Communicating with Generation Y

30. June 2009 20:14

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.


Managing in a downturn - remember to keep communicating

23. January 2009 17:15

The FT has started another of its excellent Mastering Management series this week. 

The focus of this special report, predictably, is on managing in a downturn. And I'm heartened to see the importance of internal and external communications highlighted so clearly. Here's an extract from Stefan Stern's intro (I've put bits in bold):

"... There are only so many ways you can tell a company to 'conserve cash'. It will probably turn out to be the business catchphrase of 2009. But while managers are understandably in a hurry to stem the flow of cash out of the building, in particular by reducing headcount, they risk cutting too deeply into the flesh of the organisation, and making future recovery much harder to achieve. Easy advice for an outsider to give – and hard for a manager to take for when survival is the number one priority – but sound advice all the same. Don’t get rid of the people who actually make your products and services worth buying in the first place.

"Second, the rumour mill is almost as big an enemy to senior management right now as collapsing customer demand. All the management gurus agree that leaders have to invest much more time than they might think is necessary into communicating with their staff. And “communicating” means listening as well as telling. In his new book The Leadership Code, Dave Ulrich estimates that a message may have to be communicated as many as 10 times, in a variety of means or channels, for it to get through and be understood.

"Offering as much certainty as possible will also help kill rumours. Binna Kandola, managing partner of business psychologists Pearn Kandola, argues that knowing you have lost your job is a better outcome for most employees than being in the dark about your future.

"Third, keeping your head down, retreating from markets and turning introspective, while a natural human response to bad news, is a terrible option for businesses. Now is not the time to abandon partnerships and joint ventures, or to close yourself off to other outside influences. Keep an open mind to new initiatives, remain an active networker and ensure the organisation is not collectively burying its head in the sand.

"Fourth, remember that recovery will come – eventually. Research and development needs to continue. Revenue streams that may have temporarily dried up will start to flow again. But capacity that you cut back on now may be hard to resurrect. And again, excessive redundancies – which carry a significant cost in any case – will deprive you of the talent you need to make the most of the upturn. You will only have to hire it back again, at great expense, in a year’s time."

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Employee communications

About the author

Liz Male

Liz Male is a PR and communications professional specialising in construction, property and sustainability in the built environment. This is Liz's blog on the foundations of good communications, covering everything from the basics of media relations to topical ponderings on strategic comms issues. Follow Liz's more concise thoughts on Twitter: @lizmale

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