Today’s middle market workplace is changing rapidly, as technology and the composition of the workforce continue to evolve. Baby Boomers are moving into retirement; millennials are now the largest generational cohort in the labor force; digital technology is enabling more remote working and changing the way middle market companies recruit, hire, and engage their employees.

The NCMM recently spoke with Jeanne Meister about workplace trends, and how they’re impacting middle market companies. Ms. Meister is a founding partner of Future Workplace, an HR Research and Executive Network and co-author of a new book, The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules for Mastering Disruption in Recruiting and Engaging Employees.

What are some of the driving forces pushing workplace trends for middle market companies?
The changing composition of the workforce is driving some of the trends. We have a multigenerational workforce with five to six generations. One impact of a multigenerational  workforce is more older employees being managed by younger employees. Future Workplace’s “Multigenerational Leadership Study” found that 83 percent of all employees have seen millennials managing older workers in their offices.

Another driver is what I call the blended workforce of employees, contractors, and artificial intelligence. We now have 54 million people, or a third of the American workforce, who work on-demand as independent contractors plus chatbots, defined as an artificial intelligence computer program designed to simulate a conversation and assist workers in their jobs. 

How are millennials different from other workplace generations?
Millennials want what we all want: purposeful work, flexibility to work when and where we want, and access to continuous, on-demand learning. Millennials also  want  a more personalized workplace experience, meaning access to targeted mentoring, benefits customized to their needs, and a work culture which values growth and development at work. 

One company profiled in the book for its recent inspiring development of high potential young leaders is Dow Chemical and its Leadership in Action program. This program combines global citizenship with leadership development in a six-month program where Dow Chemical leaders solve business challenges faced by companies in regions where Dow Chemical is growing, such as Ghana, Ethiopia and Indonesia. The types of projects these leaders work on range from STEM related education to ensuring access to safe, high-quality drinking water.

How is today’s multigenerational workforce a challenge for middle market companies?
When companies heavily market new benefits tailored to a particular generation’s preferences, this can create workplace resentments. For example, millennials are increasingly voicing concerns about their student loan debt and some organizations such as PwC have responded by providing them with a student loan debt repayment benefit of up to $1,500 per year for five years. Generation X, who is at a different stage of life, may feel left out.  Some  Generation Xers are asking their employer for assistance to finance college education for their kids.

With all the challenges created by multigenerational workforce, we are seeing some companies offer new training in “Generational IQ,” in order to help employees better understand the similarities, differences and expectations of all generations in the workforce. Think of Generational IQ as the new needed skill set for the future workplace.

As aging Baby Boomers increasingly move into retirement, how can middle market companies avoid a “brain drain” of necessary know-how?
Baby Boomers are often looking to reduce their time in the office as they near retirement. So some companies are enabling Baby Boomers to work part-time or as faculty in their company’s training department to share their knowledge,  mentor younger employees, and transfer their institutional knowledge on project-related work.

Companies like Accenture, Deloitte, McKinsey and other consulting firms have created alumni networks of former employees, which is a way of tapping into their knowledge base, recruiting former employees to return to the company, and even creating referral networks so former employees can refer new talent to the company. Research has shown that only 15 percent of companies have formal alumni networks but another 67 percent have employees who independently organize informal alumni groups. Companies need to be more proactive in working with their alumni. 

How should middle market companies be “re-thinking” their workspaces to better engage employees?
Middle market companies can expect to see less need for office space, perhaps 20 percent less, due to the growth of remote working. A well-designed workspace should drive culture, enable choice, and promote wellness. Research has found that workspaces need to be a balance between open, quiet, and focused space.  

With the majority of our waking hours spent working, there is a growing demand for healthy workspaces. This has led to the creation of WELL Building Standard (WELL) a certification to measure the impact of a building on the health of an employee. Just as LEED promotes green buildings, WELL measures a building’s impact on a person’s well-being.  

In what ways is technology serving both as a middle market workplace disruptor and enabler?
The World Economic Forum estimates 7.1 million jobs will be lost between now and 2020, with two thirds of these jobs in white collar areas such as administrative support and paralegals. We are now half way through a century-long transformation moving us from automating physical work to automating knowledge work. But technology is also creating new jobs such as Data Scientist, YouTube Content Creator, and User Experience Designer.

I wrote about this for Forbes, in an article called Three Ways to Prepare for the Impact of Intelligent Technologies in Your Workplace. Business and HR leaders need to ask themselves three big questions: What key jobs will be impacted by intelligent technologies? What are key strategies employees can use to deal with intelligent technologies? What can a business and HR leader do about the impact of intelligent technologies in their organization?

What is this “right” mindset for middle market companies in adapting to emerging workplace trends?
Middle market leaders will need to be comfortable with a “VUCA” workplace that’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. It’s no longer about asking “if” disruption will happen, but understanding that it’s a matter of “when.” Leaders will need to be workplace activists in order to prepare for this rapid pace of change. They’ll need to plan for alternate future states happening in the workplace, and recognize that if you’re not disrupting your industry, your competitor probably is.