In this week's blog: For digital natives, the lines between personal lives and work lives are blurry. How can you accommodate this, whilst making sure that your office environment works for everyone?
Not long ago, my teenage son got a job on the front desk in a sports centre.
One day, his mates turned up to play football in the sports hall.
Since he was there, and he could see the front desk from the sports hall, he thought there was no harm joining in.
Unfortunately, the game was captured on CCTV, and his boss decided that he did not want to pay my kid £10 an hour to kick a ball around.
He was unceremoniously fired – a turn-of-events my son still cannot understand. He is sure he did nothing wrong, and that this was a gross injustice!
As an employer, my sympathies are entirely with his boss. And yours probably are too.
But if you employ Generation Zers – or as I prefer to call them, “digital natives” – it is worth delving into my son’s mindset…
…Because this story illustrates a key trait of younger workers, which can cause friction in the workplace if it is not carefully managed.
For digital natives, the lines between personal lives and work lives are blurry.
They often value both equally.¹ And the technology they have grown up with allows them to move between the two easily.
As I have mentioned in recent blogs, this often means that they take their work home. They might complete tasks late at night or on the weekends, or work from other spaces associated with their private lives, like their favourite bar or café.
But the corollary is that digital natives also bring their personal lives into work, to an extent that would have been unimaginable to previous generations.
My peers tend to shake off their personal life when they enter the office.
We might dress differently at work than we do at home.
We might display a family picture discreetly on our desk, but we usually won’t share anything too private with our colleagues unless we know them well.
When we need to make small talk, we typically talk about fairly light, impersonal subjects… currently Game of Thrones and Line of Duty are dominating office conversations!
Your best and brightest young employee, on the other hand, might have a more flexible approach to work...
...and might be more comfortable blurring the boundaries between work and their personal life.
Sharing details about their dating life, for example, might feel more natural, and some younger workers’ approach to dress might be more casual that what is conventional in a traditional office environment.
Or, whilst talking to you or one of their co-workers, they might answer a WhatsApp message from a friend…. And handle both conversations at once.
(In fact, that’s small fry for most digital natives. I’ve seen my kids simultaneously talk, watch TV, surf the Internet and handle multiple text conversations. Sometimes they manage to play on their Xbox, too.)
They might even spend 45 minutes playing football with their friends, in the middle of a work shift!
They can’t see the problem, because their personal and professional lives are so integrated.
But it can lead to clashes with older workers who did not grow up in a digital environment, and who consider this behaviour inappropriate and fundamentally unserious.
Sometimes, it can disturb them as well.
Not everyone can concentrate on a conversation when the other person involved is simultaneously typing away on their laptop or responding to a text. And not everyone is comfortable hearing about their colleague’s love lives!
That is why you might have to set some ground rules. You have to make sure that your office environment works for everyone.
Be clear from the outset about what behaviours are acceptable and what are not, so that expectations are clear.
If watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians whilst writing a report is your red line, say so!
But at the same time, think about how you can accommodate your digital natives’ work patterns and values – which are innate - while minimising disruption to others.
Can you give them the flexibility to wear headphones at their desks, for example, so they can listen to a podcast or music whilst they carry out a task?
In our workplace, we’ve adopted a ‘dress for your day’ approach, where employees are allowed to choose what they wear to work each day based on their own schedule.
When it comes to new rules, don’t just lay down the law. Employees are more likely to stick to your rules if you can explain to them, clearly, why they are in place.
You might feel like you are stating the obvious, but it won’t necessarily be obvious to all…
…As I discovered when I tried to explain to my son why he couldn’t play football at work – and keep his job…
¹ 1/3 of 1,000 17-23 year olds surveyed by YouGov said that a work-life balance was the second most important factor after pay when selecting a job.