Every fifteen to twenty years, a new generation enters the workplace. This seems always accompanied by a global debate about how the workplace should to adapt to meet the needs of these newest employees in order to attract and retain the best talent. For example, the 1990’s saw the workplace arrival of Generation X. By all accounts at the time, this would usher in a new kind of worker, one who expects to more equally balance work with home life. The presumption was that, as a group, these new workers were less interested in salary than finding a balance between income and other benefits that would afford quality time away from the workplace.
For those of us already in the workplace, it seemed not a moment too soon. The previous decade had been marked by the emergence of phrases like, “faster, better, cheaper,” and “doing more with less,” spurred by an influx of technology and other services that also stimulated longer working hours. Fax machines and worldwide delivery services allowed teams to work longer and closer to deadlines to complete products. E-mail was further increasing the pace of work, by facilitating communication between workers, whether they were down the hall, across the street, or around the world.
When Millennials began to enter the workforce, work-life balance remained an issue even as the global debate shifted to opportunities for collaboration and relevant work assignments. At the peak of the influx, it added facile access to social media. There is now talk about when those in Generation Z begin entering the workforce, which could be in the next five years, depending on where one draws lines between generations. Through three generations, a desire for work-life balance has remained a significant and unresolved issue.
Discrete Generations, or a Continuum?
While it’s easy to categorize those entering the workplace in terms of generations, this may do us all a disservice. Underpinning any genuinely different characteristics between the generations is the technology each grew up with and uses in a relatively native way, and technology only rarely appears as something fundamentally new. Instead, it continually changes, evolving from what had existed before. Only occasionally does that produce something that is later perceived as being new and innovative. This may be said of the social Web, the semantic Web, and the mobile technologies that provide facile access to them and their services.
What is significant in this technology continuum is that there has been a subtle but steady shift in where new technologies are developed, tested, and first widely used. Decades ago, the primary market for new technologies was inside the workplace. Today, however, it’s much more common for technologies, especially Internet-based, to find widespread use outside traditional organizations and only slowly make their way inside. Social media, web-based applications, cloud-based document stores, and online collaboration tools are just a few examples. As these technologies move into the workplace, many workers must adapt to use them, while those newer to the workforce use them naturally. It’s not that the workplace must integrate new technologies (and policies) to cater to the needs of new generations, but rather that the workplace must adapt to stay current for its own benefit.
From Work-Life Balance to Work-Life Fusion
Today, our mobile devices keep us perpetually connected to our online resources, our personal information, and our social networks wherever we are, including while at work. Imagine we’re in a meeting and an idea surfaces. People instinctively reach for their personal smart phones and start searching for key information the team needs to move forward. Now think about that employee who, while working against a deadline, is suddenly distracted when he remembers he neglected to pay an important utility bill. Minutes later, he is again focused on his important work, having quickly dealt with his oversight.
But our devices also keep us connected to our work data, information, and networks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Not that long ago, making a business call from a unusual location was a novelty. Today, joining a business meeting from the beach, major expressway, or even an airplane at 12 km altitude doesn’t raise an eyebrow. How often have corporate executives asked questions about one or more of our programs, tasking us to return answers a week or two later? Today a quick instant message gets answers in near-real time, resolving questions from wherever we happen to be.
Social norms are changing too, further blurring the lines between work and personal life. Using a phone to text during meetings or presentations was once considered rude. Today live tweeting is the norm, and often appreciated.
In effect, the issue of striking a balance between work and life has never been resolved, but has actually become even more significant because technology has catalyzed the pace of work and its always-on nature. At the same time, however, that same technology has mitigated the importance of separating the two by enabling the nearly simultaneous handling of both work and personal objectives around the clock.
Those of us in learning and development departments have long felt the pressure to minimize our interruption of busy employees at work. We responded with solutions that require less time in classrooms, including shorter face-to-face classes. We produced e-learning products that offered the convenience of time and place. As we continue to blend these with many other approaches, are we in a position to match the fusion of work and life and meet the needs of the always-on employee? Are we the able to complement, and not try to compete with, self-directed employee learning? As employees work and learn to an even greater extent outside the workplace, often in spontaneous, short bursts, we will need to figure out how to coexist in that space.
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Based on a work at tom.spiglanin.com.