Gen Y and Boundaries (or Lack thereof) — Part 1

August 24, 2008

One of the most interesting things to me about Gen Y is that they have no boundaries.  OK, so maybe that’s a value judgement on my part.  Perhaps they have boundaries, just . . . different boundaries.

Let’s take a look at some:

Gen Y’s don’t seem to have boundaries around time.  If they’re at the office and get an email or text from a friend, they may spend 30 minutes or more “with” that friend.  During business hours!  They wouldn’t think twice about it.  At the same time, if it’s 10:00 pm and they get an email or text from their manager about an upcoming deadline, they might work on this until midnight.

Gen Y’s don’t view their day in chunks titled, “work time,” “friend time,” “family time,” “me-time,” “sleep time” etc.  They view their day as 24 hours in which to get everything done they need to do.  They learned this skill early as they juggled school, activities, hobbies, family, friends, email, text, phone calls, Internet surfing etc.  Juggling time is one of the best skills they’ve got!

What’s more important – That the work gets done, done well, and done by the deadline or that it’s worked on during a specific period of time?  So, unless they’re missing a meeting or a deadline during their “interact with a friend during business hours” time, why do you, as their manager, care?  That’s a typical Gen “Why” question.

Gen Y’s don’t understand why work must take place on site.   They do not need to be “at work” to be seriously doing work. If they can get their work done at home or at a local coffee shop, why should they face rush hour traffic and pay high gas prices to get to the office?  They also recognize that not all work is done at work.  Technology advances now enable people to always be online.  How many have watched their parents continue working (email, completing a presentation, getting ready for a meeting etc.) after that parent has gotten home from the office.  “So, if not all work happens at the office anyway, tell me again why I have to be at the office for my full work week?”  There’s another typical Gen “Why” question.

Sure, some roles require an employee to be on site.  They either have a coverage, interactive or collaborative element that creates a place requirement.  And, I don’t believe that most Gen Y’s devalue face-to-face interaction as has been one of the criticisms about them.  But they and their managers may have very different definitions of which interactions require and benefit from that face-to-face element. 

The time and place boundary issues are linked.  If Gen Y’s are the ultimate jugglers, requiring that all work needs to be done at a specific place during a specific time severely limits their ability to get all their stuff done within that 24 hour time block.  They are less efficient because of the overhead created by time/place requirements that may or may not add value, in their opinion.


In addition to coverage, interactive or collaborative elements that necessitate on-site work, another reason many organizations are reluctant to institute more flextime arrangements are due to some level of trust (and probably also, habit.)  The conscious or subconscious belief about seeing people work reminds me of something I read many years ago.  (I’m fairly sure the concept came from Shoshana Zuboff’s “In the Age of the Smart Machine,” (1988) but allow me to paraphrase from memory) Suppose you’re in your office and are thinking about a really tricky business problem.  You’re trying to balance the needs of your clients with the resources you have and it’s just not falling into place.  You’re leaning back in your chair, your feet are up on the desk, and your head is back as you stare at the ceiling hoping that the solution will fall from it.  Basically, you’re having a good, hard think.  This is why they pay you the big bucks. 

What’s the first thing you do when you hear your boss coming down the hall?

You bolt upright and start reading something the computer screen or typing on your keyboard.  You try to “look busy” when, in truth, you WERE busy.  So you’ve stopped doing what you were supposed to be doing to start looking like you were doing what you were supposed to be doing.  Huh?  You’ve also now lost your train of thought.

So does real work only happen when it looks like real work.  And does real work only happen when someone is there to see it?  Clearly, no.  This, in part, is a reason for Gen Y’s request for more flextime and telecommuting options.  Gen Y’s lack boundaries around time and place because they don’t see these boundaries (in many cases) as making them more efficient or effective.


Gen Y’s are not the only ones making these requests, although they may be more vocal and demanding about it.  This is a very definite trend.  An article entitled “Are Telecommuting and Flextime Dead?” by Ellen Gragg (Office Solutions Jan/Feb 2006) notes some differences over a 10 year period. “In 1994, one study, “Flextime: Myth or Reality?” published in Indiana University’s Business Horizons (Sept/Oct 1994), showed that flextime wasn’t available to many employees. According to the study, only 14 percent of employers interviewed offered the benefit at all, and some of those programs were quite limited.” She then went on to say, “As far as flextime, a 2004 study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) showed that 55 percent of HR professionals were willing to negotiate flexible work hours with interviewees and new employees. (For the purposes of the study, flexible work schedules included flextime, compressed workweeks, and telecommuting.)”  I know this is not comparing apples with apples, but it does support the trend.

In addition to that, in a Computerworld Article “Get tough on telecommuting: 6 Questions to Ask Before You Say Yes” (8/20/08) Tam Harbert writes “According to WorldatWork, an association of human resource professionals, 40% more employers are offering telework programs this year than last.”


As an organization trying to recruit and retain Gen Y employees, flexibility about time and place will likely be a critical issue.  As you think about your policies in these areas, ask yourself how much of your business’ time/place boundary requirements are about:
 – the real need for full time, face time,
 – the fact that, in your mind or in your organization, that’s the way work is.  It’s a given.
 – that you don’t trust that work is getting done if you can’t see someone working?
Implement what changes make sense for your business.  Also be sure you can answer these questions to your own satisfaction, because your Gen Y employees and recruits will surely be asking.

As a Gen Y considering accepting or staying in a position, be flexible with your managers around this issue.  It’s truly easier to manage an organization when the time and place boundaries are fixed and predictable.  While flextime and telecommuting may add efficiency for you, it makes managing you and your colleagues more complex.  It may take some time to figure out how to make it work in their environment, with their projects, and with their people.  This can have a large ripple effect as some employees’ roles and personalities lend themselves to flextime and telecommuting more than others.  They need to figure out what will be fair to all their employees, not just what works for you.  They will need to tackle questions around whether they are paying for work or paying for time.  Be patient with them and trust them, just as you are asking them to trust you.

Next week, Part 2 – More Gen Y boundary issues.

Introduction to Onboarding Gen Y

August 16, 2008

I taught at the University of Washington for eleven years.  As much as I treasured watching students succeed in my classroom, I reveled most from seeing them succeed in their first “real” job.

The concept for Onboarding Gen Y was born out of listening to the changing tenor of applicant and new hire stories from my corporate contacts.  These stories include tales of text messaging during job interviews, leaving positions after a few months because of an inability to get time off to go to Europe, and new hires needing much more feedback and project-starting guidance than new hires of the past.  My corporate contacts were seeking advice on how to work with these new hires.

I noticed changes in my students as well.  They were not only more accepting of feedback, both praise and constructive, they were requesting more of it.  They were more assertive about asking for and getting help with their projects.  They were more active communicators, mostly through electronic means.  Technology was not an “add on,” it was in their blood.  They had longer and more varied lists of volunteer work to include on their resumes.  They had a more innately global focus.  They were more creative and collaborative.  I needed to alter my teaching style and content to match their interests and temperament.  It made my teaching better.

But the most startling change was in some of my brightest students’ attitudes towards professional work.  Those students in the past would have known what they wanted to do, where they wanted to work, and what they expected from their professional future.  I was now seeing students of this caliber unsure of what they wanted to do and where they wanted to work.  The thing that amazed me most is that this didn’t seem to bother them.  While they were requesting more feedback on their work in my class, I was the one asking them about their professional hopes and dreams, not them asking me for career search guidance.

I thought it was a blip, and then started researching this new generation . . . Gen Y (also called Millennials, Echo Boomers, iGen, The Internet Generation etc.)  By profile they are technical, global and have amazing skills at multi-tasking and prioritization.  They are also delaying “adulthood” and insisting on more work/life balance than previous students demanded or even seemed to want at that point in their professional life. 

To make the transition from student to business professional smooth and successful, they needed more career counseling and general job search prep assistance.  They also needed more guidance in how to independently take hold of a project, how to communicate effectively across organizations and other generations, and business life skills in general.

The challenges that organizations are experiencing in managing this complex generation are understandable.  Gen Y’s don’t innately have the organizational loyalty and stick-to-itiveness needed to work through a professional rough patch and come out the other side stronger and more experienced.  They need more feedback, guidance, and coaching particularly in the areas of project planning, business communication, and business life skills.  They need mentors to support them, and help them see parts of the organization they may not otherwise see.  And managers need to understand this new generation and readjust their own thinking and approaches to attract, retain and get excellence from these new hires.  Gen Y has great potential to bring a strong technical fluidity, global focus, multi-tasking, creative, collaborative, caring, energetic and fresh perspective to the workforce. 

So, why should organizations make changes to attract and embrace this new generation of employees?

Two reasons: First, they’re the only game in town.  Second, they’re worth it.


Our Mission

Onboarding Gen Y prepares new-to-market Gen Y employees to successfully enter the workplace and helps guide organizations to effectively hire, welcome, retain and enable these employees to exceed expectations.
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