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Next Gen Worker OR Next Gen Workplace? 

Glumac's Shanghai office. Image © Nacasa&Partners

There is an awful lot of bandwidth being taken up by the "generational debate," and a lot of this has focused on Millennials as the pampered successors of the Baby Boomers. This is a very western perspective, as Asian countries don't have a “Baby Boomer Generation” per se. So while it may be important to understand what makes the 75 million or so Millennials in the U.S. tick, what about the 218 million young adults in China (and that's only the "10 year cohort" born from 1980-1990, sometimes referred to as ‘Deng's Children’), or the staggering 426 million Millennials in India? See more here.

The socio-economic shifts driving generational differences are unique to time and place. So while there are a number of acknowledged similarities between Millennials in the East and West, including growing up during a time of general economic prosperity, having fewer siblings and more educational opportunities, and taking the Internet for granted, in countries like China and India the generation gap between Millennials and their parents is far wider than in the West. The economic opening up of China that started during the 1980s has led to an environment that is radically different to the China the parents of Millennials knew, and has been said to have contributed to a fundamental shift in Chinese values.

But are these significant societal influences sufficient to drive fundamental changes in workstyles, and therefore suggestive of a different approach to workplace design in Asia? In contrast to years of hyperbole about the need for organisations to cater specifically to Millennials, recent global research is starting to suggest that what this generation values at work isn't all that different to Gen X, or even to their parents. Millennials are aligned with older generations in seeking high engagement at work. They prioritise inspirational leadership, performance-based recognition and a clearly articulated business strategy. Although it appears Millennials are less focused on workplace collaboration and freedom to innovate than Gen X, as they mature it’s likely they will spend more time collaborating and strategising, and less time producing and learning. The desire for greater flexibility to manage their work/life balance may also increase as they take on family responsibilities.

Considering all this information, it’s about time we busted some common myths about Millennials in Asia and broaden our thinking to respond to the needs of “Next-Gen workstyles,” rather than just “Next-Gen workers.”

Myth#1 Millennials are not loyal (employers need to buy their love)

Statistics on job mobility are starting to reveal that as Millennials mature, they are staying with their employers for longer periods of time. Asian Millennials have also displayed remarkable brand loyalty, although they are savvier and more critical of mass-marketing than previous generations and use the power of the internet to their advantage. They are quick to find out if something is inaccurate, and distrust a brand if they feel misled. Organisations whose actions are authentic to their values, including the decisions they make regarding workplace design, are more likely to be trusted and respected by younger employees.

Myth #2 Gen Y have no values (they are selfish and constantly consuming)

China's Millennials are among the world's most optimistic people, and highly conscious of the environment. Almost 70% of Chinese Millennials feel climate change is "a pressing issue," which is twice as many as their counterparts in America and second only to Latin America. This sense of social responsibility manifests in their purchasing decisions and career choices. Chinese Millennials in particular have been raised in an era of growing concern about the effects of pollution, and tend to buy from brands that are environmentally friendly and give back to the community. For Millennials, the office isn't just a place they work in from nine to five, then go home; they desire an environment and work culture that's an extension of themselves and their home life - a place that supports what they value. Increasingly, organisations are thinking about the environmental and community benefits their workplaces can deliver, because communicating company values through workplace design sends powerful messages to current and future employees, including Millennials.

Myth #3 Millennials can't communicate (they have lost the art of conversation)

China now has around 520 million smartphone users, and India 123 million, compared to 165 million users in the U.S. In Asia, the majority of these users are urban Millennials, who believe mobile calls will be the main way to communicate in the workplace in five years. Even more than their peers in other countries, Millennials in China place much greater emphasis on the role of instant messaging platforms such as WeChat. Their ability to develop constructive “virtual” relationships and ease with multiple communication channels is an asset to organisations’ operating dispersed teams. However this shouldn’t be mistaken for a preference for text over talk. New entrants to the workforce have clearly stated their desire for face to face collaboration and mentoring as an important part of their learning and professional development. This is closely tied to Chinese Millennials’ job satisfaction.

Workplaces that consciously create opportunities for tacit learning and on-the-job mentoring, as well as more formal training, will help position companies to retain their young talent, although this has always been the case, just the methods are changing. Tapping into the creative mindsets and fresh perspectives of Millennials also requires a slightly different approach in Asia. Respect for hierarchy and elders may be less ingrained than in older generations, but many Millennials still feel uncomfortable speaking up in more structured situations. Collaboration and brainstorming settings that are low key, easily reconfigurable and egalitarian in their seating arrangements are more likely to encourage Millennials to contribute and collaborate freely.

Myth #4 Gen Y are more mobile (they can accept non-territorial workplaces more easily than older employees)

Millennials need to feel a sense of belonging and have the ability to express their identity in the workplace as much as anyone. While it’s true that they may generally be more comfortable exploiting technology and portable devices to enhance productivity, just like older employees, Millennials need a sound argument for the personal and organisational benefits of mobility before they are willing to accept and adopt practices such as group-assigned desking. The Millenial’s desire for more freedom and choice in the workplace, and for more informal settings, is not necessarily seen as a replacement for traditionally assigned desks, rather as required alternatives to suit their different moods and preferences. The death of the desk is more likely to be driven by the obsolescence of desktop PCs than by generational furniture preferences. Conclusion

Although there are some distinct attributes of Millennials in Asia, like any generation they are full of contradictions and are changing as they mature. Designing for archetypes is at best ineffective, and at worst potentially misaligned with real needs and ignorant of diversity. More than any demographic profile, technology and workstyle change are driving new approaches to designing effective, empowering and engaging workplaces for all employees. The next generation workplace in Asia is a work in progress, and it will be most successful when underpinned by research into the unique characteristics and behaviours of the knowledge workers it is designed to support.

Caroline Burns is one of the global leaders of Gensler's workplace practice and has spent the last 20 years working across Asia to provide clients with corporate real estate and workplace advice. She is passionate about the value clients can achieve by aligning workplace with corporate vision and identity, and by leveraging the physical environment to address critical business needs and issues. Contact her at caroline_burns@gensler.com

Reader Comments (5)

Caroline - Great counter-perspective and non-US centric view of the world, well done! I have long believed that the 'Millennials' debate is particularly one-sided and founded on some rather spurious data and certainly non-reflective of the vast, complex and increasingly influential Asia region. I believe it is behavioral differences and personas that ultimately need to be better addressed in well considered workplace environments and then in turn, environments that enrich our Experience of 'going to work' (in an office).

07.21.2015 | Unregistered Commenterphilip tidd
Awesome information in the post
07.29.2015 | Unregistered CommenterSakari Naukari
Caroline, Very enjoyable read & spot on summary - liked this comment in particular: '...like any generation they are full of contradictions and are changing as they mature.' Change is the only thing we can depend on in this world, so we might as well embrace it, despite our generational designation. Thank you for composing this post, well done!
07.29.2015 | Unregistered CommenterCecily Tinder
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08.1.2015 | Unregistered CommenterMelisa Bush
Great information in the post

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