November 17, 2020 | Andy Makeham

Making Sense of the Modern Workplace

modern workplace

For the first time ever, we now have five generations working in the modern workplace.

Technology is increasingly the driving force behind the company. It has been termed the digital revolution.

Many of today’s SME global success stories are pure technology; Uber, Airbnb, BlaBlaCar – platforms that replace traditional ways of doing business. To say nothing of Google, Facebook and others that are also purely products of the modern digital age.

With Covid, we are seeing ten years of evolutionary change happening in just a few months, and the impact on business is massive and probably irreversible.

Every country has startling business case studies that showcase the change.

In the USA, we have Zoom (the ubiquitous video conferencing app that has become the go-to conferencing solution for Covid). Baby-Boomers have now become Baby-Zoomers, as all ages take to the new digital world. As a result, Zoom is now valued at more than the world’s seven biggest airlines combined ( Who could have seen that coming?

In the UK, home internet food delivery business Ocado, described by many industry pundits as a charity due to its long track record of making losses, is now the country’s most valuable retailer with a stock market value of $21.66bn despite selling only 1.7% of the UK’s groceries. Tesco, the largest brick and mortar, traditional food retailer still sells 27%. The killer stat being, I think, the sales per head with Tesco averaging 23k per employee against Ocado’s $153k per employee.

Only a few months ago, this would have seemed impossible!

In this newly emerging world, digital skills are increasingly being valued much more highly than traditional business experience, with the average age of business leaders and managers plummeting as a result.

But with a 26-year digital wizard at the helm of all or some of the business, how does a business run?

Let’s look at the skills scorecard:

Understanding the digital marketing place and trends Yes
Leadership skills?
Team building skills?
Motivational skills?
Conflict Resolutions Skills?
Financial Management Skills?

One business that recognized and addressed this challenge was AirBnb, the house sharing app.

The three, millenial AirBnb founders recognized this challenge and invited Chip Conley to join their team. Chip, 52, was a serial boutique hotel entrepreneur, and having enjoyed many years success in the hospitality sector, he was asked to join AirBnb to help take the fast-growing tech startup and turn it into a global hospitality brand, as well as being the in-house mentor for CEO Brian Chesky.

“After my first week I realized that the brave new home-sharing world didn’t need much of my old-school brick-and-mortar hotel insights and, indeed, I had a lot to learn about all things digital. I quickly learned that actually I had as much to offer them as they had to offer me,” commented Conley.

Over 40% of employees in the USA have a boss who is younger than them, and that number is growing quickly. With this, power is cascading to the young like never before, because of our increasing reliance on Digital Intelligence (now being called DQ).

We are seeing young founders of companies in their early 20s, scaling hem up to digital giants by the time they get to 30.

And yet we expect these digital leaders to somehow miraculously embody the relationship wisdoms that traditional older workers spent decades learning.

As we said at the beginning, we now have up to five generations in the workplace, unintentionally. Maybe the time has come to try to harness the collective wisdom.

Conley says, “I believe that THE trade agreement of our time is opening up the inter-generational pipelines of wisdom so that we can learn from each other.”

There is a great deal of focus these days on gender and race diversification in the workplace, with studies showing that the more diverse companies perform better. Perhaps this focus ought to be extended to include age?

Most people would agree that we are at our physical peak in our 20s, and our financial and salary peak in our 50s. Conley argues that we are at our emotional peak in mid-life and beyond, as we have developed pattern recognition about ourselves and others.

So, the question Conley poses is how do we get companies to tap into that mid-life wisdom? “Just as they nurture their young digital geniuses, the most successful companies of the future will be those that create a powerful alchemy between the two.”          

How did it work at AirBnb?

Conley was assigned a young smart partner, Laura, to help him develop a hospitality department. Early on, Laura could see that Conley was lost in this new habitat, so often she sat next to him in meetings acting as his translator, passing notes explaining the meaning of the terminology and impenetrable acronyms. Laura was 27 and had been at AirBnb for just one year (and Google for 4 years prior), and had quickly grown into a managerial role without having any leadership training. She had grown up in a technocratic world, driven by metrics, with little account for the people involved.

“I don’t care if you are a B2B business or B2C or A2Z… business is all about H2H – human to human. You need to carry people with you. Laura said to me in the early days, ‘I love the fact that you create a compelling vision for us, a North Star that we can follow’. It is alright having a technocracy driven by metrics, but you still need to get things done.”

Conley’s belief is that corralling people to a consensual decision (to get things done) requires a high degree of emotional intelligence. You need to understand the underlying motivations of everyone in the room.

“At AirBnb, I saw a new kind of elder emerging. Not the elder of the past who was regarded with blind reverence, but an elder of the future who had relevance because of their ability to use timeless wisdom and apply it to modern day problems.”

Conley argues that it is time to value wisdom as much as we value disruption. It is time to reclaim the word elder and give it a modern twist; the modern day elder is as much an intern, as they are a mentor, because they realize that, in a world that is changing so quickly, their beginner’s mind and their natural curiosity is a powerful combination, valuable to all in the organization.

He puts it very succinctly.

High Tech meets High Touch!

Search engines are brilliant at giving you answers, but a wise sage guide can help you ask the right questions.


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