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The Workplace

Bringing Down The Boss

Why employee empowerment means the end of corporate hierarchy

Man the barricades. The workplace as we know it is under attack. Whatever your political persuasion, it is a truth universally acknowledged that 2016 has been a year of battle lines: young versus old, urban versus rural, blue collar versus elite. Populism is on the march and our institutions are experiencing the full force of its followers’ visceral anger. The message is clear: lose touch with the people and you will fall.

This is as true in the workplace as it is in the voting booth. Offices were traditionally top-down hierarchies where management called the shots, but technology has disrupted the order of things and put powerful tools into the hands of even the most junior employees. Equipped with the ability to work independently outside the office structure, this digital native cohort has been emboldened to demand change. How can we bridge the gap, regain employee trust and harness the power of an unruly worker who will no longer blindly follow orders?

The Backlash

Remember the days when junior hires reflected the Victorian mantra that children were to be seen and not heard? Ten years ago, most juniors would need to be carefully coaxed into contributing to a meeting, or even a conversation. Today, it’s all but impossible to stop the intern emoting. This shift in workplace dynamic fuels the common myth that millennial employees are incredibly entitled and simply not willing to put in the hard graft.

This may be how older managers experience working with them, but when seen from the employee’s perspective, it’s more often a case of the existing corporate structure no longer being fit for purpose. This new wave of workers are simply unwilling to accept the inflexibility, inefficiency and presenteeism that’s built into our workplace logic, and they aren’t afraid to tell you so. What’s more, if you’re not listening, then they’re not afraid to tell lots of other people, too, whether that’s in the office or online. Just as we’ve seen the Western democratic process and our institutions rocked by votes of no confidence in the status quo this year in both Britain and the US, so, too, are we seeing a workplace backlash.

A recent report by online education platform Udemy that focused on younger millennials (20- to 24-year-olds) found that they’re twice as likely to be bored at work as baby boomers, which means they’re also twice as likely to change jobs in the next six months. This will only get worse as Generation Z (those born between 1990 and 2000) hits the workplace. They’re the next wave to graduate and will make up 20 per cent of our talent pool by 2020. Having never known a world without the internet, they are even more professionally promiscuous than millennials and know that their technological skills are at a premium. Ignore the worker backlash at your peril.

Transparency Revolution

Transparency has been one of the great buzzwords of the 21st century. From rating sites such as TripAdvisor to the political upheaval of WikiLeaks, the digital desire to set information free has transformed our society. The workplace is likely to be next. When LinkedIn launched in the early 1990s, few could have foreseen that this slightly clunky, corporate networking site would grow to become a gateway tool for doing business around the world.

Glassdoor takes things to the next level. Whereas LinkedIn is about individuals, Glassdoor is about the businesses themselves. It applies the same logic to the workplace that TripAdvisor applied to travel and hospitality, turning the mirror on the service provider by allowing anonymous ratings. Corporate culture is no longer something you can whitewash on your company website, but is now laid bare for all to see alongside a five-point rating system. The site now has more than 500,000 businesses registered in its database, with the average company scoring in the region of 3.2 to 3.4 out of a possible five points. This would mean average employee satisfaction is less than 70 per cent, which, although not disastrous, certainly points to a lot of disgruntled employees out there, who now have the digital tools to vent their anger.

The only way for employers to guide this conversation is to join it, but surprisingly only 4,000 of the businesses ranked on Glassdoor have paid for premium accounts that help them manage their online reputations. This is sure to change dramatically in coming years.

Boomerang Workers

We’ve reached a tipping point when it comes to empowered employees, and there’s no going back. Digital technology has wired us to behave in different ways, for better and for worse, so to expect existing institutional structures to survive unchanged is naive at best. Businesses need to recognise the transformations taking place and actively remodel themselves to take advantage of them.

Take the alumni network, for example. Old boys’ clubs may sound archaic, but educational institutions have always understood the value of a loyalty fostered by three years of living, learning and libating together. As employee turnover inevitably increases in the years to come, bosses need to start harnessing the latent value of former employees. Instead of serving marching orders and slamming the door behind them, ex-employees should be seen as ambassadors for your business.

Not only that, they should be seen as potential future hires, too. As turnover increases, the phenomenon of the boomerang worker is on the rise, where someone will leave a company, spend a few years skilling up and developing their network, before rejoining that same company at a more senior level. According to a recent survey by the Workplace Trends practice, 76 per cent of HR professionals are happy to hire boomerang workers, even though almost half of them had formal policies against the practice in the past. It’s also likely to become more and more common as the younger cohort moves up: 46 per cent of millennials would be happy to return to a former employer, compared with only 29 per cent of baby boomers.

The Purpose Gap

In an ideal world, businesses would swiftly evolve to match the fluidity of the empowered employee. That’s not the world we live in, however, and a high staff turnover is still incredibly costly. Studies vary on the true cost of losing an employee, but it could be anything from 15 per cent of salary for an untrained worker to well over 200 per cent of salary for a highly skilled position.

So what do we know about the empowered employee and how can we respond in a way that provides greater stability to our businesses? First up, they value transparency above all things and want to feel strategically involved in the business. Tools such as Glassdoor are a largely untapped resource for businesses, but companies need to start actively building their digital profiles and engaging with negative feedback to see what can be improved.

The statistics tell us that we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge our juniors, either. Research from The Intelligence Group shows that 64 per cent of millennials would rather make $40,000 in a job they love than $100,000 in a job that bores them. This doesn’t mean push your team harder and pay them less (sorry about that); it just means that pay increases will not buy loyalty if the work is dull.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, provide an inspiring narrative that shows your business is about more than the bottom line. According to Deloitte, 87 per cent of millennials believe that measuring the success of a business is about more than financial performance. To buy loyalty in these uncertain times, we need to redefine success to encompass a greater sense of purpose – be that social, cultural or ethical – because it’s only by closing this gap between what the empowered employee wants and what a business is willing to provide for them that we can hope to regain some semblance of stability.

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