Hail to our young heroes

Sometime around the latter part of 2018, a group from iMovo’s senior management team met to discuss the contemporary and distinct reality of so-called Baby Boomers (born between 1944 and 1964) and Generation-X (born between 1965 and 1979) leading an Information Technology company, currently composed largely of Millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) and a few interns representing the even younger Generation-Z (born after 1994).

The discussion was triggered by the realisation that it was essential to objectively reconsider the general workplace culture, in view of the fact that the company, notwithstanding that it had been in operation for just a little more than a decade, already comprised these four concurrent and distinctive generations of employees.

The discussion, as so often tends to happen, veered towards the recognised and typical (some would label ‘non-conforming’) traits of Millennials, accentuated even more by the upcoming Generation Z.  But beyond the predictable, sometimes quasi-judgemental viewpoints, the discussion considered the overall impact of Mille nnials upon the future of the organisation, as this relatively young cohort starts to mature into ever-senior managerial roles as well as represent an ever-increasing proportion of the overall staff complement.

In these COVID-19 days, I have often found myself looking back upon this discussion, often as I read one article after another assessing the impact of the current pandemic upon work practices.  One cannot fail to notice that, to a significant degree, every expressed opinion or published view is essentially based around the impact that the virus has had upon the rather traditional (i.e. pre-millennial) notion of ‘work.’

Such a conventional outlook underscores the impact of COVID-19 upon the traditional ‘9-to-5’ workstyle which includes the now redundant daily drive through traffic to and from the office, how we now all miss coffee breaks, the water-cooler grapevine, the social aspect of lunch breaks and the inevitable abandonment of the ‘personal’ desk that often intimates hierarchical status.

The impact of COVID-19 is so often assessed against a somewhat dated paradigm, best depicted by Martha and the Muffins in their 1979 song ‘Echo Beach.’

From nine to five, I have to spend my time at work.

My job is very boring, I’m an office clerk.

Somewhat regrettably, there is little, if any, discussion as to how, with hindsight, the alleged ‘non-conformity’ of Millennials has undeniably come to the corporate rescue amidst the rushed exodus from the conventional office due to the unforeseen pandemic.

The most useful trait has undoubtedly been the fact that Millennials are not ‘tied’ to a desk, being characteristically mobile; capable of working anytime and anywhere as long as they have Internet access.  Whilst Baby Boomers and Generation-Xers miss their own private and quiet office or personalised cubicle, the concept of an office for Millennials and Generation-Zs could just as well be the kitchen table, a hard bench on the roof-top, their personal and unmade bedroom or even a noisy cafeteria (in the pre-COVID-19 days).  The rapid digitalisation of the traditional workplace, together with the younger generations’ acknowledged aversion to monotony, have radically changed the traditional concept of the workplace.  COVID-19 has merely served to underscore this acknowledged and generational difference.

Similarly, Baby Boomers and Generation-Xers often questioned the effectiveness and quality of work from the younger generations who, in their biased opinion, lack focus in their day-to-day endeavours.  In their single-mindedness and to focus, the older generations tend to generally have one, and often only one, open application on their screen, be it a word processing application, a spreadsheet or a single email.

In contrast, the younger generations can easily have two or three concurrent social media applications open, the office’s internal messaging application present on the desktop, a digital streaming application to provide background music, the ubiquitous email application, a video streaming application, such as YouTube, on stand-by and the omnipresent Google search screen, useful when gathering and sharing online information throughout the day.

With technology being such an integral part of our work practices, and having now spent enough time under lockdown, we can look back and compare which of the broad cohorts best settled into an effective daily work routine under these challenging circumstances.  I am under no doubt that the ‘digital natives’ (i.e. Millennials and Generation-Z) have fared much better than the older ‘digital migrants.’  The ‘natives’ were undoubtedly better suited and consequently adapted better to the sudden demand of working away from the office environment with all that such an unforeseen shift required.

In an era when we were starting to recognise that we are undergoing a transitional shift within the workplace, the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the contrasting attitudes of the two older generations in comparison to the two relatively younger ones.  The traditional generations (i.e. Baby Boomers and Generation-Xs) have been encouraged to value formal appointments and prolonged meetings, often held within reserved and dedicated meeting-rooms, as crucial for organisational management and the wider form of communication necessary to accomplish any corporate task.

In contrast, Millennials and Generation-Zs prefer brief online sessions during which they brainstorm and swiftly share ideas; all the time exploiting available technology and applications to facilitate rapid and instantaneous communication and project coordination.

It is not surprising to observe that when the enforced lockdown was initiated, the older generations displayed a fair degree of apprehension as to how work could now be effectively achieved without the customary formality of face-to-face meetings.  In contrast the younger generation quickly settled into an obligatory modus operandi with little, if any, effect upon their productivity.

The realisation of this difference was brought home to me recently by a comment from one of our clients.

On the 16th of March, iMovo, like many other local companies, decided to implement homeworking as part of the national and recommended lockdown.  It was also the very day when the company earmarked two enthusiastic Millennials, both experienced system developers, to start work on a strategic project with a key client.  Because of the unforeseen turn of events, the Millennials had not had the opportunity to physically meet the client’s counterparts on the same project.  It was a typical, somewhat terse, virtual introduction, lacking handshakes or procedure; “A and B from iMovo, meet Y and Z from Acme.  Good luck on this project.”  The swiftest of introductions made over a rather dodgy Internet connection that even interrupted the anticipated “Hi everyone!

Two and a half months into a highly successful project, during a regular conference-call, Z (from the client’s) suddenly announced, “When this lockdown is all over, we look forward to meeting iMovo’s A and B, if only to ultimately see what they look like!  We have been working together very effectively every single day, for so many weeks, and yet, if someday I had to pass either of you in the streets, I would neither recognise you, nor realise that it’s one of you.  I ‘know’ you only as two little static icons on my screen during our daily video conference calls and throughout every communication during the day.”

It was a rather telling statement and a glowing testimony to the resilience, flexibility and digital literacy that Millennials are capable of.  For them, technology is (just) the functional tool that facilitates their characteristic digital online hangouts. “It was not long ago that the older generations would exhibit a fair degree of derision at the fact that Millennials tended to ‘enjoy’ thousands of superficial social media friends but a mere handful of real-life friends.

The COVID-19 pandemic should make us rethink this judgement and thank our lucky stars it turned out to be so.

At a time when most people are grateful for technology in the face of a global crisis, one ought to likewise give credit to the Millennials and Generation-Zs, who intuitively led the older generations through the rapid adoption and use of modern technology.  On my part, I agree with the U.S. politician Maxine Waters when she wrote, “I have been adopted by the Millennials, and I’m enjoying every minute of it!  I’m learning a new language.”

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