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"Keeping the Millennials" Related Articles

Building Innovative Multi-Generational Teams

Jan Ferri-Reed
from The Journal for Quality & 20 Participation, October 2014

In today's dynamic business environment, organizations must be able to turn on a dime. With demanding customers, impossible deadlines, and intense competition, employees make decisions quickly and work collaboratively to get results. Organizations that can’t respond to this pressure risk being left in the dust.

Today’s workforce is increasingly dispersed. Instead of bundling employees into a single, large, central location, employers now have the advantage of bringing a diverse group of workers together through technology and online collaboration tools. Employees now can tackle and solve problems together whether they’re located in a common business office, a home-based office, hotel room, vehicle, or any other location around the world. Basically, anywhere there are phone and Internet connections available, workers today can collaborate.

There’s more to employee collaboration than just communications technology, however. Modern leaders face the additional burden of managing multi-generational teams composed of baby boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials. Boomers and Gen Xers are quite conversant with the technologies of email, voicemail, fax, and conference calls, but the new collaboration tools emerging in the workplace now will make it possible for leaders to forge dynamic, multi-generational teams with the capacity to solve complex challenges and develop creative solutions to company problems.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review projected that within a few years more than 1.3 billion people around the world will be working virtually. In fact, computer giant IBM already estimates that 45 percent of its approximately 400,000 contractors and employees work remotely. Some of them joke that IBM really stands for "I’m By Myself," but virtual task teams are clearly an emerging trend.

New Challenges From a New Generation
Leaders tasked with the challenge of managing multiple generations soon may discover that baby boomers and Gen Xers frequently differ in their approach to teamwork from millennials. Boomers, for example, were raised in a competitive environment. Large corporations tended to be based upon the top-down model that the World War II generation had experienced. Similar to their predecessors, boomers also were expected to work hard and climb the corporate ladder of success.

In that environment, team meetings were a way to disseminate information so the group could communicate and coordinate its actions. That didn’t necessarily result in true teamwork, however. Social commentator Fred Allen once observed, “A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who, as a group, meet and decide that nothing can be done.” To avoid that outcome, many organizations launched in the late 20th century began implementing team-building interventions to improve group functioning and results. Team building worked for a time, but the millennial generation is changing that equation.

By now much has been written about the 80 million-strong millennial generation and how it differs dramatically from the generations that preceded it. The sheer number of millennials was expected to have a monumental impact on the workplace; however, employers are beginning to find that millennials also are shaking up the workplace as much by virtue of their unique characteristics as by their numbers. Born between 1980 and 1999, the millennials are:

  • Technologically savvy. They are the first generation that grew up totally immersed in technology. They’ve been early adopters of social networking, smart phones, digital cameras, text messaging, and numerous other forms of electronic communications. They are totally comfortable with non-face-to-face interactions but often misunderstand nonverbal prompts when communicating in person.
  • Possessed with a "work-to-live" mentality. Many millennials watched their baby boomer parents work long hours and struggle in demanding jobs, only to face cutbacks and layoffs in bad economic times. They value leading a balanced life in which their time outside the office is just as precious as the time they spend in the office.
  • Hungry for feedback. Having received copious amounts of feedback from teachers, friends, parents, and early employers, the millennials embrace input. They want to know exactly, and often, how they are doing and where they stand—in no uncertain terms. A lack of feedback frustrates them enormously.
  • Collaborative. They’ve been taught to function well in groups and teams—partially through athletics but also through school assignments and community projects. They like to share information and expect co-workers to share information openly with them.
  • Extremely self-confident. Their positive belief in their own abilities is unequaled, fueled in large measure by parents and teachers who fostered their high self-confidence with lavish praise and acknowledgements. They aren’t called "the trophy generation" for nothing!
  • Philanthropically minded. Involvement in community service was a routine expectation for millennials through their schools, clubs, and religious organizations. For many millennials, an organization’s philanthropic orientation is either the deal breaker or maker when they seek employment.

Millennials were raised in a far more cooperative environment than most of their predecessors. As children they participated in highly organized team sports, frequently taking part in games and competitions that didn’t bother to keep score. The idea was to teach teamwork and cooperation without necessarily creating winners and losers. They’ve often been called the “trophy kids” because they frequently received awards just for participating so that no one would be disappointed. In school, their teachers organized team projects and cooperative assignments that stressed collaboration and teamwork. Collaboration seems to be the norm for millennials.

A New Approach to Collaboration
More than anything else, millennials are defined by their immersive use of technology. Many people call them the "always connected generation." Indeed, most millennials never seem too far away from their connections to others through Facebook®, Instagram, Twitter®, and similar forms of social media platforms. Whether before work, at work, or after work, millennial employees like to feel engaged with their friends.

There’s no reason that employers can’t help their millennial employees feel connected equally to other workers, managers, and customers. The necessary technologies are many of the same social media tools that most millennials use every day.

Millennial-friendly organizations need to make sure they are providing their employees with topquality hardware platforms, such as notebook computers, tablets, and smartphones. With the cost of technology dropping almost exponentially over the last two decades, there’s no reason for workers to use inferior or limited technology on the job.

The Internet has grown from a curiosity with limited uses to a powerful marketing tool that can connect service employees directly with customers. To achieve this synergy, employers need to make sure their Web presence is as dynamic, interactive, and state-of-the-art as possible. The current trend is to design “responsive” websites that deliver a superior Internet experience for visitors, whether they are connecting through a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone. This is important because the longterm trend indicates that customers are pulling away from keyboard-bound computers toward mobile platforms. That’s the direction that your customers probably are going, and it’s also the direction that your Generation Y employees expect to be going.

Companies have historically been wary of computer-based time wasters that distract employees from their jobs. For example, remember when companies took great pains to remove solitaire programs from employee computers? The modern equivalent of that command-and-control mentality is denying employees the option to use Facebook, Twitter, and similar services at work. Although there may be potential for time wasting (which has always existed), there is just as much potential for employee collaboration, brainstorming, problem solving, and decision making. It simply doesn’t make sense to give employees the tools they need and then deny them the use of those tools.

In recent years, many of the more forward-thinking organizations have deployed business-oriented social networking services to bring employees together to communicate, collaborate, solve problems, and forge the workplace teams of the 21st century. Social networking is an online platform that brings people together to connect, communicate, and share. In a nutshell, these services allow networks of like-minded people to either share something in common or to find common cause. Social networks can be focused on specific interests, needs, or tasks; or they simply can serve as a generic portal for interpersonal exchanges. The core format that permits individuals to interact with each other is the “individual profile,” which provides a range of personal information that helps users to identify people with similar interests or outlooks.

The most popular social networking website is Facebook, with more than 1 billion monthly users. Facebook’s younger cousin Twitter has—in less than five years—garnered 240 million monthly users. Google+, which is just two years old, has 327 million monthly users. In China the most popular social networking site is Qzone, with nearly 700 million monthly users. In the business world, the most popular business-oriented social network is LinkedIn, with 184 million users scattered throughout 200 countries.

Given the millennial generation’s skills with technology, its members may be particularly adept at working from a remote location productively. In addition, work collaboration tools make online collaboration at least as productive as in-office meetings. One of the most dynamic business-oriented social networking services is Yammer, which refers to itself as an “enterprise social network” designed to bring together employees, communications, and information into a single source. Its success is demonstrated by the fact that more than 7 million users have accounts and that 85 percent of Fortune 500 businesses have adopted it as a business networking solution for their employees.

The message here is clear. Don’t resist technology and its effects on the workforce—particularly the innovations that are part of everyday life for millennials. Instead, do everything possible to engage and energize these employees, recognizing that their unique characteristics coupled with these technological tools offer a more enjoyable and higher-performing workplace.

The Future of Virtual Collaboration and Teamwork
Beyond building dynamic work teams, employers also must look for ways that virtual collaboration can drive cross-departmental teams and help to solve complex organizational problems. Bertrand Dussert wrote in Forbes Magazine, "For collaboration to deliver value, it must integrate with business processes and encourage tangible results across a dispersed, diverse workforce. Most essential work today is not attributable to a single staff member; it takes a team to achieve success."

Unfortunately, teamwork may be as difficult to promote today as it was in the era before digital collaboration; however, the online collaboration tools available to all employees may hold the keys to building innovative, cross-generational teams. Among the potential payoffs from this approach to team building is the sense of satisfaction and pride that employees enjoy, combined with the recognition that employers are tapping the true potential and creativity of workers.

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