The 2020 Workplace

2020 Workplace

The 2020 Workplace

By Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd

Never in the history of the modern world have there been four generations—much less five—in the workplace that bring such vastly different sets of values, beliefs, and expectations.

Never has a generation entered the workplace using technologies so far ahead of those adopted by its employer.

Never has it been possible to acquire, use, and seamlessly integrate talent from around the world.

Never has technology made it so possible to connect anyone anywhere asynchronously as a collaborator.

Never before has society put as much pressure on organizations to be socially responsible. 

The changing workplace

  1. Shifting workforce demographics


  • The number of U.S. workers over the age of 40 has increased significantly: 51 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2010 is expected to be 40 years of age or older, a 33 percent increase since 1980.
  • The number of workers aged 55 years and older will grow from 13 percent of the labor force in 2000 to 20 percent in 2020.
  • At the same time, Millennials (individuals born between 1977 and 1997) will be entering the workforce in record numbers. While they currently represent 22 percent of all workers, by 2014 they will make up almost 47 percent of the workforce.
  • The gender composition will also change, as more women are entering the workforce and staying in it.
  • Latinos, who currently make up 15 percent of the U.S. population, will account for up to 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2050.6 

As we move into the future, most workplaces will have five generations working side by side:

  • Traditionalists, born prior to 1946
  • Baby Boomers, born 1946–1964
  • Generation X, born 1965–1976
  • Millennials, born 1977–1997
  • Generation 2020, born after 1997 


With the recession that began in 2008, one of the longest in the post–World War II era, there is a new milestone emerging. Though women still face other issues when it comes to equal employment, women are now about to surpass men on the nation’s payrolls for the first time in history. 

  1. The knowledge economy

The shift in the demographics is related to a larger issue: the changing skill and knowledge levels 

needed to get and keep a job in the global economy. In the next five to ten years, a growing number of jobs will require a significantly more complex set of interdisciplinary skills. The Employment Policy Foundation estimates that 80 percent of the impending labor shortage will involve a skills shortage. 

According to Forrester Research, at least 3.3 million white-collar jobs and $136 billion in wages will shift from the U.S. to lower-cost countries such as India and Russia by 2015. 

  1. Globalization

Globalization. The world is flat. Outsourcing. Today they’re givens, but this was not always the case. Changes in the world in which we live and work in are happening at a rate that does not afford organizations the luxury of managing one major change at a time. 

By 2020, the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries will be the dominant centers of economic influence. 

More striking, though, is how the nature of work is changing in a global marketplace. Regardless of whether your firm is an established multinational or a high-tech start-up, you are likely tapping into a global talent pool and—at least to some extent—managing a virtual workforce. 

This global workplace increasingly places a premium on speed to market, local decision making, collaboration, and open-source innovation. 

  1. The digital workplace

Organizations must grapple with a host of issues on how to manage all this digital content in the workplace, especially when the software, platforms, and infrastructure are operated by others—often called cloud computing. This growth in digital content will affect every part of corporate life, from how employees contribute new knowledge and how they communicate with one another on the job and at home to the type of policies, standards, and guidelines created by organizations to manage this explosion of digital content. 

  1. The ubiquity of mobile technology

Workers are demanding a new deal from their employers. Employees want a choice in how and where they work. 

All this growth in mobile phones has brought with it a surge of innovative uses for mobile devices in learning, starting in primary school. 

Mobile devices are becoming an important tool for corporate learning as well. Companies such as Bank of America, Invitrogen, and Wachovia have pilots under way to deliver corporate training on mobile smart phones. 

Areas of corporate training ripe for delivery on mobile devices are sales training, compliance training, product knowledge, and online performance support. 

  1. A culture of connectivity 

Those who participate in this culture are called the hyper-connected. The hyper-connected are defined as those who are always connected regardless of where they physically happen to be—at work, home, on vacation, in a restaurant, in bed, or even in a house of worship. Increasingly, their personal and business lives are blurring into a single extended conversation. 

“Weisure” time, the next step in the evolving work-life culture. Weisure refers to the blurred line between work and fun. Family, friends, and coworkers are all constantly in touch, using an arsenal of the latest technologies from mobile phones to laptop 

Companies are using social media to address a variety of stakeholders:

  • 41 percent of companies use social media for internal purposes.
  • 34 percent of companies connect with customers through social media.
  • 25 percent of companies work with external partners and suppliers using social media. 

In the 2020 workplace, work is becoming a place to collaborate, exchange ideas, and communicate with colleagues and customers. Your value as an employee will be determined not only by how well you perform your job but also by how much you contribute your knowledge and ideas back to the organization. The ways in which companies develop this culture of collaboration will become a significant competitive factor in attracting and engaging top talent in the twenty-first century. 

  1. The participation society 

 How can companies improve collaboration and knowledge sharing to achieve improved business results? Increasingly they are creating groundswells, a social trend whereby people use technologies to get the things they need from one another, rather than from traditional institutions…the contribution revolution, in which companies tap the creativity of their consumers and turn the knowledge gained into new products, new services, and improved business results. This concept of user contributions is not a new one 

  1. Social learning

If we think of the 1990s as the “e” decade, as in e-learning, e-books and e-libraries, we can envision 2010 to 2020 as the “s” decade, as in social networking, social media, and social learning. We are seeing that corporate learning does not have to be designed and delivered in a top-down fashion. Instead, learning is becoming participatory, social, fun, engaging, and, most important, integrated with work. Whereas Learning 1.0 relied heavily on classroom learning, Learning 2.0 added computer based e-learning, and now Learning 3.0, or social learning, incorporates social media, gaming, real-time feedback, and simulations. Social learning yields new knowledge from a social interaction: a text message, a post on a Facebook wall, a comment on a blog post, an entry on a wiki, a lecture accessed on a mobile phone, or an insight gained from viewing and commenting on a YouTube video. 

  1. Corporate social responsibility

If learning is becoming social, so is corporate philanthropy, which is now business-driven and integrated into the social, ethical, and environmental agendas of a growing number of companies. 

Select a small number of high-potential managers and send them to work in a local business for one month in a region of the world where the company anticipates future growth.

  1. Millennials in the workplace

Millennials, those born between 1977 and 1997, are called by many names: the Net Generation, Gen Y, Digital Natives, even the Google Generation, to name a few. But regardless of the term used, these individuals share a common trait: they have grown up using technology as part of their everyday lives, and they will expect employers to provide them with the same tools to collaborate, brainstorm, and network on the job that they use in their personal lives. 

If companies want to attract and engage the best Millennial talent, they need to place more emphasis on providing these young working professionals what they value most. Eight norms or defining characteristics of Net Geners are critical to understanding the needs and expectations of this generation. 

  • Want freedom in everything they do: from freedom of choice to freedom of expression.
  • Love to customize and personalize their experiences.
  • Are the new scrutinizers.
  • Look for corporate integrity and openness when deciding what to buy and where to work.
  • Want to find entertainment in their work, educational, and social lives. 
  • Are focused on collaboration and relationship building.
  • Have a need for speed—and not just in video games.
  • Are innovators and are constantly looking for innovative ways to collaborate, entertain themselves, learn, and work 

Age diversity in the workplace

To a large extent, how companies manage the differing expectations, career needs, communication styles, and learning preferences of each generation will determine how well they attract, develop, engage and retain top talent. 

Understand that the generational balance of your workplace is shifting. Traditionalists (those born before 1946) are staying in the workplace longer, just as Millennials (those born 1977 to 1997) are entering the workplace in record numbers, and Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) and Generation X (born 1965 and 1976) are reaching new levels in their careers. Members of Generation 2020 (born after 1997) are not in the workplace yet, but employers need to be preparing now for the needs and expectations this hyper-connected generation will bring to the workplace.

Recognize the distinct characteristics of each generation. Each generation is defined by certain core traits. Recognizing and integrating these different generational orientations into the workplace will help allow all the generations in a company to thrive.

Generation: Traditionalists 

  • Major trait: loyalty
  • Major Influences: World War II, Cold War, Korean War, rise of suburbs
  • Broad Traits: Sacrifice, loyalty, discipline, respect for authority
  • Defining Invention: Fax machine 

Generation: Baby Boomers 

  • Major trait: competition 
  • Major Influences: Watergate, women’s rights, Woodstock, JFK assassination
  • Broad Traits: Competitive, sandwiched generation, hard work, long hours
  • Defining Invention: Personal computer

Generation: Generation X 

  • Major trait: self-reliance
  • Major Influences: MTV, AIDS, Gulf War, 1987 stock market crash, fall of Berlin Wall
  • Broad Traits: Eclecticism, self-reliance, free agents, work/life balance, independence
  • Defining Invention: Mobile phone

Generation: Millennials 

  • Major trait: immediacy
  • Major Influences: Google, Facebook, 9/11 terrorist attacks, election of Barack Obama
  • Broad Traits: Community service, cyberliteracy, tolerance, diversity, confidence
  • Defining Invention: Google and Facebook

Generation: Generation 2020 

  • Major trait: hyperconnectedness
  • Major Influences: Social games, Iraq War, Great Recession
  • Broad Traits: Mobility, media savvy, life online starting in preschool, reading books on e-readers
  • Defining Invention: iPhone apps 


  1. Traditionalists and Boomers Are as Likely to Be Web Contributors as Millennials Are 
  2. Boomers and Generation X Look for a Work Life/Home Life Balance, While Millennials See Work as Part of Life 
  3. Millennials and Generation X Place a High Importance on Working for a Company That Develops Both Their Career and Life Skills (training in areas such as financial literacy i.e., buying a new car, investing in the stock market, or buying a new house, learning a new language, and health and wellness. 
  4. Millennials Are Likely to Select an Employer Based on the Ability to Access the Latest Tools and Technologies at Work 
  5. Both Traditionalists and Boomers Place High Importance on a Manager Who Understands Age Diversity in the Workplace 

So what does this mean for organizations? How can you develop and engage each of the generations to work and ease the tensions that may occur when four generations find themselves in the same workplace?

First, while each generation brings a unique perspective on what it looks for in a potential employer, there are wide similarities among the generations. Business executives must first tap into generational similarities before moving toward understanding their differences.

    • Members of all generations want to feel valued, empowered, and engaged at work


  • In addition, members of all generations want to be trusted at work. 
  • Communicating across generations in the workplace


Once the personal needs, expectations, and desires of the generations are recognized and addressed, the next hurdle is how to best communicate with each generation in the workplace. 

Learn to communicate in different ways to reach different employees. Each generation communicates differently, and employers will have to learn how to negotiate their different expectations and desires. For example, whereas Traditionalists prefer information to be conveyed in a tangible form—by print, mail, face-to-face, or phone—Millennials prefer to receive information as a constant flow of communication transmitted via new technology, i.e., text messages, instant messages, e-mail, or updates to their profile on a corporate social network.


  • Traditionalists: Formal
  • Baby Boomers: Semiformal
  • Generation X: Not so serious; irreverent
  • Millennials: Eye-catching; fun


  • Traditionalists: Detail; prose-style writing
  • Baby Boomers: Chunk it down but give me everything
  • Generation X: Get to the point—what do I need to know?
  • Millennials: If and when I need it, I’ll find it online


  • Traditionalists: Relevance to my security; historical perspective
  • Baby Boomers: Relevance to the bottom line and my rewards
  • Generation X: Relevance to now, today, and my role
  • Millennials: Relevance to what matters to me


  • Traditionalists: Accepting and trusting of authority and hierarchy
  • Baby Boomers: Accept the rules as created by the Traditionalists
  • Generation X: Openly question authority; often branded as cynics and skeptics
  • Millennials: OK with authority that earns their respect


  • Traditionalists: Print; conventional mail; face-to-face dialogue or by phone; some online information/interaction
  • Baby Boomers: Print; conventional mail; face-to-face dialogue; online tools and resources
  • Generation X: Online; some face-to-face meetings (if really needed); games; technological interaction
  • Millennials: Online; wired; seamlessly connected through technology


  • Traditionalists: Attainable within reasonable time frame
  • Baby Boomers: Available; handy
  • Generation X: Immediate; when I need it
  • Millennials: Five minutes ago


  • Traditionalists: In digestible amounts
  • Baby Boomers: As needed
  • Generation X: Whenever
  • Millennials: Constant 

Take steps to bridge the gap in managing employees of different generations. Learn to develop and mentor employees in generationally sensitive ways. For example, research shows that Millennials prefer to learn from coaches, mentors, and in their own networks, so be prepared to expand the delivery modes of corporate learning programs.

Keep five themes in mind when thinking about the Millennial generation: politically aware, involved socially, tech-savvy, committed to learning, and driven to innovate. Millennials, with their profound passion and commitment to using the latest technologies, will spark the development of new products, new services, new political movements, and a new set of requirements for employers. Forward-thinking companies will have to understand the needs and desires of this generation to best source, recruit, and retain them. 

Principles of 2020 Engagement 

How can companies create more enthusiastic and committed employees? 

The factors that go into attraction, motivation, development, and retention of employees are typically called employee engagement. 

The essential ingredients used to create engaged employees are similar to those present in a satisfying personal relationship: mutual trust, authentic communication, respect, shared values, and a commitment to growing together. 

Top 10 desired employer characteristics

  • Has strong values
  • Will develop my skills for the future
  • Offers flexible benefits and rewards
  • Offers the ability to blend work and life
  • Is a good employer brand
  • Offers a clear career path
  • Has a reputation for corporate social responsibility
  • Will allow me to work from any location
  • Will pay for my continuing education
  • Has employees I think I could be friends with

What is important to Millennials:

  • Social recruiting. A practice that leverages social and professional networks, both online and offline, from both a candidate’s perspective and the hiring side, to connect to, communicate with, engage, inform, and attract future talent.
  • Über-connection. Building the organization’s capability to use the social media tools already in use by many marketing departments to connect with customers and expanding their usage to the engagement of employees.
  • Social learning. Learning that is collaborative, immediate, relevant, and presented in the context of an individual’s unique work environment.
  • Accelerated leadership. Developing a capacity to build leaders faster while introducing them to innovation in management. 

The 2020 workplace that engages employees effectively will have the following five principles resonating throughout its organizational practice 

  • Collaboration. As organizations become more complex, more global, and more virtual, the need to ensure that the workplace culture reinforces collaboration across the entire enterprise becomes increasingly important 
  • Authenticity. All the generations have been shaped by recent incidences of corporate excess, the use of political power for personal gain, and incessant, pervasive marketing. The emerging requirements will demand that an organization harmonize its messaging across all aspects of its operations in a way that reflects its core values in use, as Edgar Schein called them, as opposed to professed values.  2 Authenticity is of primary importance in building an organization’s values, brand, and reputation. A necessary component of authenticity is transparency.
  • Personalization.  No longer will it be possible to process all employees in the same way with nearly identical employment offers, career paths, and benefits options. Even the concept of processing employees as they come into an organization suggests an antiquated assembly-line view of the employee.  Crafting an employment relationship that meets the needs of every generation at each life stage while providing them with the ability to attain their personal career goals will require organizations to use mass customization techniques usually reserved for consumers.
  • Innovation. The power of innovation is that it enables organizational and personal sustainability. Organizations that innovate are able to compete continually in the marketplace. People who work in innovative organizations are personally learning and advancing their skill sets to the leading edges of their domain expertise. Potential employees are attracted to organizations that have a renewable and energizing source of ideas for the future, putting pressure on organizations to also offer innovative practices aligned to organizational strategy.
  • Social connection. The era of recognizing heroic individualism is over—at least as it relates to how we engage, recognize, and reward employees. 


The triple bottom line

Expand the accounting practices of companies beyond the financial aspects to include human capital and sustainable environmental practices…or, alternatively, as people, planet, and profits it refers to the concept of an organization that pays attention to values beyond those of shareholders to include those of all stakeholders.

The importance of your organization’s brand, values, and reputation

To begin, there is one practice area so important that it must be done well, or work done in the rest of the model will not be able to compensate for its lack. First, organizations must differentiate themselves through their employer brand, creating a set of values and corresponding culture, while building a reputation as organizations committed to something more than profits.

Projecting a Brand

  • Although many factors contribute to an employer’s value proposition, most employees desire a company name on their résumé that gives them a sense of pride.
  • Building a solid brand is integral to the workplace of the future, but marketing that brand can no longer be done in the traditional ways of the past…Millennials are not going to believe the brand without hearing from their friends in their social networks. 
  • The most successful companies have figured out how to integrate the internal and external brand seamlessly in a way that makes work life an authentic extension of the brand.
  • Creating workplaces that are collaborative, authentic, personal, innovative, and social, expressed in the unique culture of the organization…build a strong brand message consistent inside and outside the organization, supported by values that resonate across generations and geographies. 
  • Seek to innovate the HR practices, particularly in the areas of recruiting, corporate learning, usage of social media inside the company, and leadership development. 

Social Recruiting Emerges

Recruiting redefined

  • Challenges: Expanding globally
  • Traditional Recruiting: Recruiting fairs in high-growth countries
  • Social Recruiting: Sourcing of candidates on social networks

Challenges: Finding talent

  • Traditional Recruiting: Job boards, search firms
  • Social Recruiting: Facebook groups, crowdsource job specs

Challenges: Attracting talent

  • Traditional Recruiting: On-campus interviews
  • Social Recruiting: YouTube channels, employees video contests

Challenges: Building relationships

  • Traditional Recruiting: Several face-to-face interviews
  • Social Recruiting: Twitter groups, parents at work programs

Challenges: Communicating company values

  • Traditional Recruiting: Research on company Web site
  • Social Recruiting: Links to company YouTube channels, Facebook groups, or Twitter posts 

Über-connect Your Organization

  • Give those who use the products a chance to be involved in the creation process. Users of products are often the best equipped to drive their innovation, as they are the ones who interact with them in the real world on a daily basis. Any company in the business of selling a product needs to learn how to harness the power of customers who are passionate about their products by inviting them to share their enthusiasm and creativity.
  • Consider where your organization is on the journey to becoming über-connected. Using social media is becoming an important way to share knowledge, collaborate with team members around the world, and allow employees to contribute new ideas in the workplace. Blogs, wikis, and corporate social networks are all becoming important ways for the members of a globally dispersed workforce to interact with one another on a personal level, have discussions in online forums, and contribute their knowledge.
  • Understand that transparency is necessary to your success. Using social media works best for companies if it is done in an open, authentic manner. Let feedback from your employees guide you in shaping your network, and be responsive to the needs and desires of the community.
  • Recognize that creating internal social networks can also be about having a one-to-many relationship. For some companies, establishing a social network can be a way of connecting the company to customers outside the company. This works to enhance the company’s brand and to expand its reach while increasing collaboration and community building.
  • Make sure you focus on the business needs you hope to impact before looking into any specific flashy technologies. Too often, the discussion surrounding the implementation of corporate social networks starts with what technologies should be used. But the better starting point is to identify the business needs for launching a corporate social network and the specific business results you hope to create.

The Social Learning Ecosystem

  • Recognize the potential of user-generated learning content. In this technological age, users are generating more and more learning themselves using Web publishing and interaction tools.
  • Create organizational social media platforms to harness the power of interactive learning. Savvy organizations are creating platforms to enable learning interaction, whether the organization formally creates the learning or users develop their own content.
  • Understand that the line between working and learning is becoming increasingly permeable. Learning in the context of the job is becoming more and more important with the pace of knowledge creation.
  • Respond to the Millennial generation’s need for development. Provide continuous microfeedback and mentoring. Design a career plan that integrates learning and achievement milestones. 

Defining the leader of the future

All of the principles of Workplace 2020 come together in leadership. Creating an environment that is collaborative, authentic, personalized, innovative, and social requires leaders whose management behaviors create and reinforce that environment.

A number of leadership gurus are predicting what the leader of the future will look like…the important characteristics that it took to be a great leader in the past, such as integrity, customer commitment, and vision, will be retained. However, five different qualities [will come] out as much more important for leaders of the future: global leadership, cross-cultural appreciation, technology savvy, building alliances and partnerships, and sharing leadership.

Managerial capabilities and strengths

The rank-order comparison of how important each of the attributes is, compared with HR executives’ rating of their managers’ overall skill 

  1. Will help me develop my career (HR Ranking: 5)
  2. Will give me straight feedback (HR Ranking: 8)
  3. Will mentor and coach me (HR Ranking: 7)
  4. Is comfortable with virtual and flexible work schedules (HR Ranking: 6)
  5. Will sponsor learning and development opportunities (HR Ranking: 3)
  6. Is confident with new technology (HR Ranking: 1)
  7. Works well across generations (HR Ranking: 4)
  8. Works well across cultures and countries (HR Ranking: 2)

Dead last on HR professionals’ rank order list of skills, giving straight feedback appears to be a skill area that, if improved, could be a differentiating managerial capability for an organization. Creating an ability for managers to give straight feedback is not only satisfying for employees; but 

organizations also accrue real benefits… when organizations improve the ability of their employees, and especially their managers, to have honest conversations and to give straight feedback, the bottom line improves. 

Seven competency areas to be important:

  1. Just plain smart. Has both book and street smarts.
  2. Results-oriented. Has a great execution quotient.
  3. Unwavering ethics. Leads by example and does the right thing when no one is looking.
  4. Financial acumen. Understands the relationships of the income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow of a business.
  5. Quick study. Has the ability to pick up data, trends, issues, opportunities, etc.
  6. Values diversity. Team reflects a balance of strength.
  7. Passionate. About the business, the people, and the driving purpose.

 These leadership characteristics include:

  1. Cultural agility. Leveraging the unique skills of all global cultures within the organization.
  2. Boundaryless collaboration. Focusing on the whole, collaborating across the organization chart and not just within their own business.
  3. Legendary builder of people and teams. Coaching and mentoring both face-to-face and virtually; challenging people to achieve more than they believed they could.
  4. External focus on excellence. Deep knowledge of the customer, their industry, and the global regulatory forces.
  5. Generationally savvy. Leading well across all four generational types.
  6. Digital proficiency. Leveraging technology to accelerate speed of decision making and business impact.
  7. Harmonious blend of EQ and IQ. Personally self-aware in order to motivate team performance.
  8. Multiple-horizon thinking. Rationalizing the distribution of resources and effort across the present and future to balance incremental and bold moves.
  9. Innovative proliferation. Creating a climate of ongoing invention and creative thinking.
  10. Inspirational communication. Motivating employees in both good and bad times; communicating effectively externally with stakeholders and media.

Twenty Predictions for the 2020 Workplace

  1. You will be hired and promoted based upon your reputation capital 
  2. Your mobile device will become your office, your classroom, and your concierge 
  3. The global talent shortage will be acute 
  4. Recruiting will start on social networking sites 
  5. Web commuters will force corporate offices to reinvent themselves 
  6. Companies will hire entire teams 
  7. Job requirements for CEOs will include blogging 
  8. The corporate curriculum will use video games, simulations, and alternate reality games as key delivery modes 
  9. A 2020 mind-set will be required to thrive in a networked world 
  10. Human resources’ focus will move from outsourcing to crowdsourcing 
  11. Corporate social networks will flourish and grow inside companies 
  12. You will elect your leader 
  13. Lifelong learning will be a business requirement 
  14. Work-life flexibility will replace work-life balance 
  15. Companies will disclose their corporate social responsibility programs to attract and retain employees 
  16. Diversity will be a business issue rather than a human resource issue
  17. The lines among marketing, communications, and learning will blur 
  18. Corporate app stores will offer ways to manage work and personal life better 
  19. Social media literacy will be required for all employees 
  20. Building a portfolio of contract jobs will be the path to obtaining permanent full-time employment 

Initiatives human resources can spearhead

  1. Adopt a global mind-set.
  2. Build a reputation as being socially responsible.
  3. Become über-connected. 
  4. Personalize the employee experience.
  5. Enable customer-focused innovation.
  6. Champion openness and transparency.
  7. Emphasize learning agility.
  8. Build citizen leadership.
  9. Drive systems thinking.
  10. Create an inclusive culture

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