It’s Time to Prepare for the 2020 Workplace

By Erin Binney Jan 4, 2016
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BOSTON—If you’ve brought your workplace practices and policies in line with Millennials’ expectations and the technology of today, it may be time for some updates. That’s because a new generation and new technologies will transform the workplace by 2020, according to Gloria Burke, who delivered the keynote address at the recent The Future of Work conference.

“Businesses that are quick to transform will derive significant business values and gain competitive advantages,” including the ability to attract, develop and retain top talent, she said. Burke is senior director at Indianapolis-based Enterprise Strategies, a consultancy focused on digital strategies in the workplace.

In 2020, Millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) will make up nearly half of the workforce and 20 million members of Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2010) will start their careers, she noted. There are some similarities between these generations, Burke said: Both have high levels of confidence, a desire to learn new job skills and a can-do attitude, and both expect to be able to work anywhere, anytime.

She also highlighted some differences in how these generations approach work. Millennials are optimistic and focused on the present, for example, whereas members of Generation Z are realistic and future-focused. There are even differences in the way the two generations use technology. Millennials communicate mostly by text message, while members of Generation Z tend to prefer images and video. And where Millennials may have two devices, members of Generation Z have five.

“They’ve held a device in their hands since they were toddlers,” Burke said of the younger generation. As a result, they have big expectations about seamless technology in the workplace, particularly with regard to social technologies. Members of Generation Z, for example, expect to be able to access social networks 24/7 and learn from others’ openly shared experiences.

Social technologies offer potential operational benefits for companies as well as for individual workers, according to the results of a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report cited by Burke. The Social Economy: Unlocking value and Productivity Through Social Technologies found that social technologies have the potential to improve employee satisfaction by 41 percent, boost employee productivity by 25 percent and speed access to knowledge by 74 percent.

Generation Z’s other workplace expectations include having time to think, open communication spaces where people can hang out and share ideas, and well-defined chains of command. “They want to know who to go to for their ideas to be acted on,” Burke explained.

Moving Forward

To help employers move toward the workplace of the future, Burke recommended the following five steps:

  1. Conduct a self-assessment. Determine what your company’s strengths and weaknesses are, she said, and get a realistic picture of your employee makeup.
  2. Have a clearly defined vision. “If you don’t have a vision of where you want to take your company, it’s really hard to build a road map,” Burke noted. Make sure to communicate that vision to all of your employees and relate it to each person’s role.
  3. Involve leadership. Leadership can be one of the biggest barriers to transformation, Burke said. Leaders need to model desired behaviors, whether that’s embracing workplace flexibility or using social technologies.
  4. Understand employee roles. Find out what the company’s key roles are, how people work and what tools they need to do their jobs.
  5. Look for opportunities to integrate technology. Burke suggested rolling out open and transparent forums for connection and communication, such as collaborative intranets. In addition, if your company hasn’t integrated video into its communication strategies, “put it on that list of must-haves for 2020 if you expect to attract that top Generation Z talent,” she said.

Erin Binney is a staff writer for SHRM.

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