Teams, tweeting and Generation Y: why business should welcome ways of working from a new generation

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Generation Y – those born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s – have been described as the iPod generation, Generation Me, ‘boomerang’ kids and the Peter Pan generation. Graduating from university with crippling debts and facing a bleak economic environment, they’re widely thought to be narcissistic and hedonistic – but also idealistic, socially aware and comfortably at home in a digital world.

However, while the popular image of the social media savvy entrepreneur or start-up starlet might be widely recognised cultural types, relatively little is known about this generation's interaction with traditional workplace cultures and standards.

As Generation Y establish themselves in the world of work, it's important that businesses and HR leaders consider carefully the impact that this shift in the balance of numbers - if not power - will have on workforce dynamics.

Recent research carried out by consulting firm, Cedar into team working produced some surprising findings. While 42% of UK employees aged 16-24 prefer working alone to working as part of a team, the average across all age groups stands substantially lower, at 37%. This suggests that today's graduates would rather forge their own path than integrate with teams in larger, traditionally-structured organisations. But a closer look reveals a more nuanced picture of the way in which Generation Y's approach to work and working relationships differs, substantially and fundamentally, to that of their parents.

Just 21% of those aged 16-24 felt that working with particularly chatty colleagues led to wasting time at work - a full ten percentage points lower than the average across all age ranges. Similarly, younger workers are comfortable with constant digital communication: just 21% said that time was wasted by long email chains with lots of people copied in, compared with 31% of older workers.

Generation Y are also much more likely than their older colleagues to find social events - from a chat over a cup of tea to drinks after work - to be an important part of team building and bonding.

It is clear, then, that Generation Y's preference for working alone does not equate to a preference for working in isolation. While they may not opt naturally for structured, traditional team-working practices, they are interacting constantly: having grown up with the internet and then social media, their personal and professional networks are largely amalgamated, and they're as likely to treat an evening in the pub as an opportunity for professional networking as much as a social occasion.

However, it's important for managers of Gen Y employees to remember that team working skills are not innate. University work is typically individual and self sufficient, and whilst graduates are used to self motivation and organisation, they may not have experience of addressing the challenges of working with others. In addition, the recession has created a great deal of anxiety amongst young people about their job prospects, and may well be responsible for an 'every man for himself' attitude that ironically diminishes their ability to work collaboratively.

Meanwhile, younger workers are more likely than older workers to perform sub-optimally or to take unnecessary sick days if they feel that the team environment at work is poor, indicating higher sensitivity to the workplace atmosphere as well as a lower level of unconditional loyalty to their employer. Less willing to tolerate poor working relationships, Generation Y will give less than their best, or move elsewhere to find a working environment in which they are personally, as well as professionally, at home.

All these observations have profound implications for businesses and HR leaders. While it may be tempting to find ways to mould Generation Y to fit the current organisational models and practices, attempts to do so will, inevitably, be fruitless: as the workforce evolves, so working methods must too. And there is a further reason for embracing change - with their instinctive desire to keep everyone in the loop and natural affinity for blending work with life, Gen Y workers can play an important role in making the workplace a more collaborative, trusting environment.

Penny de Valk (pictured) is chief executive of career management consultancy Cedar

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