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Designing the Millennial Workplace

Designing the Millennial Workplace

In the movie The Intern, a 70-year old Robert De Niro is hired to work in an online fashion start-up. Selling woman's clothes. With a highly personal touch. And great customer service. A bit like Zappos without any shoes.  

He's hired to work with the CEO. Who cycles around the office. Flits between meeting after meeting. Is late for everything. Has no time for anything. Yet somehow keeps the company going.

Bar her EA, everybody at the company seems to be having a ball. Totally relaxed dress code. Trendy industrial space. A good news bell. They cheer website clicks as they come in.  

The EA is highly qualified. But used as a dogsbody. Has to do everything. All the shit. And is woefully under-appreciated. Almost ignored. Until she has an emotional breakdown. 

At first, the CEO ignores De Niro. Gives him one five minute meeting. Then nothing. But he notices things. Does things off the bat. Remains professional. And becomes a silent mentor for her. Experience and old-style loyalty. Having her back. Helping her shape her day. Do her work. Respect her EA. Save her family. 

And then, because he's working in a Millennial environment, he stresses out. Grows a mohawk. And starts muttering to himself in the mirror. Or maybe I'm getting my films mixed up? Although the mohawk is important. 

Understanding the Millennial Workplace

Millennials have always lived in a fast-paced world. Instant information. Instant communications. Do it now, now, now. They don't work well with traditional control methodologies. Cope with technological pacing. Or bureaucratic formalization.  And definitely not cultural normalization. These things are not just passé to the Millennial. But evidence of managerial incompetence.  

For the Millennial, being “yourself” is key. The "real you" is curious, innovative and creative. Vital skills for the new world. Quirkiness, wackiness and weird self-expressionism are crucial. Required for creative success. 

The guru of strong culture, Tom Peters, has bought into the new way of working. He argues that traditional management control restricts the natural capacity of humans. Stops them being innovative, curious and imaginative beings.  

For Peters, strong cultures are dead.  He wants the “play ethic” to replace the "work ethic".  See a new creative class rise up. We get told to hire zanies, nutters, freaks and mavericks.  People who express their natural, creative curiosity. Create playful and fun organizational environments. Joyful anarchies. 

Designing the Millennial Workplace

How do we design organisations that enable this? That can be staffed by randoms? We make them fun. Why? 

We think high levels of fun will lead to playful workers falling in love.  With the company! So we develop permissive attitudes around the idea of attraction. Displays of sexuality are seen as a positive feature of work. We allow or encourage risqué and sexualized clothing.  Call centres become sexual playgrounds. Mixing personal and vocational pleasure. 

We try to industrialize bohemia. To nurture troublesome, insolent and anti-authoritarian employees.  Recruit people with countercultural and anti-capitalist tendencies.  Hire the free-spirited artistic rebel. Or the bohemian beatnik or hippie.  

We develop unconventional job titles. Such as creative paradox, corporate jester or learning person. Let them “be themselves.” Authentic and passionate. Adding value in weird and wacky ways. 

Criticising the Millennial Workplace

We need to step back and think. What if these authentic behaviours are actually inauthentic? Are workplace ethics and values becoming irrelevant? Replaced by an obsession with appearance, experience and the aesthetic pleasure of work. For everyone who thrives and survives, there are others who are critical and disengaged. 

Perhaps so. For everyone who thrives and survives, there are others who are critical and disengaged. Given current stats, perhaps the latter outweigh the former. Significantly!

Why? It seems an ironically informed ambivalence is the defining ethos of Generation Y’ers.  It turns against the capitalist values that the strong culture movement once expounded. But it's a trick. A misdirection. Because it embraces them even more! Hence the feelings of discomfort. And the increasing disengagement. 

We encourage Millennials to exhibit anti-capitalist feelings. Then use them for capitalist purposes.  By crafting out images that represent the organization’s authentic, anti-capitalist instincts.

The hipster drinking a craft beer brewed by the leading industrial brewer in the world. The chic young girl living her anti-cultural life through a smartphone. Relaxed rebels chilling after a skydive with a soft drink. 

All supposedly authentic. And all fake. 

Which takes me back to Robert De Niro's mohawk. And the new working environment.

See my point? 

The new Millennial workspace sells itself as authentic. But is peddling the same old inauthenticity that plagued its predecessor. The strong culture workplace undermined by cynicism and sarcasm. The only difference is the non-conformist has become the conformist. Whilst thinking he is defined by his anti-cultural hipster differences. 

The new way of working needs to be better than the old. It needs to be more than repackaging old ideas into new boxes. That way, we'll really be in a transitional world.

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