Technology is a major delineator in the workplace

January 18, 2009
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Advancing technology at the start of the 21st century means that communicators need to find different ways to reach the four generations now in the workplace, a Herman Miller researcher said.

Ginny Baxter, workplace dynamics specialist for officer furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, last week provided some insight into the communications habits of the World War II generation, baby boomers, Generation X and millennials to members of the West Michigan chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

From some members of the oldest generation, who have rejected technology such as e-mail and cell phones, to the multi-screen, multi-tasking millennial generation, each cohort has its own way of consuming information, Baxter said.

“Things are incredibly granular,” said Baxter, an interior designer by training, and a University of Wisconsin candidate for a doctorate in design. “Who are you trying to reach? What’s the message? At the same time, the same old rule still applies: Say it six times in six different ways.”

As a member of Herman Miller’s Workplace Insight Group, Baxter said she meets with 90 percent of clients who visit the Zeeland company. That gives her a unique view into the social mechanisms that affect the workplace, she said, including how people today obtain and absorb information.

“I’m always centered around the dynamics of the workplace, and how design then plays a role in that,” Baxter said.

“We take a systemic view. We look at this world of work like a system, and everything’s connected to everything, and we don’t believe we should isolate a single variable and attribute a particular outcome to it.

“One of the questions I was asked was, ‘What color Aeron chair do Gen Xers need to be most productive?’ There isn’t a direct correlation between the color of a chair and the productivity of a particular cohort. We want to understand what kinds of things go into expectations and experiences so we can know what needs to happen within a workplace to support the individuals … but I won’t stand there and say, ‘If you’re a baby boomer born in southern California, this is what you need.’ We’re going to see things from a viewpoint that’s very broad and categories that are going to impact the globe — things like society and technology and the economy and ecology and politics, all of which are in such dynamic play right now. We have to consider that context as we take a look at the generations and communicating with the generations.”

For example, the strained economy is affecting how people perceive the workplace, she said. Ten years ago, a Gen Xer might have landed a job, but then objected to work hours starting bright and early in the morning. “Now, that’s not going to happen in 2009,” Baxter said. “But it happened a fair amount in a fair number of places in ’99.”

But technology is a major delineator of the generations currently in the workplace, Baxter said. The World War II generation watched television rise out of radio; baby boomers welcomed calculators; Gen Xers mastered the World Wide Web; and millennials are shaping their lives via cell phones. Each generation has its own view and use for each succeeding generation of technology.

“Technology is great when we understand it and it does what we expect it do,” Baxter added. “It’s great in doing a number of things, but it’s not entirely predictable yet.”

The remainders of the World War II generation still in the workplace fall into two camps, she said: Those who have embraced technology and those who have rejected it.

“The pace of change is increasing,” Baxter said. Generations used to be counted in segments of about 20 years. The millennial generation is considered to include those born in the 15 years between 1980 and 1995, currently ages 14 to 29.

“We don’t know yet about ’96-plus,” Baxter said. “The biggest difference there is technology. That generation will have always had and expected the Internet all the time.”

That leads to communication differences, Baxter said.

“When you look at generations, you see differences — in expectations of connections, for example. If you look at the vet population, they might expect to connect on an as-needed basis, in terms of using technology. If you look at baby boomers, it probably increases some more. They expect to check in once or twice a day. Xers could check in with their parents when they came home from school, the first generation of latch-key children.

“Millennials expect to be able to connect all the time. The concept that they are untethered is not entirely accurate, because they are the most tethered generation. What they’re tethered to is the ’Net and the cell phone. As long as they are on grid, they’re OK. But pull them off grid, and they’re uncomfortable.”

Some companies Herman Miller has met with have disabled the “Reply All” function on e-mail systems to prevent irrelevant, unnecessary information from flooding e-mail boxes, Baxter said.

“What we’re seeing is an increased capability of increasingly younger generations to sort and determine what they want to pay attention to in a plethora of stimulus. I’ve met with millennials in the workplace who have multiple screens on: their RSS feeds, Twitter and Delicious are on one, and they have corporate e-mail and personal e-mail. They have multiple stimuli and multiple connections, and they’re toggling incredibly quickly back and forth from one to the other.”

Gen Xers are still waiting their turn; their paths to career growth and promotion are clogged with baby boomers who are in no hurry to retire, either because they want to stay active or because the economy has stripped away their financial resources. There are some sectors, however, that are seeing an exodus of boomers, Baxter said.

“Now millennials are on their heels,” said Baxter, noting that the younger generation is nearly as big as baby boomers.

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