Profit Minded

Workplace revolution: Is your business ready for the Fifth Age of Work?

Interested in keeping your Millennial workforce happy, or at least productive? Andrew Jones says if your business is still running in old-school all-hands-on-deck-9-to-5 mode, you should rethink things. There’s a workplace revolution afoot, he says.

Jones, who teaches management and organizational behavior at the Texas State University business school, says cloud-based technologies and the expanding “human cloud” of freelancers are changing where, how, and when work is getting done. The what and why of work are changing too, he says.

Jones’s new book, The Fifth Age of Work: How Companies Can Redesign Work to Become More Innovative in a Cloud Economy, shares what Baby Boomer and Generation X bosses need to know about running a business when your workforce is comprised of the Millennial generation. A management consultant and expert in the history and future of work, Jones is also a partner at Conjunctured Coworking, a members-only home/office in Austin, Texas, where his interactions with hundreds of free-agents have given him firsthand insight to the Millennials mindset. His mission is to contribute to the work revolution by showing business leaders and managers how to redesign their organizations to work smarter and more innovatively with the new generation of workers.

Yahoo Small Business spoke with Jones by phone from his desk at Conjunctured.

YSB: You talk about applying "design thinking" to the workplace. What do you mean?

Jones: Design thinking is expected for product development—it’s applied at the customer level. To date, you don’t see it applied to employees. Why? Because employees are a cost—they aren’t going to buy your products.

But if it’s important to understand the experience of your customers, isn’t it important to understand your employees? By rethinking your space commitments, policies, cost of commuting, cost of electricity, and un-tethering Millennials to let them work according to their own rhythm, companies realize, “Oh, we can grant more flexibility and save money.”

YSB: Without going through the drudgery of 9-to-5 office work as young professionals, will Millennials develop the discipline to be productive when their schedules are so flexible?

Jones: It’s a different kind of productivity. Studies show that office workers are productive a lot less than 8 hours. A lot of face time goes into being a solid office employee. Millennials don’t want that; they want to have drinks with their friends and go to Whistler to snowboard instead. But they’re also much more focused on results. They say, “Let’s slap it together and then I’m going to head to the river for a swim.” They are more results-oriented than previous generations. And that’s one of those things a company can harvest.

You have a network of people who can get stuff done in a quarter of the time and they’re not on the benefits gravy train. Companies are going to realize this is awesome—labor costs are down and productivity is up. Benefits are a huge part of this whole discussion, which is why the Affordable Care Act is central to resetting how these costs are going to be managed.

YSB: What has changed so drastically that you would define this as an entirely new age of work beyond the Information Revolution that started in the 20th century?

Jones: It’s the opportunity for location independence. Prior to the network and cloud computing and the ability to access a network from anywhere, you had to go in to an office to be close to the information. Technology is enabling a return to a mobility and nomadism that early humans existed in for several million years. Some would say that’s how we’re wired as a species—to not be in one place and sit all day. The agricultural revolution led to surplus and but also to slavery and taxation and the Industrial Revolution led to haves and have-nots and owners and workers. The promise of the Fifth Age is mobility and autonomy that goes back to a time when we weren’t enslaved.

We’ve created social cages that keep people indebted to someone else—companies being the most efficient social cage we’ve created yet. You don’t want to leave the job because of benefits and your 401k plan. As more people step out and reject that, firms will have to evolve to accommodate them.

Right now, because of the recession and near 8 percent unemployment, employers still have the upper hand. But 5-10 years from now when Boomers are fully retired there will be a talent shortage and workers will have an upper hand again. If you have a company that expects 50 weeks a year instead of an activity-based work and an open policy and flexible schedule, 25-year-olds aren’t going to go for it.

YSB: You talk about the Cloud Economy, and you’re not just talking about cloud computing but a “cloud" of freelancers. Why do you call it a cloud?

Jones: The first co-working space was set up in San Francisco in 2006. Today, according to Deskmag, there are 3,000 co-working spaces around the world. And Bureau of Labor Statistics research last year suggested that 40 percent of U.S. workers will technically be freelancers by 2020. It’s no longer an outlier phenomenon. That’s a lot of people working by contract for someone and not going to a fixed location. The cloud metaphor is that they work remotely connected to networks wherever they are.

YSB: What is your design-thinking message for small business owners? How can they learn new ways of designing work and creating productive alliances with independent professionals?

Jones: Younger entrepreneurs and small businesses that subscribe to the concept of being a lean or agile startup who seek user feedback, have a flexible, pivoting business model, and bootstrap instead of trying to raise a lot of money are essentially already putting design thinking in action.

If you’re an older person and have the idea that you can write an impeccable business plan, then you could use the ideas of design thinking. Don’t think that because you have revenue, now you need an office. That spirals the costs. If you can avoid that, do. Find a co-working community, have your business mailing address there, connect with other people there.

Just like large employers, small businesses need to recognize that maximum flexibility and mobility has to be part of the equation. If you demand old-school things – whether it’s showing up or working 8-5 – you have to have a good reason, and it can’t be, “I had to do all these things, therefore the next generation does too.”

Nothing gets buy-in and respect from a Millennial more than technical aptitude and chops. If you can’t understand the technology, then they feel they’re in the presence of a moron. They don’t have tolerance for people who don’t get it. Bring yourself up to speed on technology. If you’re a 40- or 50-year-old employer of Millennials, the first change has to be on your part.

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