Giving generation Y staff the freedom they crave might send managers into a cold sweat, but the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks, argues Trevor Ward from AtTask.

The search for a better way to get work done requires that we stand back and take an objective look at the project and portfolio management (PPM) process with fresh eyes.

Thomas Kuhn, who coined the phrase paradigm shift in 1962 said, ‘A paradigm is what members of a scientific community, and they alone share.’ A paradigm shift is a change in the basic assumptions within the ruling theory of science.

It has been recognised that the latest graduate entrants to the workplace, generation-Y, want a high degree of freedom and autonomy in the way they carry out work.

This was most recently highlighted in research by the ILM and Ashridge Business School. However, allowing young and inexperienced graduates the freedom and autonomy to work in the ways they want can be a daunting concept for management.

This digitally native generation favour a more relaxed work environment where managers trust them to get on with work and provide updates as they see fit. Yet fresh faced grads often haven’t had a chance to prove that giving them such freedom is a good idea.

Trust has to be earned and even with the best intentions, the image of a rogue grad undoubtedly congers up all kinds of nightmare scenarios for the managers, who are ultimately accountable for them.

So do the advantages of allowing employees (grads in particular) to work the way they want outweigh the safety of command and control methods?

The obvious benefit of empowerment over control is an increase in employee satisfaction and therefore motivation. From my experience, trusted workers will strive to prove that trust has been well placed by going that extra mile.

Happy workers will put in far more effort and ultimately be more productive than those who are not. Many companies will be painfully aware that survey after survey shows the current sorry state of employee happiness and engagement in the UK, so this must be a factor.

According to Mercer over half of Britain’s employees are unhappy at work and CMI recently found that 70 per cent of managers reported a reduction in workplace morale in a six month period this year. This is not good news for anyone involved.

The purely motivational boost of empowering employees would be a big step for management, but perhaps an appropriate approach to addressing the alarming fact that 50 per cent of graduates plan to leave their current jobs within the next 12 months.

Many companies recognise this approach, but it hasn’t been enough to drive change on its own - surprising considering the high amount of pay freezes following the financial crisis. Instead the business benefits of the ‘democratisation’ have to be made and understood to really drive change.

Steve Denning recently wrote in Forbes that ‘we are moving into a creative economy where what you need out of your employees is not just diligence or intellect, but also creativity and passion’ and in doing so made a very valuable point.
We live in a knowledge economy and, broadly speaking, employees are a company’s most valuable resource. However, the vast majority of companies employ little more than spreadsheet technology to support and manage their most valuable resource.

In it together

A significant part of a person’s work life consists of managing requests from peers, multiple bosses and small, unstructured projects that arise. This is not something that can be effectively managed on a spreadsheet.

Generation-Y have made it clear they want collaborative work spaces and access to the latest and fastest technologies - preferring tools and environments where they can share, comment and collaborate as equals.

Handled in the right way, the technology they crave can deliver the 360-degree view of workplace activity that will not only enable them to work efficiently but also provide managers with the oversight they need.

While generation-Y (and employees in general) need to see their work life portrayed in a simple collaborative environment, business analysts and leaders still need powerful tools and rich data with which to make decisions.

Research by the ILM and Ashridge Business School found that more than half of graduates surveyed would consider an ideal manager as a coach/mentor (56 per cent) or friend (21 per cent), rather than someone who directs (8 per cent) or examines and audits (2 per cent).

In contrast, managers see regular feedback about performance (50 per cent) and setting clear objectives (49 per cent) as the most important behaviours. The benefit of collaborative platforms is that they can be configured to accommodate everyone irrespective of role, task or team.

Forrester found that both knowledge workers and managers alike recognise the potential value in adding peer-to-peer social collaboration and qualitative, information transparency. By working to common goals, individuals are better positioned to assess priorities - setting and adjusting their own deadlines according to business goals.

Utilising the right collaborative work management tools gives generation-Y the control they desire, managers the oversight they need and the business the advantage of having an agile workforce.

In a more democratic workplace like this, individuals are more likely to volunteer for work to which they feel they can add value. The result is individuals playing to their core strengths, rather than stretching themselves too thinly, or conforming to prescribed roles that may not maximise their potential.

Individuals, regardless of seniority, who can share in the greater vision of what they're doing and how their efforts contribute to the success of the organisation as a whole, tend to be engaged and motivated. Still, it’s important to have processes in place to track these contributions so that those with more experience can pass on their knowledge.

The technological knowhow of generation-Y must be embraced for the good of a business and, to support this, management must have the oversight to provide guidance and focus.

Those that don’t democratise work risk losing their employees and ultimately falling behind competitors who are taking advantage of collaborative environments.