By Anton van Heerden, Managing Director at Sage HR & Payroll
South Africa, like many developing nations, is a young country. People younger than 35 years old make up about 66% of the total population and around half of our people are aged under 25. As businesses, one of the largest challenges we face is catering for this population’s expectations of the workplace.
If we harness our young people’s energy and innovative spirit, they could turn into one of our country’s biggest assets. However, many organisations are still stuck with organisational structures and old management paradigms that are not optimal for our idealistic and diverse youth population.
Here are some ways the workplace is changing as Millennials (those born after 1980) make their mark and the first generation of “Born Frees” (those born after 1994) come of age.
1. Technology takes over
Trend: Youth are heavily exposed to technology today. Their mobile phones are an extension of themselves and they spend a lot of time online messaging friends, using social media, and watching videos online.
Tip: Take advantage of young workers’ love for, and familiarity, with technology. Give them access to mobile apps that allow them to be productive wherever they are, roll out collaborative tools that have interfaces similar to social media, and use electronic media to communicate with them.
2. Managing diversity
Trend: The average South African workplace today needs to accommodate youth coming from a range of backgrounds in terms of class, ethnicity, culture and race. Youth will enter the workplace with a healthy respect for diversity and a strong belief in inclusion across the lines of race and gender.
Tip: Managers need to be aware of the different backgrounds and experiences of the young people that report to them. They should make a point of listening to, and learning from, their diverse employees - this will help them create a working environment and products that meet the needs of a complex country.
3. Offering guidance
Trend: One way that South African Millennials are much the same as Millennials in other parts of the world is that they value feedback and guidance. They want to know if they’re doing a good job or not, and they want to know how they can improve.
Tip: Make a point of giving younger workers honest feedback in real time, and not just when it’s time for a performance review. Take care to highlight where they are doing well and to offer concrete ideas for where they can improve.
4. From work skills to life skills
Trend: Youth from disadvantaged backgrounds often emerge from schools that lacked the resources to prepare them for life after school. For example, many of them lack basic financial planning skills or insight into workplace etiquette. In addition, they don’t have access to the sort of public health services and welfare safety nets that their peers in wealthier countries take for granted.
Tip: Business in South Africa needs to step in and perform many of the roles that governments perform in richer countries. For example, companies should try to provide younger employees with medical cover, even if it’s simply a hospital plan, and help them with retirement planning or buying insurance.
Depending on the workplace, it might be appropriate to offer optional life skills training in areas such as health and personal finance for employees who need it. It’s not only right to do so, but it’s also good business sense. Financial worry or poor access to health services can damage an employee’s productivity and morale.
5. Getting the balance right
Trend: Youth, especially those privileged enough to have had a good tertiary education, are willing to work hard, but in return expect more workplace flexibility than older workers. They want more freedom to choose their hours, and they also value having some leeway to work from home from time to time. That said, most of them also like collaboration and structure, so a pleasant workplace is important to them.
Tip: Given the soaring costs of real estate as well as growing traffic congestion, workplace flexibility can benefit employees and employers alike. An employee who misses the rush hour by working at home until 10am will probably have a more productive day than one who has spent two hours getting to the office.
But before you decide to support remote working and flexible hours, ensure that you have the right processes, technology and management skills to make a success of it. The policies need to be clear, fair and consistent - and it’s important to remember that not every role is suitable for flexible working arrangements.
6. Dialogue, not dictatorship
Trend: The command-and-control management style of the past isn’t a good fit with today’s workplace. This is especially true in knowledge and services businesses where the workforce is made up largely of bright, ambitious university graduates. Younger employees want to have a platform to voice their ideas, discuss company values, and express their creativity.
Tip: Create formal and informal structures where employees can give feedback. We have found that our employees of all ages love the sense of involvement they get from our annual workplace satisfaction survey.
Regular brainstorming sessions, town hall meetings, and an ideas and suggestions box or email address are also great ways to get younger employees involved in the business. And it goes without saying that managers should have a sincere open-door policy for young employees with concerns or suggestions.
7. Be prepared for change and churn
Trend: The days of a job-for-life are behind us. Today, employees will move around in the early stages of their careers in search of more money or better job satisfaction. Likewise, they understand that today’s economic climate means that there isn’t much job security, even if one has a good job with a blue chip company.
Tip: Identify your top young talent and have regular, frank discussions with them about their future. Help them to advance their careers and learn new skills so that they don’t necessarily need to move to another company for a new challenge. Focus on a holistic employee value proposition that focuses as much on working conditions and work/life balance as on career advancement and rewards.
And even doing all that, accept the fact that you won’t be able to retain every star performer. Make sure that you have access to a pipeline of promising young talent, and keeping building your skills base.