Connecting workplace generations through technology

Rocky OzakiNow of Work (NoW) co-founder Rocky Ozaki chats with us about the importance of technology in the workplace and how to keep different generations engaged.

Technology is one of the pillars of the modern workplace. Without great tech, productivity suffers and employee engagement drops. With that in mind, there are still some very important outliers: employees from past generations who want to understand how technology can help them but lack the means to do so.

This is a story that Rocky Ozaki, co-founder of the Now of Work (NoW), has heard too many times to count. It’s part of the reason why his organization is focused on equipping companies with the necessary tools they need to successfully connect generations and keep them in tune with modern ways of working.

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Could you start off by briefly explaining the concept behind “Now of Work” (NoW)? Why did you feel this change in vernacular from “future of work” was necessary to illustrate what your organization represents?

Ozaki: If companies are waiting for some “future” to arrive before making changes to the way they attract, engage, and retain talent—they’re already on their way to extinction. If they continue referencing the “future of work,” my fear is that they’re becoming too complacent.

Part of the thinking behind the “Now of Work” was to invoke a little more urgency. When people challenge me about why the future of work is now, we couldn’t say the Now of Work was here five or ten years ago. It’s here now because of three key forces: the connected generation, technology, and the sharing economy. One of those three forces I can tie to almost any organizational dysfunction, challenge, or opportunity.

Let’s take a look at the connected generation. For ten years, we’ve been complaining about millenials. The reality for me is that generations aren’t actually different—the world around them has changed. In the ten years that we’ve been complaining about millenials, which is the same ten years we’ve been talking about the future of work, something profound has happened: Gen Z is now in the workforce and millenials are now the majority of workers. 

You also have Gen X. The younger Gen Xers, like me, want a workplace closer to what millenials have co-designed and further from what baby boomers are trying to hold on to. The numbers show that somewhere between 50-60 percent of workers are part of the connected generation. By 2025, it could be upwards of 75-80 percent of the workforce. It’s not only about millenials. How do you ignore this massive cohort that’s in the workplace and demanding something different?

The second force is technology, which is at a pace now that’s actually changing the world and every company is arguably a tech company or will be. The third force is the sharing economy. Most people think of it as sharing goods and services or redistribution, but many people are missing the fact that the sharing economy is also about sharing knowledge and skills. When you combine these three forces, the future is now.

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With respect to the Now of Work, what do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions companies have when it comes to future-proofing their business?

OzakiA lot of companies think of future-proofing as being further away than reality. This is why so many companies want to approach future of work incrementally and get to it someday. It’s not part of the strategic imperative. That’s a huge misconception companies make.

We’ve also found that baby boomers are the generation where a line has been drawn for organizations in terms of change. They resist it. They’ve lived a life of linear change and are often resistant to “future of work” trends such as the open-concept office, modern ways of working, attire, hierarchy, and young people. It’s hard for many, if not most, in this generation.

The misconception here is that the baby boomer can’t adapt. That’s wrong. One example is social media. Even as recently as three years ago, we had baby boomers complaining about kids spending all this time on their phones, particularly on this app called “Facebook.” Fast forward to today and baby boomers are now the biggest adopters of Facebook. They’ve found the value in this platform to see their grandkids and reconnect with old friends, for example.

In their personal lives, baby boomers are adopting technology at their own pace. When they have that control, they’re able to see the value in it. Now change that context to the workplace where the misconception is. How about you nurture them along the way? How about allowing them to be a part of the process? They’ve proven in their personal lives, at least in my view, that they are ready for change if you just take a human-centric approach to the change they’re going through.

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Speaking of baby boomers, competing generational expectations of work seems to be a large issue in a lot of workplaces today. Should the approach differ for the different generations? Or is it a matter of compromise?

OzakiWe’re in a hyper-personalized world. The baby boomers don’t necessarily know that, but younger generations do. Every experience we have in life is becoming more and more personalized. One answer to this question would be to personalize the approach to your audience. Who says we have to work and communicate the same way for everyone in an organization?

The shorter context is that you want to meet them where they are, but people don’t know what they don’t know. What baby boomers could learn is that there are modern ways of communicating that transcend the workplace. The problem is they simply may have not been exposed to it. Stick to modern ways of communicating but help baby boomers understand the why behind that.

One of the gems that I think would really work is reverse mentorship. Partner a younger person with a life experienced person and maybe have that younger person show the value proposition of how they communicate. Whether it’s something like Slack or social media, taking that human-centric approach and building empathy for what the baby boomer doesn’t know will help them discover it.

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A lot of startup culture seems to be based around this idea of freedom and choice. How important do you think that is to employees?

OzakiWe’ve helped many companies roll out remote working policies in the workplace. It generally starts as one day a week, usually a Wednesday; that’s open to everybody. We find that in that first month, almost everyone does it. After three months, what percentage of the team took advantage of remote working on a regular basis? The answer is only about 30 percent.

What we found was that it wasn’t necessarily about remote working itself—it was about choice. People actually like working together and collaborating, but they want the choice of where and when they work. It’s not really about creating a policy that does this or that; it’s about choice. We had to lie about why we didn’t want to come into the office, but it was really about us not feeling so controlled.

Freedom and choice can obviously go too far, but when people have those things in the workplace—they’re more invested in what they do. There are limitations to that but, generally speaking, it’s real. One of the fundamental things we suggest is that, when you have a backlog of work that needs to be done, don’t just delegate it to random team members, ask who wants the task and start there.

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This obviously ties into the idea of workplace leadership. How important is it for leadership to have a strong understanding of technology trends in their industry? Can misinformation trickle down to the lower level?

OzakiIf an executive doesn’t understand how exponential technologies are going to affect their business, then they will be disrupted and/or when that technology comes, they won’t be prepared to adopt it as fast as competitors.

From a team member’s perspective, people want to work with great tech. If you don’t have apps that work and killer WiFi along with solid hardware, you will turn off the connected generation. You may actually lose them because of legacy technology.

Not only do they want to work with great tech, they know what’s going on in the industry. When they see their organization is not adopting technology at the pace at which their competition is, then there’s a massive trickle-down effect in terms of staff attrition and being able to remain competitive as an organization.

Find out more about how Rocky and NoW can help your organization adapt to modern ways of working at their website.

What do you think could be done to make past generations feel more comfortable in the modern workplace? Join the conversation and leave us a comment below.

Photos: Tayeb MEZAHDIA, Lisa Fotios, Nicole De Khors, Matthew Henry