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Human Resources and The Evolution of the Employee

by Toby Margetts, Consultant at Squiz

The internet would have you believe that we’re hurtling down a path towards HR nirvana: a golden age of unprecedented engagement and interaction between employers and employees driven largely by the rapid increase of technology and the benefits it brings.

While the internet might be onto something, there is surprisingly little attention given to the employees themselves and how their evolution — rather than the world around them — is shaping the HR landscape.

10 years ago millennials were barely old enough to enter the workforce — now they’ve overtaken the baby boomers and Gen Xers to make up the majority. This presents a serious challenge for HR departments, not least because each generation places value on different things.

Baby boomers (born between 1946–1964)

Baby boomers worked for organisations with complex corporate hierarchies and research shows that they identified their strengths as organisational memory, optimism, and a willingness to work long hours. Motivated by position, perks and prestige, baby boomers are likely to define themselves by their professional achievements and as such are also very competitive and goal-oriented.

This focus on work ethic, loyalty and a culture of overworking contrasts heavily with the generations that followed and gives rise to the baby boomers’ perception that millennials are work-shy, entitled job hoppers.

Generation X (born between 1965–1980)

The middle child of generations and also the smallest, sandwiched between two much larger generations in baby boomers and millennials. Gen Xers are considered independent, tech-savvy, pragmatic and confident — many of these attributable to the ‘latchkey’ upbringing that saw many children of this generation home-alone for parts of the day, for example before parents got home from work.

Gen Xers favour a work life balance that was likely denied to their baby boomer parents, are prone to changing jobs frequently and distrust corporate motives. They are self-reliant and tend to be individualistic with a preference for concise forms of communication like email.

Millennials (born between 1981–1997)

Millennials have a markedly different outlook on what they expect from their employer and employment experience. They are highly educated, proficient with technology, self-confident, able to multi-task and have lots of energy. They favour teamwork over isolation, seek challenges yet value a good work life balance. Unlike their baby boomer parents, millennials are unlikely to give up a lifestyle in favour of a career, valuing travel and flexibility in their working arrangements.

Arguably millennials’ greatest contribution to the workforce is their savviness with technology and their ability to apply it creatively to their roles and the organisations in which they work, helping to make processes more efficient, and save time and money. With this increase in savviness comes an increase in expectations in how millennials engage with their organisations. Antiquated HR processes are quickly exposed by millennials who are used to intuitive interfaces and seamless user experiences.

What it means for HR departments

An interesting challenge has arisen for HR departments everywhere who must strike a balance by adjusting policies and practices to meet worker’s changing workplace values and perspectives. An HR strategy must be sensitive to the fact that workers have evolved (and will continue to do so) and generational gaps exist within an organisation. These should be embraced. Ironically it’s likely to be the application of technology — the thing that most separates millennials with their generational counterparts — that helps HR departments create engaging tools that bring these generations together. These tools can provide tailored experiences to employees regardless of their values and perspectives and also create a shared sense of purpose within an organisation that everyone can buy into.

What does the future look like?

The future of HR is facing an interesting and unpredictable future as we begin to see the Gen Zers (born between 1998–2005) enter the workforce. A significant aspect of Gen Zers is their widespread usage of the internet from a young age and they present a new set of characteristics (albeit more closely linked to those of millennials) for HR departments to consider.

Early research indicates that these characteristics are likely to include an inclination for more entrepreneurial pursuits in the form of starting their own businesses and employing others. This will be aided by unprecedented access to people, resources and information from an early age. As a result, Gen Zers are likely to want to work in a culture that enables them to focus on new projects that are directly tied to business successes.

In addition, Gen Zers are thought to be less influenced by money and, somewhat surprisingly, prefer more traditional methods of communication such as face-to-face — despite being brought up with instant messaging, email and social media snippets. This could be a very important insight as it would be logical for HR departments to assume that Gen Zers would favour more digital means of communication.

It’s clearly an unpredictable and changeable time to be involved in HR strategy, but the smart application of technology is creating exciting opportunities to meet these challenges head-on and create increasingly engaged workforces that can seamlessly use the tools at their disposal. With the Alpha generation (born after 2005) just around the corner it’s fair to say that things aren’t going to get any more predictable but there’s every chance the role of the HR professional will need to evolve as quickly as the workers that are affecting such great changes.