The generation opportunity


Educational Futurist Frances Valintine discusses what businesses can learn from the growing number of young people in the workforce and what this means for the future of work in New Zealand.

Recently, as part of a Futures and Foresight workshop I have captured numerous videos featuring young people talking about the future of work. These 18–25-year-olds, sit across the Y/Z generation divide, but many common threads were apparent.

This grouping of young talent lived up to stereotypical claims about their need for work to have a purpose and bring fulfilment. However, this shift goes well beyond company commitment to ‘doing good things’, it carries deeply into cultural expectations in the way the organisation thinks about their staff.

One particular comment captured the sentiment of the interviewees. This young man said, “When I hear that a company is putting their customers first, all I hear is they are putting their staff second, and that doesn’t sit well with me.”

Customer first, or staff first?

I have spent my life focused on putting the customer first, so I confess that I thought deeply about this comment. The more I focused on the sentiment behind this view the more I realised that my staff are my number-one customer. They connect with my organisation every single day, and their work experience is ultimately the most critical interaction in determining our organisational success.

If staff arrive at work excited about the day ahead, feeling valued and empowered to make decisions, they are more influential on the collective success than any business decision I can make.

Over the past five years, since I launched The Mind Lab, the shift in how I lead a team has fundamentally changed. I have the youngest workforce I have ever had, with 50% of my 100 staff under the age of 30. The dominance of millennials is both confronting and exciting. So much of our growth and success has come from these younger staff members who have challenged some of my entrenched analogue ways.

Starting out as an agile business, meant doing away with my comfort of hierarchical structures or long-held assumptions that age was a key factor of skills and capability. As the concentration of young people grew, so did my realisation that they have the knowledge and experience that was gained because they were a product of a new generation. Their comfort with adaptability and their fast adoption of new technologies created the need for me to listen and learn in a way that I had never experienced.

In practical terms, moving to become a digital-first organisation was driven by our large number of remote workers and teams of staff in other labs around the country.

In terms of productivity, the benefits of moving to digital-first were astronomical. Digitising processes makes things happen faster and with more transparency. The first decision we made was to move to become a paperless office. Environmental benefits aside, I soon saw that removing printed information from the workplace meant a much more even playing field.

Digital and fast

No plans or workflows were delayed by the process of physical documentation or held up by the difficulty in scheduling meetings where everyone had to be in the same room. Once information is in the cloud and shared openly with all staff, the benefits are immediate.

Trust, transparency, access and confidence are lifted. Staff feel more included, more valued and more informed. Risk through lost information, or selective access and power plays are minimised as communication channels are opened and supported by online platforms designed for a digital workplace.

It is now hard to imagine an office where everyone works 9-5pm, or where Google docs, Slack channels, Zoom calls and Trello boards are not the basis of information flow and project management.

It is hard to recall how time-based and linear my early years of business were, where value was tied to hours worked, seniority and experience.

While my day job is to navigate the impact of technology on jobs, education, industry and people, I believe the most significant and most impactful shift in business right now is the shift in business processes and the demise of traditional business structures.

If we, as leaders, loosen our grip on the reins to pave the way for a new more digital, more transparent and more flexible working environment we will harness the many benefits that the new generation brings. Developing open, equal dialogue and exchange with permanent staff, contractors, freelancers and interns, and building a culture of inclusion is not just better for staff, it is better for business.