The Age of Empowerment
It was only about 5 years ago when new college recruits had the nerve to start asking about how our company supports “work-life balance.” At the time my philosophy was that you work hard, and I mean really, really hard, the first 10 years of your career when you have fewer personal responsibilities. Before spouses and kids started to occupy your time and mind, you needed to diligently focus on developing your professional experience to set yourself up for the next 20 years. Then you could take your foot off the gas, just a little. I grew up professionally at a time before our businesses existed, literally, in the palms of our hands. In order to be doing any actual work, your butt was in your office chair, on an airplane traveling to see clients or sitting in your customers’ offices having meetings. Hard work was very visual. An employee was judged by the hours they spent in the office or traveling for business. Promotions were awarded based on how early you arrived, how late you stayed, and whether you opted for 5 am flights and red-eyes, or flew during the 9-5 business day. The general rule of thumb was that nobody left the office before the boss did.
That question flabbergasted me. Coming from someone so young, and translating it from my perspective, it sounded like this: “I need a job to pay my student loans and rent, but I’m looking for a company that pays me the highest amount possible while expecting the least amount of effort from me.” And I know, in speaking to many colleagues who had similar experiences, the general consensus about the “kids these days” was that they were… fill in the blank because we’ve all heard it before: entitled, lazy, narcissistic, delusional, the “Me Generation” Millennials.
Marketers and economists have diligently put labels on every generation since the Pilgrims. And while there is always an element of truth to the characteristics, the differences that evolve with each generation seem to feel significantly more disruptive to the immediate previous generation. These differences, over time, are embraced as progress. For example, the men and women who served our county in WWII were the parents and grandparents of the very same people who protested against the Vietnam War, boycotted and moved to Canada. These same protesters criticized the very soldiers that gave their lives to protect our country. Actions viewed as radical and unpatriotic then are now viewed in a different light, and society has embraced our military with the respect they deserve, reserving criticism for those in power giving the orders.
What today’s “radicals” are asking for really boils down to empowerment. They want the ability to do their jobs when and where it fits into their lives. They want the ability to prove that they can over-deliver on the objectives without being handcuffed to the outdated structure of an office cubical and punching a 9-5 clock. They want to be trusted to make the decisions that allow them to focus on personal needs when they arise, while still doing their jobs.
This concept challenges the status quo and raises questions. How can I trust a 23-year-old kid to really “work” from home? How do I know if I’m getting a return on my investment if I can’t see them working? Will the quality of the work suffer? If I give my staff the power to make decisions that are outside the traditional ways of conducting business, what are the risks/rewards for my business? Will the needs of the business be met?
This blog introduces an upcoming four-part series on empowerment. The series will address why empowerment is important, how to empower employees, and when the process of empowerment really begins. The final blog in the series will address the “myth” of work-life balance in todays interconnected world.