Most managers think their young employees want their own offices or bosses who give them direction from afar. They are wrong. If there is a buzzword in today’s workplaces, it is collaboration: the intense desire by young workers to spend their workday interacting face to face with their co-workers and managers.
Given the choice to work from home, Catherine Darlson, a 27-year-old attorney with Kelley/Uustal in Fort Lauderdale, prefers going into her law office: Designed for collaboration, it has six “war rooms” and four conference rooms. Lawyers at the firm use a team approach for most client matters. “The office environment creates that opportunity to pull someone in with a different level of experience when they have something to contribute,” Darlson says. “For the younger lawyers, it’s really an advantage to us as we try to grow.”
While millennial workers initiated the emphasis on workplace collaboration, Generation Z, those 22-year-old brand-new grads who are the first of their generation to enter the workforce, are ensuring it sticks. “This is the new workforce reality,” says Dan Schawbel, research director for New York-based Future Workplace. The research firm is focused on the future of working and hasreleased a new global survey in partnership with Randstad, a Netherlands-based global provider of human resource services.
Despite being digital natives, young workers want human interaction and engagement with co-workers — and are willing to trade what was previously considered a perk. When Jeff Crilley promoted Erica Cupaioli to social media director at his Dallas marketing firm, the title came with a spacious office. But Crilley soon noticed that Cupaioli rarely worked in her office and instead spent most of her day in a communal area surrounded by staff. “I feel lonely and isolated in my office,” Cupaioli says. “Now I’m where much more interaction happens.”
Many companies that consider younger workers their lifeblood are redesigning work spaces to create more places for collaboration and mentoring. The designs go beyond the open work spaces previously popular to include huddle rooms, lounge areas and communal work stations. Marlene Liriano in the Miami offices of Interior Architects, the firm that has designed cutting-edge spaces for high-profile companies, says most of her new office designs incorporate a variety of areas for employees to work together on projects or client matters, allowing opportunity to interact with different people throughout the day. “Young workers want to be in the office, but they don’t want to be tied down to a desk,” Liriano says. As millennials start businesses and become managers, they are changing office design, too. “Most CEOs, if they are younger, don’t want to be in a corner office — they want to be out there with their team,” Liriano says.
Other areas where collaboration is shaping workplace practices are manager feedback and leadership style. As younger workers engage regularly with their managers, they want in-the-moment feedback rather than annual performance reviews and leaders who are strong communicators. “Young people grew up with technology and the ability to get information at any time,” says Jim Link, chief human resources officer at Randstad North America. “They want their managers to tell them ‘this worked well, this didn’t work, and this is a skill you need to develop.’ In a collaborative workplace, they figure anything worthy of feedback should be done in real time in a meaningful way.” The study found Gen Z workers also believe communication is the most important quality in a leader.
One of the most surprising ways the collaboration revolution is taking hold is the shift in the definition of flexibility. Previous generations equated “flexibility” with “working from home.” But it’s defined differently by Generation Z workers, who say they want to work in corporate offices where they can be part of a team, get real-time feedback, share ideas and solve problems together in person, according to the study of more than 4,000 full-time Gen Z (22 years old or younger) and millennial (23- to 34-year-olds) employees in 10 countries including the U.S., U.K., and Canada. To them, flexibility is about less rigidity in work schedules and less checking in with their managers on their whereabouts. “It’s about coming in and leaving whenever I want as long as I get my work done,” Darlson says.
As part of collaboration, young workers also want to spend their day interacting with their peers on social networks. “They want companies to embrace, and not block, social media because they see their day as fluid and personal and professional as the same thing,” Link says. Twenty-six-year-old Cupaioli agrees: “As long as work gets done, being on social networks shouldn’t be an issue. It’s part of the flexibility.”
Leaders in the Miami office of SapientNitro, a global digital advertising and marketing agency, have found the collaboration revolution is good for the customer. “You should want 10 different people solving your problem. It invites diversity of perspective and breeds better outcomes,” says Joey Wilson, vice president, business lead at the company. At SapientNitro, the 400 employees in Miami work in groups on the terrace or in work zones, collaboration areas and breakout hubs. The modern office and the team-like culture helps with recruiting young employees.
Eduardo Legorburu, global production services lead with SapientNitro, says that because employees work in different office areas throughout the day with various team members, no one is micromanaged: “We don’t have rigid hours. Someone might work 12 hours one day and four the next, and that’s OK. We are more focused on getting stuff done. Our young workers want freedom coming and going, but that doesn’t mean they work less hard. If a client wants something at midnight, they respond.”
Link at Randstad says he often gets the same question from clients about young employees: “How are we going to change how they think?” His response: “You’re asking the wrong question. You should be asking, “How are we going to adapt to them? By 2020, these young employees will be 44 percent of the workforce.”
Columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman writes regularly on workplace and work life issues. Connect with her at email@example.com, @balancegal, or visit worklifebalancingact.com.