Youth Inc.

The new work ethic

As youngsters embark on their professional lives, many companies are adapting to match their unique needs

When inMobi decided to expand its office space to include an additional floor in Bengaluru’s Pebble Beach Building, CEO Naveen Tewari had just one request: he wanted a workstation overlooking the adjacent KGA Golf Course. There are no rooms or cubicles at this mobile advertising firm, not even for the CEO, only meeting rooms named after blockbuster animation movies. “They refused,” Tewari said ruefully at an earlier meeting with Outlook Business. “Nothing unusual about that,” says Monisha Tambay, VP, global people operations at inMobi. “We don’t believe different levels should have different benefits. More often than not, the leadership team has its meetings at the Barista downstairs because they forgot to book the meeting rooms in advance.” Indeed, it’s not unusual to see employees walking around with coffee in one hand and laptop in the other, plonking down next to any available power outlet. 

Welcome to the office of the future. You know those irritating mail forwards everyone has received at some time or the other, on the coolest offices in the world? The ones where you can bring your goldfish, your dog and your bike into office, play foosball and get a massage, eat exotic foods and sample coffees from around the world, and all on office time? As it happens, some of those perks are now appearing in offices across India as well. There’s for instance, Makemytrip where you can do some wine tasting; Intel where you have fresh vegetables delivered in office and then there’s L&T, where you can learn to dance from Terence Lewis.

There is a good reason why these offices bear no resemblance to the dark, wood-panelled cabins of the 1980s and or even the boxy cubicles straight out of a Dilbert comic strip. While most countries around the world are grappling with an ageing population, over half of India’s population is under 25. And according to HR services company Teamlease, close to 12 million youngsters will join the workforce every year for the next 20 years in India. Indeed, Gen Y (those born after 1980) will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. And their attitudes to work and the workplace are worlds removed from how previous generations approached their careers.

Sure, it’s not the first time a new breed of youngsters has shaken things up at offices, but this time it’s different. It’s not just about youth and attitude: there’s globalisation, technological advancement and a completely different macro environment to contend with. And many companies are realising that they will need to reinvent themselves — and their approach to work — if they are to get the best out of this generation. Of course, there are still several who are sticking steadfast to the old ways. Several companies Outlook Business spoke with are changing nothing to accommodate these 20-somethings, neither in their physical environment nor in their attitudes. Not surprisingly, they declined to participate in this story.

Office, office

The most visible sign of change in Corporate India is in its offices. Gen Y’s attitude to work is somewhat different from its predecessors. Young employees want to work with friends and colleagues double up as after-work buddies as well, so they want to be able to bond with them at work too. Which is why many offices have done away with artificial barriers like cubicles and cabins and have instead created ‘break-out zones’ where employees can unwind and relax with each other. “A lot of bonding between employees happens in these break-out zones, not when you’re sitting in cubicles,” points out Jayashri Ramamurthy, head of people operations, engineering and products, Google India. Certainly, Google offices have all the comforts of home — and then some: from ping-pong and pool tables and free, unlimited food to offices equipped with micro-kitchens. “The idea behind such a workspace is not to be one up on other employers but to provide employees the right kind of setting to be able to think out of the box,” Ramamurthy adds. “Who knows, the next big idea may come from two colleagues in a micro-kitchen.” 

Even some traditional business groups are reshaping themselves — literally — to make room for younger employees. Take the RPG group, for instance. Last year, it introduced flexi-timings and created a 4,000 sq ft ‘chill zone’ in the basement of its corporate office in Mumbai where employees can play on the Xbox, read books from the in-house library or just take a break. Next on the list is a drama club where a professional director will be brought in to help employees polish their histrionic abilities. “We have to build around what people like to do professionally and personally. Even a legacy business like ours has to evolve and move ahead with time,” says Arvind Agrawal, president and chief executive, corporate development and HR, RPG Group. At the 113-year-old Godrej Industries, employees are offered flexi-timings, the option to work from home and even a concierge service, in case someone wants help with, say, arranging a party but doesn’t have the time to do it.  

Cooperate collaborate

If the idea behind an open workplace (as opposed to the ‘open plan office’ of a couple of decades ago) is to encourage the free flow of ideas among people who are used to working and moving around in groups, some companies have taken it to the next level, by launching internal networks that allow employees to connect and collaborate. “The millennial generation grew up online,” points out Malcolm Frank, executive vice-president, strategy, Cognizant.

“People who grew up in a more traditional system have a more individualistic approach to problem-solving, whereas the younger generation approaches the problem by solving it online with virtual teams.” Cognizant’s social computing platform has allowed 100,000 users to collaborate on projects, which has resulted in 15% increase in productivity and 8% improvement in on-time delivery. HCL Technologies’ internal networking site Meme is just over a year old, but has 63,000 users who have shared over 58,000 photos and formed 1677 groups. “We believe that in the future people will use social media at their workplace more than they use email and mobiles,” says Prithvi Shergill, global HR head, HCL.  

Meanwhile, what happens with the other social networks that all young people seem addicted to? While companies are harnessing networks for corporate good, there’s no denying that Facebook and Twitter are huge distractions at work; there’s also the added risk of information leaks and airing of dirty laundry. Some companies have a take-no-prisoners approach to outside networks: they’re firewalled at office. Others try to educate their employees. Inside Genpact’s high-security visitor’s lounge are colourful signages about the company and its performance. One of them reminds employees to be professional on social media networks, while the other takes the point forward. Speak for yourself, not the company; don’t reveal full names of co-workers or client information; and think before posting something about the company.

High ambition

Don’t mistake the desire to cooperate with each other to mean a lack of ambition, though. More than previous generations, Gen Y employees want to be part of the decision-making process. Where strategy used to be the prerogative of the senior management, now younger executives want to be part of the bigger, organisational vision. “Some even join the company only if they identify with the company’s vision,” says Ravi Shankar, chief people officer, Mindtree. And their ability to think out of the box often leads them to find innovative solutions to corporate issues. “They want to move fast. This generation understands how business cycles are getting shorter and that if you don’t adapt and innovate on a continual basis, you’re pretty much old news,” says Frank. 

At Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M), an initiative called Mahindra Shadow Boards gives young managers across group businesses a chance to engage in strategy issues that normally would have been the domain of top management. Seven or eight people are chosen every two years and given a strategic problem to solve. At the end of the exercise, they present their recommendations to the top management. “Young managers want an ecosystem where they can make a difference, where they are encouraged to take risks within limits and where they feel empowered,” says Rajeev Dubey, president, group HR and after-market, M&M.  

Work focus

Managing a young workforce isn’t easy, though. Unlike previous generations, which may have been content to accept the status quo, these youngsters — especially those who will join the workforce in the next few years — have grown up voicing their opinions about everything on the net and in social media. In addition, they believe access to information is a given and accordingly expect companies to be open and transparent. “They are not okay with the concept of discretionary powers,” says Mindtree’s Shankar.

Naturally, then, companies perceived as transparent and fair in their working are the ones that will attract the best talent. “What I like about Google is that it doesn’t matter how high or low we are in the hierarchy. If something is not working, we can always talk to the person in charge and they will surely act upon the suggestion,” enthuses Udita Talwar, a design specialist who joined Google straight out of college five years ago. Ramamurthy points out that Google emphasises communicating with employees. At the weekly all-hands meetings, Googlers can ask the senior executives and even the company founders anything about company issues. “Companies that have a younger workforce should ensure there is no cultural hierarchy. While you need levels of hierarchy, there have to be channels where senior management can communicate with the younger workforce,” she adds.

Indeed, one of the bigger changes Gen Y is bringing into today’s workplace is in organisational structures. Organisations are becoming flatter, there is more movement horizontally and between geographies and switching of roles. “Flatter organisations are necessary for bringing the top management closer to reality and for helping employees learn more quickly,” explains Sumit Mitra, group executive-VP, Godrej Industries. What that means for employees is that career paths need not always be linear. “Many people don’t want to know when their next promotion is coming. They want to know the next product launch they can work on or the next new technology they can champion,” points out Tambay.  

Tough love

While companies are ensuring they offer as much flexibility as possible to their employees, the emphasis on performance and meeting targets remains etched in stone. “Our HR philosophy is embodied by what we call tough love,” says Adi Godrej, chairman, Godrej Industries. “We take care of our people, but we are also tough on them on performance.” Most companies say that in the right environment, Gen Y is largely self-motivated, so companies let them find their own benchmarks. IT company Mu Sigma, for instance, follows the Montessori approach where each individual is his own benchmark. “Instead of appraisals once or twice a year, we give regular feedback sessions every two months where the employee is assessed against himself. There is no constant comparison and at the same time, the employee knows what he needs to improve,” says Ambiga Dhiraj, head of talent management, Mu Sigma.

Meanwhile, it is imperative that older employees are kept happy as well. In their rush to keep Gen Y workers satisfied and build loyalty among the group, it is all too easy for companies to forget their older employees or, worse, dismiss their working style as ineffective or inefficient. “The biggest challenge in a multi-generational workforce is managing expectations,” says Mitra of Godrej, where 22% of the 22,000-odd employees are below 30. “Someone who has worked for 30 years may not be willing to experiment and may want to settle into a role for the next five or six years. The younger generation wants to do 20 things together. Designing systems and processes that suit both is very important.” 

The trick, then, may lie in creating mentor roles for senior executives. That’s something companies such as Bharti Airtel, Hindustan Unilever and Infosys are already following. “As the new generation assumes more responsibility at a much younger age, it is important that they interact more with people who have more life experience, as they form a good sounding board,” says HCL’s Shergill. 

Workforce dynamics are likely to continue to change — and change tremendously — for the next several years. Whether it’s the time spent at work, where the work is done or how it is done, Gen Y’s needs and desires will transform the workplace. But no one really seems to be rueing the change, although they do recognise that corporate technology levels need to catch up substantially to what youngsters are already used to. “There are a lot of companies where technology has to catch up with the employee’s ability to work through social networks,” agrees Mindtree’s Ravi Shankar. “But you have to be open to debate; otherwise employees will take the debate outside.” With every new generation that enters the workforce come sweeping changes. One thing is common to all, though: they all want workplaces that are equitable and open.