Thought Leaders

Why A Positive Workplace Is Now A Right, Not An Expectation

project team staff people

One of the main issues affecting small business owners and human resources professionals is a generational change in employee expectations that appears to have happened in the past decade or so.

Differences in employment arrangements, types of work and durations of tenure have combined with cultural developments in the way young people have been raised and educated to create a fundamental realignment in the relationship between employer and employee.

Whereas, in the past, there was a greater power imbalance between the two, the relationship today is more democratic.

Up until the turn of the millennium, baby boomers and Gen X workers could expect to stay with the same employer for 30 years or more, before retiring with a carriage clock.

There was a higher level of dependency on a single employer who assumed more of a patriarchal role than we see today, when workers don’t expect to stay with the same company or organisation for longer than a couple of years at most.

Millennials’ average time in a job is two years and nine months while, for Gen Z workers, it’s just two years and three months.

As a result, employees are in a more powerful position than they were in the past, able to sell their labour in a more open market to the highest bidder.

This means that they can demand better treatment and greater reward from their employer, and this has perhaps led to a misperception that younger people are more demanding, and even entitled, than their parents were.

Caricatures that depict younger workers as woke snowflakes who are self-absorbed, wasteful or greedy are missing the point. They are simply a reflection of modern market conditions and power dynamics.

What might have seemed demanding or capricious behaviour in the past is routine for Gen Z and Millennials because of the changeable and uncertain employment world in which they operate.

In a tight employment market, companies might have to ‘overpay’ employees because of the nature of the business and the skills and knowledge they have accumulated.

With modern workers changing jobs so frequently, it’s difficult to manage their expectations because they are always on the lookout for change. With vacancies outstripping supply of labour in many sectors, young people recognise rightly that they are in demand and worthy of greater reward.

I don’t understand business owners who complain about the attitude of their employees, because it’s a bit like arguing with the weather. Rather than challenging it, I’d rather be seen as a fair-minded employer who treats their staff with humility and respect.

We have a particular focus on people’s career progression, through continued professional development. Nobody is ever turned down for training, development, or coaching. I am proud that many of our young and inexperienced recruits go on to work in senior jobs in the industry.

One person joined us from Asda, where he’d been working as a shelf-stacker, and after two years he left to take up a well-paid position in cybersecurity with Police Scotland.

Another joined us from Clarks, the shoe shop, and she’s now a consultant with PwC. The first employee I ever took on, joined straight from university and was headhunted by the biggest equivalent of us in North America.

People here go on a learning journey and they have great opportunities to do really interesting work. Our work involves frequent travel for our team to London and Dublin – and even to Amsterdam, Paris, and further afield.

Another radical thing we do is to assess pay levels on the basis of turnover. We have a graph which shows a trend line of salaries going-up as turnover goes up. Our CEO-to-median-worker ratio is around 2:1, and our guiding principle is that everyone benefits from the success of the business, receiving a profit-related bonus when certain criteria are met.

We have a book club, where every team member gets two free books every month – they can buy any book they want – and everyone is sent free Dear Green coffee or specialist tea every quarter.

In addition, we have an electric car scheme, a cycle-to-work scheme, enhanced sick pay and an enhanced pension scheme.

We have a diversity committee, a sustainability committee and we are a Carer Positive employer. We support people with their home office, we have paid-for equipment and, and even in some cases, broadband has been supplied in people’s own homes. We also organise social events for the team.

Does that make us an exceptional employer? I don’t claim to be more moral or altruistic than any other business owner – in part it is boxing clever because offering the best terms and conditions helps us to recruit the best talent, for a comparatively small outlay.

But none of that matters because, at the end of the day, providing a decent working environment for your staff is the best way to ensure you run a successful business.

Recognising the challenges faced by young people and trying to ensure that you do right by them, is the most effective way of ensuring the people you recruit will work hard for you and retain a sense of loyalty.

Few Gen Z workers will have an opportunity to buy their own home; they have grown-up against a backdrop of successive global crises – the 2008 financial crash, the Covid pandemic and now the war in Ukraine – they are witnessing record levels of inflation and wage stagnation, and they are inheritors of an impending climate crisis.

For many, the prospect of car ownership is a distant dream, they will have to live with their parents longer than previous generations, and their pension prospects are meagre – the list goes on.

Offering positive terms and conditions is principally about helping our young staff to learn and develop. If they take it for granted and they don’t see it as particularly out-of-the-ordinary, that’s no reason to stop doing it.

Some young people who haven’t had a job before, don’t perceive that any of this is unusual or better than average, but that doesn’t make them entitled. You have to realise that they are coming at the world of work from a completely different perspective than their elders.

That said, it can be quite refreshing speaking to the more experienced people in the team who appreciate how unusual all of this stuff is, but I wouldn’t take any of it away not least as, financially, it’s not significant when compared with the value of winning a big project.

My goal in life is not to have a gold-plated Ferrari. I’m not motivated by that. I want the business to do well and for everyone to benefit from it, whatever generation they are from.

Colin Bryce is Managing Director of Cobry, a Glasgow-based digital transformation company and Google Cloud partner    

Colin Bryce
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