob at them. We’re talking a huge chunk of people with a diverse range of ages (life stages), backgrounds, ethnicities, geographies, social groups, talents and ideas, it’s only natural that their outlook and approach to their working, personal and social lives can vary massively. (So sorry for all the generalisations that I’m about to use myself as I try to address some of the challenges).

The common critique laid at this group is that they’re entitled, lazy, narcissistic, distracted and unable to form decent relationships as a result of over protective parents, over use of technology and addiction to social media (as Simon Sinek describes here).  Whilst I can understand some of this rationale and think technology does present some problems to overcome, my experience of this group is much more positive. I believe that as humans we have demonstrated, time and time again, an amazing capability to adapt and evolve in response to external stimulus and environmental factors.  Every generation has their challenges the previous generation cannot get their heads around (for me it was Gameboys and acid house) but it always seems to turn out ok!

There’s no doubt that our workplaces are changing.  One of my early jobs involved faxing –hundreds of pages of contracts around the world to various branches of the business I worked for.  It was awful and so inefficient compared to how we do business today but it must have been much faster than the typewriter and post method that went before me.  Technology has untethered today’s workplace, I’m writing this on my work macbook on the train wirelessly VPN’d into our company network via my mobile phone, and remote working is becoming more and more common place.  Businesses need to do more to support this new flexible approach. Employees are increasingly seeing it as key benefit and rightly expect to be able to manage work around their life rather than the other way around.  I still have people asking me whether they need to use holiday to go for a dentist appointment – why would we expect them to waste valuable holiday on this?  I guess, the holy grail is some kind of unlimited holiday policy like those at Netflix and LinkedIn, although this is much easier to achieve in more results oriented culture.  Share options help a lot with this, however so do more employer-centric employment rights where you can jettison under-performers more easily (clearly there are downsides to this too, particularly for the employee).  So, if we’re going to really enable this new work environment, we’re going to have to look at how we measure our teams and set smarter KPIs that ensure we’re all focused on achieving results rather than on the act of just being at our desks.

One other pet peeve of mine, corporate IT, needs to also do its part here.  Corporate IT 2.0 needs to accept that the Internet has happened and companies like Google and Apple probably are probably producing products that are quite good.  Of course security will always be an issue but if I don’t have access to any information, file or application immediately on my smartphone without having to carry Secure ID dongles, a 3 stone laptop or some ridiculous citrix’d windows 95 version of an email client, then you need to try harder!

But not only is where you work changing but the job you do might be too.  20 years ago, there were no such thing as SEO experts, 10 years ago you didn’t have social media managers.  If I could tell you what was coming up next I would probably be richer than I am today.  Microsoft have had a stab at looking at what future jobs might look like in this interesting piece of research.  It may be pushing it to the extreme with bio-hackers and the like but these millennials will be defining these jobs on the hoof as technology opens up all sorts of opportunities we simply can’t see today.

And whilst our workplaces and jobs are changing, so too are the employees who are joining attending them.  I‘ve certainly seen my share of ‘classic’ millennial characteristics; graduates expecting 6-figure salaries as a sole result of their education or unrealistic expectations of how much work really goes in to starting a business.However, I honestly find these to be isolated cases and they’re not just limited to those aged between 18 and 35.  At Box, a significant majority of the team are millennials and they are generally all very hard working, conscientious, ambitious, talented and socially aware.  They may not have the misplaced loyalty of older employees (my dad worked for the same business for 35 years before he was made redundant) but the relationship between employees and employers has changed for the better IMHO.  I’ve always viewed my employment as a value exchange, I work hard, bring my experience and create value for your business, you give me an environment in which I can achieve job satisfaction and some money.Who cares if we’re together for just a year or two, so long as we’re both getting value then it should be a positive experience.

So we need to stop worrying about whether millennials are up to the task – of course they are.  They’re not all perfect, they’re as diverse in terms of talents and outlook as any other generation before or after them.  Of course they’re different than we (Gen-X) are, they’ve grown up in a different world with different stimuli, that’s how generations work!  Let’s not all get hung up with some of their challenges, let’s embrace the change and look at them as opportunities to update and change the way we work and live.