The Future Of Work (A Lesson From Millennials)


I was once on a business strategy team with a very large corporation. My assignment was to work with one of the company’s rapidly growing brands in order to help them reach a billion dollars in annual sales. As you could imagine, we were quite busy.

My internal “client” was housed on a different floor on the other side of the building from the strategy team. Most of my day was spent working along side team members of the brand on a number of strategic initiatives. Much of the work involved testing, analyzing and reacting to growth ideas in our innovation pipeline, so I worked with people in every aspect of the business.

I loved my job. The folks on the brand were amazing. They considered me a member of the team and we worked well together. The proof was in the results as we exceeded our sales goals during a very difficult time in the industry.

One day, my boss called me into his office and asked why I was away from my desk all the time. He knew where my client was located and how successful our initiatives had been, but he was bothered by my perceived absence. While we had regular meetings to “touch base” on my projects, I tried to explain why I was spending so much time with my client. His response was classic old school corporate culture: “It doesn’t look good. I just need you at your desk.” And, with that, my job got much more difficult.

Here’s the thing: I could crunch numbers and call into meetings from my desk, but my job also involved leading work groups, influencing decision-makers, inspecting prototypes, resolving team-member disputes and visiting stores to observe how consumers interacted with our test initiatives. It also involved developing the trust of a team on which I was not officially a member. These activities required my physical presence (away from my desk).

To my boss, working meant being present or better stated, being seen in my official office space. Unfortunately, his view of work is as antiquated as the old command-and-control style of management.

This leads me to what we can learn from millennials because they give us a peek into the future of work.

In his Inc.com article, Here's Why Your Definition of 'Work' Is Driving Millennials Nuts, John Brandon writes: “We (non-millennials) see work as defined by a place, a time, an org chart, a paycheck, and a boss. It's ingrained in us…. To non-Millennials, work is almost always completely separate, at least by definition. "

To millennials, “Work has flowed into life. It has co-mingled.” Technology has enabled us to be connected 24/7, but because millennials grew up with this ability they simply don’t understand the legacy nine-to-five work-style of older generations.

Here was Brandon’s conclusion: “Here's the difference, though. Millennials are starting to define ‘work’ as tasks. It's not a period of time, and it's not based on where you are or who you are with… For younger people, though, it can be hard to say when work ends and the fun begins. Or maybe the ‘fun’ is work. Or work and fun mean the exact same thing.” And, “Work doesn't have a time-frame for most Millennials, either.”

The millennial perspective is the future of knowledge work.

Yes, there will always be jobs and tasks where ones presence is mandatory (dental hygienist, plumber and bar tender come to mind), but a majority of knowledge worker tasks may be done at odd hours and away from the office. Entrepreneurs of all generations already know this. I’ve completed work tasks on the beach, while walking my dog, at my kids’ tennis matches and in the middle of the night to name a few. I’m sure you have too.

Our attitudes toward work are rapidly changing and for good reason. Technology has enabled us to work effectively from almost anywhere at any time. The millennials were simply the early adopters of this new perspective of work. The question is how do you view work? Is it a place you go or the time you spend on activities for which you get paid? Or, is it the successful completion of specific tasks or the achievement of objectives?

My former boss just wanted me to look busy, but that wasn’t how I defined work. So, I left. Sounds like millennials feel the same way. Ironically, the future of work may be summed up by a classic Hemingway quote: “Never mistake motion for action.”

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