If you are an avid reader of the commentary about Generation Y and Millennials you'd be excused for typecasting all of them as highly demanding narcissists. At work they are impatient to be managing directors on six figure salaries. If they were rock stars they'd be the divas demanding chilled Evian water and blue m&ms before each show.
Many employers have responded to this stereotype of the new age employee with great expectations by doing what seems logical - by giving Generation Y and Millennials what they supposedly want! Like hosts of children's birthday parties, some organisations have tried to outdo each other with the coolest work accessory - pool tables, slides between floors and sleeping capsules.
Whilst these funky perks might attract and retain some employees, they are not going to do it for all Generation Y and Millennials, and what about the other generations? Have we forgotten that our workforce is ageing rather than getting younger?
Unfortunately this trend toward designing the coolest workplace runs the risk of putting style over substance. As an attempt to attract and retain more employees there is the danger that it might do the opposite in the longer term, particularly if it distracts the organisation from investing in the things that really impact the performance and wellbeing of the larger proportion of employees.
In essence is this another example of us putting want ahead of need?
The want versus need tussle has a long history in society generally, not just at work. Parents know about this battle all too well, particularly with regard to their child’s dietary intake. The child wants lollies but the child needs vegies. Employers have also had a tendency too often to ask employees what they want rather than be the mature parent and focus on what they need.
As an example, organisations have commonly asked employees what they want from their wellbeing programs. The reply has included requests for gym memberships, massages and fruit bowls. These initiatives are easy to implement so they often receive a quick tick of approval. However they have virtually no impact on organisational outcomes such as employee retention, performance and wellbeing. They often sound like a good idea initially but when implemented a different reality plays out. Only a small percentage of the organisation take them up, and ironically, they are often neglected by the supposed target audience. They address the wants of a tiny minority whilst failing to impact on the needs of the overwhelming majority. However the major reason they are not the best use of the wellbeing dollar is because there is no data driven causal link between these initiatives and improvements in wellbeing.
If organisations were to focus on need over want, substance over style, they’d be asking more probing questions of employees to find the causal factors of resilience and wellbeing. What they’d find is that job design, peer and manager relationships, organisational decision making and organisational culture are commonly the things that really impact on the wellbeing of the majority of employees. Programs would then be implemented that target these causal factors.
Substance over style also focuses an organisation on getting the basics right. Unfortunately even in 2016 there are many organisations whose attempts at, for example, organisational change and employee surveys are clumsy if not dysfunctional. In some places the level of cynicism borne from a lack of visibility of real change as a result of these activities has reached such a level that further change initiatives or employee surveys almost guarantee a significant negative hit to wellbeing and performance. Installing the latest trends in workplace design or providing access to new technologies will likely count for zero if employees perceive that the fundamentals of a good organisation such as sound consultation and feedback processes are absent.
In a world where we invest so much in being trendy and new, organisations need to be careful in getting swept up in the race to become the hippest workplace. There are many more voices calling out for organisations to get the fundamentals right than there are ones seeking the newest fad work accessory. It’s just that the latter get more press. Leaders lead by making sound decisions, not by seeking to become popular. This means investing in putting in place the systems and processes that employees need ahead of what they want.