Handing the keys to Gen Y
Raised on social media, Gen Y workers have special skills in pulling together solutions. But how do you build engagement in them to be agents of change?
In recent years, many have focused on the challenges of Gen Y, the latest generation of workers to arrive in and begin to reshape the workplace. For me, they aren’t of merely academic interest. I live in a country where Gen Y represents nearly 40 per cent of the population. I work in a company where the average age of the 87,000 employees is 28. I share a home with two teenagers. I see Gen Y not just as a challenge, therefore, but as a great opportunity.
When an organisation is as large as HCL, and depends so much on front-line client experience, it’s impossible to put all the consequential decisions in the hands of veteran executives. Somehow, the organisation must be managed such that young, customer-facing employees are (a) committed to the company’s mission and (b) smart enough to be trusted to take decisions and initiative, not just direction.
Traditionally, employers could count on their fresh-faced hires to bring more zeal than skill. With Gen Y, that changes. This cohort is surely “smart” enough: Today’s young people are able to lay hands on volumes of relevant information, irrespective of experience or position. What’s more, Gen Y workers raised on social media have special skills in pulling together solutions, and they know how to mobilise their networks. In today’s world, this ability to quickly collect and make sense of information and respond in real time often trumps experience.
Add to these capabilities the general dissatisfaction with the status quo that comes with youth, and the drivers of dramatic positive change are in place. But true change will happen only if Gen Y employees are engaged enough at work to want to make a difference. Unfortunately, recent studies show that this commitment is often lacking.
One way to build engagement in Gen Y workers is to appeal to their sense of connectedness to the world and belief in their potential to be agents of change. We did this with Power of One, a programme that allows employees to contribute time and energy to social causes.
But such efforts aren’t enough. My opinion: Real engagement in the work itself comes as a result of the trust you place in employees to take the right action using the resources at their disposal. When decisions are made by senior executives far from the front line, it is little wonder that Gen Y workers are unenthusiastic about implementing them! Give them the power to quickly initiate and implement innovative ideas, and engagement will follow.
So what is management’s job in this scenario? Managers should exist to support the energetic efforts of young workers, enabling and coaching rather than deciding and directing. They should provide greater access to knowledge and collaborative networks. They should make it easy for employees to build horizontal networks that span organisational boundaries and tap diverse areas of expertise. They should enable employees to temporarily step out of formal lines of management and join forces fluidly to respond to market opportunities.
And here’s another audacious idea: Management could be held accountable in that inverted role. At HCL we launched a super-360-degree appraisal, in which any employee can assess a manager who has an impact on his work. What’s more, the appraisals of every senior manager, including me, were published on the intranet and viewable by all 87,000 employees.
In most businesses, true value is created in what I call the “value zone,” where employees work directly with customers to solve their problems.
My advice: Don’t wait to see high engagement levels before letting young employees enter this zone. Unleash their abilities — and then step aside.
Vineet Nayar is the vice chairman of HCL Technologies.
© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.
Real engagement in the work itself comes as a result of the trust you place in employees to take the right action using the resources at their disposal.