I am about to employ my first new recruit in her 20s. Like many bosses, I will be facing the issues of communicating with 'Generation Y' (loosely defined as people born since about 1980). And if you believe all the hype, it isn't going to be easy.
Generation Y are supposed to be "demanding, selfish, text-addicted job hoppers with little loyalty to their employers". Also known as the iPod Generation, they are the focus of a shed load of research and comment by management journals, business schools and market trend analysts.
But some recent research on 'Bookend Generations' from the US-based Center for Work-Life Policy suggests it may not be so bad after all (phew).
Just like the Baby Boomers (folk in their 50s and 60s), they "crave flexibility, personal growth, connection and opportunities to 'give back'." That sounds just like the sort of person I really like working with!
Ashridge also has a fascinating Generation Y research project which tested peoples' ideas of the stereotype Gen Y'er with the reality - see the picture below for the alleged characteristics that were found to have strong, weak or mixed support in their research findings:
Some tips for communicating with Generation Y
So given all this stuff I've been reading and thinking about, I thought it would be worth sharing with you a few lessons I have pulled from the research regarding the art of successful communication with your Gen Y employees:
1. Guess what. For the most technologically-savvy generation who spend their lives on Facebook, they actually prefer face-to-face communication to emails, texts or phone calls. In that respect, they are the same as... um, let me see... 100% of the rest of the population. Get out there and walk about. Be visible. Your accessibility, your personal connection with staff and your willingness to chat seriously but informally on a wide range of business issues are very, very important.
2. They crave frequent and honest feedback - and quickly. They're not as much 'impatient' as 'immediate', according to Tammy Erickson, author of Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide To Thriving At Work. So good communication means talking about issues promptly and decisively, or at the very least managing their expectations explicitly about how long it will take before you can have that conversation. Don't let things fester.
3. They have little interest in traditional corporate rituals. So if your internal communications systems are all based on a staff newsletter plus monthly team meetings to cascade information in a structured way, expect to see Gen Y'ers looking for ways to short-cut the system so they can get the news much quicker.
4. They love the chance to offer ideas and suggestions, and expect these to be taken seriously. But look for faster ways to capture and move on these ideas - the old-fashioned 'suggestion scheme' or postbox in the corner of HQ won't really cut it. Be aware they may need coaching and support to learn ways to put forward their ideas in a constructive and positive way. Be open to learn from their ideas and their understanding of the potential internal communication uses of new technologies and social media.
5. All the research points to a clear need to communicate your corporate vision and values clearly from the start. Corporate responsibility and reputation really matters to Gen Y'ers, as do things like community involvement.
6. Unfortunately (she says with an old-fashioned sigh), English grammar has not been taught well in schools for some time. So don't be surprised if your Gen Y'ers also need your help to improve their writing skills, and to learn the need for professionalism in even casual communications. They will take their lead from you on this.
The best employee communications advice for the construction sector
My colleague Paul Wilkinson at pwcom 2.0 has also written an excellent blog post about Generation Y. He points out that the current construction industry, faced with a deep recession and the return of adversarial behaviours, will not be an attractive industry for these young people. To attract them, we would need to achieve "a committed change in culture... and any change shouldn't be reversed simply because of a worsening economic climate."
These are wise words - already I see communication suffering as doors close. Across the industry managers are retreating into their offices, huddling in secretive Board meetings, emerging tense and taciturn. Swift, open, relaxed employee communications is rarer than hen's teeth right now.
However, the recent Channel 4 'Undercover Boss' programme gave me more cause for optimism.
Last week's programme showed Stephen Martin, the boss of the Clugston Group, a medium-sized civil engineering company in Humberside, go undercover for a fortnight - posing as 'Martin Walker', an ordinary co-worker learning the ropes.
In doing so, he got the opportunity to listen purposefully to what his employees really thought about the company and to learn what their communication needs are.
"Our key messages were just not getting through to people... People working on shift on a large site do not have time to read newsletters or log onto websites. You have to communicate with people on their terms, and it is different for every location. One size does not fit all," he told the FT (an interesting article to read also for tips on how best to deal with staff anxiety in recessionary times, by the way).
Stephen Martin has published his own '10 tips' sharing online what he learned from the experience. Everything is about communication. It is the best advice for businesses in this sector that I have seen in a long time. There's also a good podcast to listen to.
By the way, one of the other excellent things Stephen Martin did, in my opinion, was to link up the old-timers (Baby Boomers like Dick Sutton with 36 years' valuable experience) with the youngsters (Generation Y new recruits like Les Parker). Thus Clugston has established a scheme called 'Bridge the Gap' to promote communication, mentoring and knowledge transfer between the generations.
This is everything that the Center for Work-Life Policy, Ashridge and other researchers highlight as a vital way to get the best from Gen Y - and all our generations of workers.