Mind the gap: Building workplaces for a digital generation

Are the workstyles of millennials and other younger employees fundamentally different? Gen Xer Tim Kridel explores how the digital generation gap is narrower and more nuanced than it appears.

“They say it’s kinda frightnin’ how this younger generation swings. You know it’s more than just some new sensation.” The first millennials were just being conceived when Van Halen sang that in 1980, and Generation Z wouldn’t be born for another 15 years. 

Today, Millennials (also known as Gen Y) are now the generation with the largest workforce percentage in countries such as the US. Gen Z (roughly 1995-2012) will become about 20% of the workforce in the next five years. 

These demographic trends are changing workstyles and in turn the types of AV technologies that businesses buy. But are the younger workstyles fundamentally more digital? Some research suggests no, while some experiences suggest yes. 

DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2018 studied over 25,000 executives in 54 countries and 26 industries, and found that Gen Xers (mid-1960s to early 1980s) now hold 51% of the top spots. 

“The old leaders wanted to make town halls as a conference call for 500 or 2,000 people. The new leaders want to do a video call to employees.”
“Although they aren’t typically considered digital natives to the extent that Millennials are, Gen X leaders are just as likely to be comfortable using technology in the workplace,” the study found. “That finding is backed up by research by Nielsen, which revealed that Gen X is the most connected generation. Nielsen found that Gen Xers use social media 40 minutes more each week than millennials. They were also more likely than Millennials to stay on their phones at the dinner table and spend more time on every type of device — phone, computer, or tablet. Gen X is bringing this connectivity to work.” 

Video for all 
But some AV firms say they’re seeing younger executives and employees pushing harder for more digital options. One example is Arkadin, which provides unified communications, videoconferencing and other collaboration services for over 50,000 businesses. 

“We have new generations of CEOs coming into companies,” says Damien Bayle, Arkadin managing director for conferencing and events. “The old leaders wanted to make town halls as a conference call for 500 or 2,000 people. The new leaders want to do a video call to employees. 

“We [enable] close to 40,000 events a year. It used to be mostly audio calls. Now more than 10,000 of those are video. It’s a massive trend over the past two years.” 

That trend is one example of how demographic preferences can create challenges for employers and in turn opportunities for AV firms. 

People working on computers in a modern office“The IT teams are completely scared,” Bayle says. “They say: ‘It’s not going to work. My network is going to collapse. I’ll lose my job.’ So at Arkadin, we’re asked a lot to provide solutions for video webcasting, behind the firewall, to solve the network issues of video consumption and interactivity.”

For example, Arkadin finds that younger leaders and employees want support for real-time surveys and chat. 

“It’s very important with these town halls that people can interact with the speakers,” Bayle says. “One-way information is not interesting to millennials. They want two-way.” 

Old dogs new tricks 
At the very least, DDI’s and Nielsen’s research bust the myth that people who didn’t grow up with technologies such as video chat are less willing and able to use them in their personal and professional lives. This research is backed up by the experiences of some AV pros—both as employees, employers and consultants to other employers. 

“I’m in that weird gap that used to be referred to as Xennials (1975-1985),” says Greg Coudriet, a principal at The Sextant Group. “Like Millennials, this generation has fully adopted today’s technology, but we were brought up and educated without it. Facebook, smartphones, etc. were introduced right as I was graduating college and starting my career. 

“Unlike a true Millennial, I am not a digital native. Also, as a young manager, I think Generation X makes a lot of inaccurate stereotypes about Millennials.” 

Some employers say they see a generation gap but that it often winds up closing as older workers start using the technologies that their younger colleagues and customers prefer. “They have absolutely no limits on using video,” Armelle de Madre, Arkadin chief people officer, says about her company’s younger employees. 

“They’ve always used video. We really see a gap in generations on that side. But after some time and usage, even the older generations start using it.” 

Huddle up and hot desk 
Arkadin also is an example of how the physical workspace is evolving, with dedicated offices and even desks giving way to huddle rooms. 

“No more enclosed offices,” de Madre says. “Hot desking for everyone. Even at the headquarters in Paris where we’re moving in December, the CEO will not have an office. He will be hot desking.” 

The proliferation of huddle rooms both reflects and enables the increasingly ad hoc nature of meetings. 

“They don’t want to book anything,” de Madre says. 

“Our clients are using these rooms to retain talent,” adds Joshua Beltran, Biamp Systems product manager. “They want this technology in the building because it’s helping them do their job.”

Younger workers’ preference for ad-hoc meeting spaces is yet another example of how the conferencing market is evolving into a volume play. That can be good news for vendors and integrators capable of evolving their product portfolios and business strategies accordingly. 

“The glacial speed at which many enterprises move when it comes to buying expensive new things really can be outmaneuvered by this super low bar to drastically increasing the capability of any space by adding a PC,” says Chris Fitzsimmons, Biamp product manager. “Using apps in Explorer or Edge or whatever, and putting a camera in, suddenly turns that room into a very smart working environment. [There’s no] need to vet out 15 pieces of hardware, get them put on the network, get an exception from your IT department. It’s super, super easy.” 

Ultimately, whether a business should expand its ad hoc meeting options—from huddle rooms to desktop video collaboration—depends more on the kind of work its employees do than on their median age. 

“I think the vision of millennials as hyper- collaborators isn’t accurate,” says Sextant’s Coudriet. “I think it depends on the task. Much of our design work still requires a lot of individual work and concentration. We just demand ad hoc collaboration when it’s needed. In a lot of ways, it’s the older employees who have a constant need for face-to-face communication.” 

Shadow AV 
When employees—regardless of age—have good personal experiences with a technology, they’re likely to bring it to work without their employer’s blessing or even knowledge. That’s not a new phenomenon, but the cloud makes it easier and cheaper than ever. 

For example, anecdotes abound about departments where multiple employees willingly pay €10 or €20 a month out of their own pocket for a cloud UC service that they perceive as easier or better than what their company provides. In other cases, the low fee makes it easy to slip it past as a miscellaneous item on the monthly expense report. 

Either way, these shadow AV projects can create a host of security and compliance problems. For instance, the collaboration that ensues might need to be discoverable from a legal perspective— but isn’t because it’s not archived. Or worse, it is archived, but in a way that makes it discoverable by hackers. 

These problems are cautionary tales for employers, as well as opportunities for the AV firms capable of providing enterprise-grade solutions. For both, one guiding principle is that employees need to perceive the approved solution as being at least as user-friendly and feature-rich as the one it’s intended to replace. 

“There’s this trend in the past 12-18 months where IT is having to come in and play the heavy: Pick the right one for the company. Get everybody on it. Start making it managed, but not [also] taking away the sparkle that made it work great for Millennials or Gen Z,” says Rob Houston, Biamp product manager. “[The goal is] get it standardised and under control—not in a way that stifles the creativity resulting from it, but in a way that makes their business safe again.” 

Both shadow and company-approved technologies also are opportunities for AV firms to get a sense of how their businesses need to evolve to avoid being marginalised. For example, if workers are increasingly using a new platform, and it doesn’t include video collaboration, chances are that the vendor will add that capability. And when it does, that platform now is poised to displace or replace traditional AV systems. 

Group of professionals brainstorming ideas around a whiteboard“This is the new Outlook,” Houston says of collaboration platforms such as HipChat and Slack. “People check email when they need to, but they spend most of their day in these applications. So what’s happening? Now you’re getting calling and videoconferencing and content sharing in them.” 

Arkadin is seeing this trend, too. “The two biggest trends are the consumerisation of everything in the professional world, and more movement from siloed vendors—specialised vendors in audio, Web or videoconferencing— toward one digital open space where you can just jump in and talk to your peers,” says Eduardo Tarasca, Arkadin global head of market insights, brand and corporate communications. 

Everybody loves easy 
If there’s one thing that every generation wants, it’s ease of use. 

“Younger employees want access to many different modes of communication, and we’ll seamlessly flow between them on demand,” Coudriet says. “I think the biggest challenge is that many older employees don’t participate in these alternate modes of communication.” 

Intuitive UIs are one way to encourage adoption across all generations. “Clients are telling us they want solutions that can bridge the gap between generations,” says Arkadin’s Bayle. “The top requirement is simplicity. They don’t want to read a 20-page manual. They want a video tutorial that’s two minutes maximum.” 

Digital signage results 
Demographic trends also are affecting digital signage. In the workplace, slide decks of company news are giving way to more dynamic content. 

“Digital signage is moving more and more towards entertainment,” says Mark Grassi, a principal at The Sextant Group. 

“The concept of using signage as an information PowerPoint [presentation] has lost its effectiveness. Digital signage must be engaging and interactive to draw the attention of someone, young or old.” 

One stereotype of younger demographics is that they’re jaded by marketing, so they ignore digital out-of-home (DooH) advertising. But this is another area where research suggests otherwise. 

“Given that younger demographics also spend more time out of home, DooH media is particularly effective for reaching and engaging young people,” says Ric Albert, Grand Visual creative director. “It reaches people in a public space, it can’t be muted, skipped, or blocked and has the potential to creatively challenge and stimulate the viewer. It is also perceived as less intrusive than advertising targeting their private online worlds. 

“An interesting observation from OutSmart’s research showed that millennials, steeped in digital media like no other generation, are actually less cynical of traditional advertising formats. Trust in ooH (56%) is actually higher than trust in online video ads (46%) and paid online ads (48%).”  

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