Have you met the 21st century employee?

While resistance to change continues to be alive and well in many organizations, the world is changing every day. We are in a time when entire economies, organizations and industries are transforming. And yet, we use antiquated organizational change management practices in our 21st century world. The biggest change leaders need to make is to have clarity on the shared purpose of their organization and how to deliver on it in a simple way where employees understand their roles.

Change is inevitable. And what is needed is a total mindset change and not a program that can be delegated to a team to do on behalf of the senior executive team. Today, we need less sponsors of change programs and more owners. We need a generation of leaders who understand why change is important to the business and their accountability to implementing it. We need to get back to business basics and stop this insanity. It will save organizations a lot of money in the long run. The question leaders need to be asking themselves today is does your organization know how to transform as the needs of your customers change?

And we need leaders with a new mindset

The 21st century leader needs to view themselves as a connector and community builder as they will need to bring the best people to solve problems; regardless of whether they are employees, contractors, consultants or partners. They will also need to break down the walls between functions and select ideas that can be converted to what their customers wants and need and get paid for it. And having the right leader is key to taking an idea to market. Organizations will need to define their most critical projects around their products and services and be aware of how many real leaders they have who can deliver results. Why have 56 projects running in your organization if there are only 7 real leaders who can bring them to the marketplace? It goes way beyond a title on a business card. In the 21st century, organizations need a 21st century leader:

21st Century Leadership

Why is this important?

There is one main reason: you don’t want to be left behind and have your business become irrelevant. I’ve already shared my thoughts around 21st century leadership in an earlier post, and we now need to understand the mindset of the 21st century employee.

What do we need to know about today’s employees?

If you want to understand the 21st century employee, you have to understand the new human (aka the new consumer). This is the first time in the history of work where we have more access to technology tools that give each of us a voice outside the corporate walls. In our daily life, we can each search for the best restaurants and hotels and read other people’s online reviews. We can also add our own when we have a great experience and more often, when we have a terrible one. Outside the work environment, we have a voice and can share our feelings whenever we want.

Too often, this changes when we come to work where we cannot express our voice openly as there are processes and procedures that dictate how employees are allowed to communicate. Many employees have inboxes overflowing with emails trying to push us to communicate in the online collaborative space and we can give feedback once a year in the annual employee survey. We don’t have the ability to have open, ongoing conversations because we are so busy being governed by the Google or Outlook calendar monster that takes us from meeting to meeting every day. And we ask ridiculous questions like should our employees be our brand ambassadors? Why would you not want your employees to have a voice and pride in what they do? Who better to convey the passion and purpose of your organization in the world?

How have we lost so much common sense when it comes to business? It’s time to get it back and have an understanding of the 21st century employee and why change is inevitable as it will start coming from the people who show up at work. Organizations that understand that this century is about collaboration and co-creation leave fear and scarcity behind, to pursue opportunities by creating new markets, services and/or products. They will also kill the annual employee survey and re-institute ongoing conversations and feedback into their very fabric.

This is how 21st Century Employees shows up at work:

21st century employee

Meaning: Pursues their lifework 

“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment,” wrote Dostoevsky, “all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.”

The 21st century employee shows up as one person. She doesn’t buy into the work-life balance myth as she looks at how does her work fit into her life. She has an understanding of who she is and the impact she wants to have in the world. And this is not just about the Millennial generation and younger people. This employee also includes older generations who are now redefining success and realizing that working 24/7 is no longer tenable or desirable. An increasing number of people are currently questioning their relationship with work and are starting to pick themselves, which is why 50% of US workers will be free agents by 2020. People will no longer need to retire if they are doing their life’s work. They might choose to do something different but they won’t need to plan their escape from a job as work will just be part of our lives.

Meaning becomes far more important, which means there is a need to have a clear understanding of the organization’s purpose and how your employees can help achieve it. Authentic two-way communication becomes critical. There will be less canned messaging and more leaders who can inspire teams to achieve shared goals. The world for the 21st century employee is not pursuing the myth of work-life balance but doing their life’s work, which means how does work fit into our lives?

Choice: Has a voice inside and outside the organization

The 21st century employee wants to share his voice. We still need a level of governance and policies to protect the organization, especially in highly regulated environments, but instead of asking silly questions like should our employees be brand ambassadors, leaders tap into the collective expertise of  the people they spent months hiring and on-boarding and now retaining. The 21st century employee has a mindset of abundance. He knows that there are many opportunities for himself and for the organization because he is no longer confined by fear and scarcity. There is enough. The 21st century employee has a strong desire to make, do and create and be part of something bigger than himself.

In the 21st century, employees don’t wait to be picked; they pick themselves. Because they have an increasing amount of choice. When a person is doing their lifework, they are no longer governed by fear of losing their job. Over the next decade, for example, we will see more people taking vacation days and respecting themselves rather than the crisis we are witnessing today, where $54B in vacation was unused due to fear in 2013. When we have a choice and can express it, we have a voice. This new employee is  looking to be part of organizations that thrive on conversations and collaboration and bring the outside in.

Harmony: Collaborates and co-creates with others

There will still be plenty of jobs where people can be independent in their work. But as organizations start focusing on the key problems and opportunities they need to address to be successful, they will need to bring people together to deliver on them. The 21st century employee understands that being part of something bigger than her is going to be more personally fulfilling. She has a strong desire to collaborate and co-create with others. She understands that innovation is not a department but a way to experiment on what’s possible with others. Just take a look at how Theranos disrupted the $70B blood testing industry with a new business model.

Organizations will need to re-think how they measure success. While many messages that are being shared today are about the team, the metrics that measure success are still based on individual performance. There is a need to radically transform the performance review process from an annual, individualized process to one that helps people deliver shared purpose and measure shared goals. Your collaborative goals will not be achieved if you don’t infuse new ways of working that allow for true collaboration.

Network: Has a robust connected community

There is a big difference between a connected network and a trusted community. A network includes people you are connected to who you may not have deep relationships with, where a community includes people you trust and who trust you and usually has a common purpose.

Because the 21st century employee has a voice and wants to create, he has a robust network of people to tap into both inside and outside of the organization. One of the main reasons we were able to position Cisco Canada as the number two revenue generating country for the company in 2012 was because our strategy focused on the deep relationships our employees had in key communities. The 21st century employee shows up at work with existing connections and builds new ones. He wants to tap into his network and work within trusted communities and not organizational departments. Organizations that get it know how to build thriving online communities where employees can work and co-create.

Co-creates: Learns through dialogue

Many organizations are looking for ways to motivate employees who are seeking meaning in their work. From accountants to product development managers in large organizations, the search for purpose is everywhere. Co-creation projects are a powerful way to ensure employee satisfaction. More of us will see our working lives structured around short-term project based teams and more of a “Hollywood model,” where a team comes together and works as long as is needed and then disbands. Just like making a movie and bringing the best director, costume designer and editors, organizations will need to bring the best people with complimentary skills to co-create.

Often, these projects will be complex and will need more dialogue to get everyone up-to-speed on what needs to get done. This works for the 21st century employee who learns from co-creating with others through dialogue. Like the movie and television business, storytelling becomes much more important in the future of work as sharing of information quickly becomes key.

Impact: Cares locally, regionally and globally

An increasing number of employees want to see the impact their organization is making in their local community and the world. Millennials, relative to older generations, are all about giving back to communities that align with their core values and they are asking hard questions like where does the organization source its products and what does it do for the community? And we don’t talk enough about the shift that is taking place with all generations in the workforce, a reconnection to impact. The 21st century employee wants not only to have meaning and impact in the work he does, he also wants that impact measured.

Today, most organizations use antiquated measures for success that measure activity and do not track the impact. It’s usually an after thought to figure out if we what we did had the results we aspired to. We spend energy on the new technology that needs to be implemented by a certain date and don’t necessarily track its impact and then we wonder why it was not successful. If we have leaders who have a mindset of measuring impact, we will attract and retain the 21st century employee who is seeking value in his contributions. The beauty of technology is that it allows us to live in an open and connected world where we can build new communities and it also has made us increasingly conscious that we have a responsibility to our local, regional and global world. The new employee brings these beliefs to work and wants to work for organizations that make a difference. And it’s an opportunity for private sector organizations to find new ways to market by co-creating unusual partnerships across sectors on the edge.

Mobile: Wants flexibility and personalization

The 21st century employee is mobile where the devices simply allow them to connect any time, any where. Mobile is not just a technology anymore; it’s a way of life and work for the 21st century employee who wants flexibility and personalization. And yet many organizations take a transactional view of mobile and think about it as a technological device or remote working.

Leaders need to truly understand the opportunity that mobile provides and its importance in creating the future of work in the “Hollywood model.” New technologies like Enterprise 2.0 solutions need to be integrated in how we work so those conversations can take place outside the scheduled meetings where work actually happens. Video becomes increasingly important in the future of work in connecting us through conversations. Organizations that can tap into employees any where and connect them through video will be the ones 21st century employees will thrive in. Imagine the impact of reducing carbon footprint with being allowed your work in a mobile environment. And imagine a mobile workforce that has impact in the organization and the community. This is the new canvass we should be painting together.

Are you ready?

The 21st organization needs to be created. We need to move away from antiquated  management practices so we can tap into the hearts and minds of people who want to do their lifework. As a futurist, my job is to analyze trends and prepare leaders for what’s coming in the world of work and life. I hope this article helped you start thinking about what you are doing and the shifts you need to make. I look forward to having conversations on this. And I leave you with one question: “are you ready?”

Ayelet Baron
Ayelet Baron
Ayelet combines lessons learned from more than a decade as a high-tech industry executive with her roots as a researcher, change catalyst and strategic communicator. This rare blend of expertise enables her to assess and advise individuals and organizations that seek to embrace new ways of working. She helps leaders transform and build healthy and resilient organizations. She is also a sought after keynote speaker on collaboration, leadership and building 21st century organizations. Her award winning business book, Our Journey to Corporate Sanity, helps you navigate a new path for business as a conscious 21st century leader.

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