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How millennials in the workplace are disrupting our HR practices – for good

Young people these days!

In every field of our lives, disruptive technology is having a dramatic effect. From Uber to AirBnB to Netflix, traditional ways of doing things are being turned on their head. The rise of big data, mobile technology, global reach, personalisation, digital formats, AI and so on has challenged – and continues to challenge – everything we take for granted.

In the workplace too, technology is having a major impact on how we recruit and on how we develop our staff.

Perhaps the ultimate disruptive ‘technology’ in the workplace though are millennials. Those digital natives whose affinity with and demand for technological advance are driving all of our workplaces into the digital age, far quicker than we might have got there on our own.

Here’s my take on the impact millennials are having on how we engage with, develop and train our staff.

Remember when you were young

I hear lots of complaints from business owners and managers about millennials – how they expect too much from their employer, how they’re more demanding, more willing to complain, more willing to leave if things don’t go their way.

In my view – twas ever thus. Ever since time began there’s been a gap of understanding between those who have seen it, done it, got the t-shirt and those who are new to the party and think the rulebook could and should be torn up. We were the same when we were young, weren’t we?

What’s different now – or at least it feels different – is the combination of new kids on the block with new technology. New disruptive technology that makes us all look again at how we do things and demands we do them differently.

We’ve all changed

I think too that the focus on millennials is a smokescreen for how all of our expectations have changed over the last ten years or so.

While millennials have never known anything but change and insecurity, we may remember concepts like a job for life, using a pen and paper and clocking on. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t changed, in response to our changing world.

We have all become more consumerist in our attitudes and approach. We all recognise how insecure work has become, making us less loyal to our employer and more focused on our own needs. And technology has freed us all from a rigid 9 to 5 routine.

So, instead of viewing this as down to a bunch of moaning millennials, we need to adapt to meet all our employees’ changing needs and expectations.

Here are just some of the trends impacting on our experience as employees, young and old:

The data double-edged sword

We all know how employee engagement impacts on performance, retention, customer satisfaction and the bottom line. And we all know that because it’s much easier to track, measure and analyse.

Which is hugely helpful – we’re able to measure the impact of different initiatives, spot gaps and predict future trends.

But all this knowledge and information raises expectations that you can and will take action. Which means if you don’t do so in a timely and effective fashion, the impact on employee satisfaction could be huge.

Everything’s out in the open

Not only has technology made it easier to gather information, it’s become easier to share it too. These days, we’re far more willing to share information and experiences with others and we expect openness and transparency too.

So, for instance, where once pay negotiations could be kept private, now it is virtually impossible to keep anything hidden.

It’s become far easier for us to compare our lot with our colleagues. And this can create discontent. The BBC’s recent tribulations over the gender pay gap is an obvious example!

It’s all about me

When it comes to training, learning has become more personalised, individualistic and self-driven.

Instead of being sent on a course determined by HR, employees are being encouraged to decide for themselves what they need to learn. Choosing from a menu of options on an e-learning platform, they are able to design their own development based on their particular strengths and weaknesses.

Clearly, this saves money. But interestingly, the rise of e-learning has not dented the demand for classroom-based courses. My sense is that while learning online has its benefits, people recognise that face-to-face and group training is very helpful. We all learn in different ways and some subjects are difficult to convey online.

And while self-paced, self-directed learning is a good thing, enabling people to receive learning tailored for their specific needs, it can mean that there’s a lack of human support and encouragement.

Learning on the move

Mobile technology enables us to learn whenever and wherever it’s convenient. It facilitates flexible working and enables access to expertise from all over the world.

But there’s a downside. Our ‘always-on’ world means we’re forever distracted by calls, emails, tweets, notifications and texts. But to learn effectively you need to concentrate.

This has led to a demand for training in bite-size pieces, otherwise known as micro-learning. Instead of five-day training courses, we want to learn in short bursts that we can fit in around everything else. Layering information and knowledge so that you build it up gradually can be a great way to learn. But it can make it difficult to convey complex or detailed information. Plus you need to find ways to maintain momentum and encourage learners to persevere. Learning works best when you get the opportunity to try out what you’ve learnt, fail and try again. Without that experience loop, we can quickly forget what we’ve learnt.

Making the most of technology

Technology offers exciting possibilities for training and learning. Video can really bring things to life and enables learners to see the trainer in action, even if physically separated by thousands of miles. The techniques used in gaming to make the experience fun, even addictive, offers huge opportunities to increase people’s engagement with training.

But are we making the most of these opportunities? Are we utilising all that technology has to offer to make learning more effective, more relevant, more rewarding? Or is it all a gimmick?

In my view, often you need to apply some lateral thinking to work out how you can use the technology in the best way to achieve what you need. Then pilot it with people to ensure it is actually helping them learn and engage.

For instance, a friend of mine described his experiences using an online platform which his employer had launched as part of a talent programme. The business was hailing it as a big success – removing the need for HR intervention and placing the responsibility with the participant. My friend, though, felt like it was a tool he was being checked against rather than a tool encouraging him to engage in learning and development. Is this really what they wanted to achieve?!

Technology, then, needs to be handled with care. Which is why any business, instead of moaning about millennials, needs to utilise their ability to understand and engage with technology. Don’t be afraid they don’t have the experience – seek ways to build diverse teams that can bring experience and youthful enthusiasm together to work constructively at solving problems and riding the wave of change.

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