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Leaders should do more to manage workers of all types

ROGER TRAPP | FORBES | 23 september 2015

In this age of uncertainty it is understandable that much attention in human resources departments focuses on the hiring and retention of Millennials. These are, after all, the people who have – in the terminology – “grown up digital” and so have different expectations to older workers of how the workplace should operate. In a nod to the notion that we are all facing longer working lives, there is also some discussion of meeting the needs of workers who in earlier times would have been approaching retirement. But – while satisfying this group is undoubtedly going to become an important issue – it is not attracting nearly as much interest as the management of Millennials.

This might appear irritating to those who were born way before the 1990s and have been in work for some time. But perhaps a better way of looking at it – for leaders as well as for more established employees – is to see the Millennial mindset challenging workplace procedures and attitudes in the same way that moves to make organisations more “family friendly” did a couple of decades ago. Just as forward-looking businesses then moved beyond seeing working mothers as a special case and looked at how more flexible working practices might benefit everybody, so executives now should be looking at the ideas that Millennials bring – from the working habits they have developed at school and university and the examples they have seen at technology companies – and investigating how they can be applied to the business as a whole.

Brynne Herbert is the founder of Move Guides, a London-based start-up that is designed to make it easier for companies and employees to manage the relocations that have become a central part of the modern global business. Born two years ago and growing fast, the company is a direct result of Herbert’s own unhappy experience of moving jobs in her previous career as an investment banker. Move Guides helps companies by using technology and its growing expertise to manage employee movements around the world seamlessly, providing a single invoice at the end of the process. But it also assists employees by dealing with the everyday frustrations associated with moving, such as dealing with utilities and arranging delivery of furniture. In the past, such inconveniences might have been seen as the price of an overseas posting. But to the constantly-challenging Millennial they are obstacles to settling in to the new job and being effective. At a time when younger employees are happy to move jobs frequently in search of fresh opportunities, a company that can offer – in a smooth, hassle-free way – short-term placements that provide career development might do better at retaining its best people.

One of those competing for such employees is Tara Kelly, chief executive of Canadian telecommunications software company SPLICE. As a result, she makes much of Millennial-friendly policies, such as communication through internal social media and events like themed days designed to bring employees together. But she also rejects the idea that introducing such initiatives is making a special case of the younger workers companies like hers are seeking to attract. She points out that other people benefit from policies that encourage “smarter” working and acknowledge that work is not just done in the workplace. “I’m a huge advocate of multi-generational working,” she says. “We need to realise there’s a little Millennial in all of us.”

At Trainline.com, the UK-based online train ticket seller, chief executive Clare Gilmartin also guards against the dangers of hiring too many of the same sort of people. She seeks to deal with this from the outset by ensuring that interview panels are diverse, explaining: “Biases creep in without companies intending them to.” But the approach also extends to the culture of the organisation, where she encourages debate. “We’re not functioning as a team if we have got broad agreement all the time. Diverse debate leads to better business decisions,” she says.

Gilmartin, who joined Trainline last year after a lengthy spell at Ebay, believes that – as the head of a fast-growing technology company – her role is essentially to inspire with a vision and purpose. As a result, when she took over as head of the company she refined the purpose as helping people to make smarter journeys. Doing this requires hiring enthusiastic and engaging people who are prepared to be held accountable for meeting goals rather than having prescribed tasks.

The need to avoid putting people into boxes is also acknowledged by Lesley Uren, head of the talent practice at PA Consulting. “Logic and common sense tell us that not all people want the same relationship with their employer – some want to explore a long-term relationship with defined career paths and others want a relationship that is characterised by lots of challenging work regardless of their tenure. What our research tells us is that it is wrong to assume that these different career models are generationally linked. We know, for example, that you are just as likely to find a Millennial who will want to have a conversation about their long-term career progression as you are a Baby Boomer. Equally, many Baby Boomers now want to enter into conversations about portfolio careers, short-term or fixed contracts. So organisations do need to make sure they can respond to all these different talent ‘types’.”

More fundamentally, Uren says that PA’s latest research into what it calls Fluid Talent Management suggests that organisations need to challenge the assumption that underpins most employment contracts – that there is no fixed end date. “If you consider how quickly skills become redundant, how quickly an organisation’s capability needs change and how rapidly and individual’s wants and needs can alter, it is rather remarkable that we use fixed-term employment contracts so infrequently.”

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The contract – this time, the “psychological contract” between organisation and employee – is also a concern of Joe Ungemah, author of Misplaced Talent, A Guide to Better People Decisions (Wiley). A psychologist and HR consultant, Ungemah says that this contract typically comes under pressure when employee expectations are not met or when circumstances change. As Uren has pointed out, the latter is not unusual in the current business environment, while the former could have much to do with the hyperbolic language of so many of today’s job advertisements. Either way, it is hardly surprising that employee engagement levels continue to defy all the measures designed to improve them.

One obvious solution is greater communication between the organisation and the employee. Again, many older workers show something like disdain for the Millennials’ supposed need for constant feedback. But in pushing for more frequent evaluation, these workers are doing everybody a favour. A change is certainly under way, with some of the leading consultancies – notably Accenture and Deloitte – attracting attention for abandoning the annual reviews that have been the bane of so many workers’ lives. As ever, the start-ups are ahead of the game, with Spire’s Kelly, for example, saying that her organisation evaluates employees against various key performance indicators every two weeks.

A key issue surrounds who does the evaluating. For some time, the trend has been for line managers to communicate with those for whom they are responsible. But Uren, for one, points out that this has not worked too well, not least because managers are often under too much time pressure but also because they often lack the capabilities to have the sorts of conversations that individuals value.

Uren suggests that a new role – the “career angel” – be established to carry out what is clearly an important function. With Move Guides’ Herbert predicting that HR departments will be able to concentrate on more valuable work as a result of belatedly investing in technology that will provide the sorts of data that other departments have long enjoyed, the “angel” role could be part of a newly-empowered HR function. That in itself might send the message that modern organisations are really serious about managing their employees – however old they are.

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