(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)
For years, many business owners my age – in our 50s, which by some accounts is about the average age of the typical US business owner – have complained about the younger, millennial generation.
They’re so different, we would say. They don’t want to work the way we do!
And why should they? It’s not that these employees are less talented, loyal or lazier. It’s just that this generation has different priorities and one of those priorities is simply balance. In study after study, younger workers have made it clear they want the option to work more from home. They want more flexibility and more independence. They want more freedom. Yes, they can get their jobs done. But they don’t necessarily have to be doing it in the office all the time.
Many smart business owners I know embraced this new way of working. They made investments in mobile tools. They expanded the ability for employees to work from home. They responded to the demands of the younger workers and they upgraded their technologies. Unfortunately there were many others who resisted.
Then came a global pandemic. And the workplace was suddenly turned upside down.
Businesses across the world were ordered by their governments to shut down and send their workers home. For these, companies having a remote working policy was no longer a choice. It was a necessity to stay in business. Can you guess which companies adapted to this new reality the quickest? That’s right. The ones who listened to their millennial employees. Rich Cavagnaro, the CEO of Adedge Water Technologies, a water treatment company near Atlanta, was one of those business owners.
“I had moved a millennial to be in charge of my sales team at the beginning of the year, I had another millennial that I put in charge of my application engineering team and then I had a third millennial that in last fall moved into the responsibility of my project management group,” Cavagnaro told me in a recent webinar I moderated for the financial services firm Principal Financial Group. “In the engineering community you come to the office. You have blueprints. You have drawings and layouts and you’re marking them up and that’s generally how our business has been conducted. But because we moved my millennial people into management positions, we were able to transition so easily to a remote way of doing business – it really was quite remarkable and fascinating how easy we migrated to being a remote workforce.”
The business owners I know like Rich respected the points of view of their younger workers. Like him, they realized that to be competitive and attract the best talent, they couldn’t run their businesses like they did even 10 or 20 years ago. There are smartphones and tablets and 5G connections. There are fast and secure cloud-based applications that process payables, accept orders, facilitate conversations, share documents and enable projects to continue. These applications are mature, reliable and mainstream. I should know – my company sells a few of them.
Like many millennials, I’ve been telling my older clients for years that they need to adopt new remote working policies built on cloud technologies. Some have, but many resisted. In the end, they were dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.
So what did these businesses learn? They learned that the cloud really does work. They learned that their workforce – at least most of their workforce – could be trusted to do their jobs from their own homes. They learned that virtual meetings and video conferences can be just as good as the real thing. They learned that those gosh-darned millennials were right all along.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that it’s important to take seriously the advice of the younger members of our workforce. I realize that they don’t have the same amount of business experience as an owner in his or her 50s. But there are a lot of things this generation does know that we don’t and a lot of new perspectives those employees can bring to our businesses.