Generation Y were born between 1980 and 1994, which now makes them between the ages of 20 to 34. A number of self-appointed management experts proclaim that Gen Y employees lack work ethic, have no respect, no loyalty, are impossible to manage, self-centred, lazy, demanding, programmed for instant gratification and are unrealistic in their career aspirations.

This flattering generalisation is inherently wrong. My experience is that these characteristics vary more between individuals than between entire classes born in different generations.

At Butterfly, all staff are Gen Y, with me as the only exception. I just miss the cut and fall into Gen X. Our staff are very loyal. In fact, last year, only two staff left out of 30. On the upside, we had two staff re-join Butterfly after leaving a few years earlier to take up roles elsewhere.

In an unusual coincidence both staff that left last year went to work at pole dancing studios. Nat left to run the online shopping site for a pole dancing studio, while Tan and his wife bought a pole dancing franchise to run as a family business. Tan still works for us as a development contractor on a casual basis.

We have a lot of staff stay for more than five years, which is great considering Butterfly is only seven years old.

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CEO John Anderton and Senior Designer Renee Chambers

Renee Chambers is a great example of a happy, loyal, conscientious creative Gen Y Butterfly team member. Renee did an internship with Butterfly way back in 2007 while she was still at university, and was then hired as a graduate starting in February 2008. Renee has worked at Butterfly ever since. That's one employer for over six years.

So what does it take to create a culture where Gen Y thrive? It comes down to cultivating the right environment. Creative projects. Constant challenges. Access to self-development opportunities. Respect for them and their opinions. Coaching rather than commanding. Only selecting the right cultural fit and defending the culture vigorously. Doesn't this sound like a place where any person would enjoy the workplace, regardless of their age?

The next sections of this blog will look at each of these factors in more detail.

Creating the right environment

The first step to thriving Gen Y staff is creating the right environment. Three crucial aspects of this are job design, the physical workplace and the social environment.

We are lucky that the jobs at Butterfly are quite interesting by nature, and attract self-motivated people. Our designers (such as Renee) love their jobs, and are self-motivated to participate and improve. Like all businesses, there are still tedious tasks to be done and at times this is a challenge. We try and spread the load so that everyone does a bit, and nobody gets stuck with all boring work.

We have great offices in the heart of Melbourne's CBD. So many waking hours are spent at work, and the happiness of employees dramatically improves productivity. It's difficult to understand employers that neglect their workplace environment – leaving it dark and dingy, boring and dull, or unclean and disorganised. Our office is colourful and happy. Open and welcoming – a place where people want to go. And clean. And perhaps more importantly, good food is nearby. It is worth every dollar spent on it.

The social aspect of work is very important. Our designers are by nature very social, while some of our developers prefer working independently. We have designed our offices to allow for this – a mix of loud and quiet areas, flexible rules about music and headphones, private rooms that people can book and a big lunch area so that all teams can meet and mingle. Table tennis helps to add fun to the workplace and is a great way for different teams to mix.

Finally, access to good coffee should be a legal right in Australia, especially during Melbourne's cold winters. We use Padre Coffee. We even put our coffee machine on our list of team members. Once the coffee machine broke and it was not a good day for us (RIP Barry 1).

Creative projects

Interesting, creative projects make going to work fun.

Everyone has creativity of some kind that can be stimulated in the workplace. I was told in primary school that I was not creative because the teacher thought my colouring-in wasn't up to scratch. As an adult, I discovered that I am highly creative, especially when it comes to hiding money from the tax office business strategy.

At some organisations, the best projects are hoarded by the powerful, the loudest, or the favourites. But at Butterfly, we try and share the best projects around the team.

Creative projects for a skilled designer are obvious. Creative projects for other specialities can require lateral thinking. For Nathan in our helpdesk team, his latest project involves reimagining our internal IT infrastructure with no limits. Nathan is researching different systems and coming up with a plan that he will implement over 6 months. He will get to play with new digital toys and our entire organisation will benefit.

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Software Systems Engineer, Nathan Job

Constant challenge

When I started as a graduate at PricewaterhouseCoopers, I was put in a corner and kept away from anything that I could break, such as clients. When Renee started as a graduate at Butterfly, she was thrown in the deep end. This really stretched her, and she rose to the challenge. There is now a large gap between her abilities and those of her graduating class that went into roles where they were only given entry-level work.

In Renee's words, "Constant challenge keeps me accountable, and motivates me to produce high quality work efficiently".

Web design has changed radically since Renee started. Mobile and responsive design are now part of almost all projects. In addition, our organisation has changed from a four person company to a 30 person organisation, and the work quality and quantity have increased dramatically. As such, it's not hard to create constant challenge for Renee, but in other roles, creative effort is required.

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Wireframing session with Senior Digital Producer Domique Barker, Senior Graphic Designer Renee Chambers and Team Leader Sean Shi

Access to self-development opportunities

People like to develop their professional skills. In a fast-moving industry like ours, it's essential. While formal development has a place, informal opportunities for development are just as important.

Self-directed learning is a big part of the role of most at Butterfly. For the designers, this could include flicking through portfolios of the latest designs. For developers it might be solving coding challenges. For sales people it might be looking at Google images of Ferraris reading books about sales techniques.

We have an annual budget available to each staff member for external training and conferences. We have subscriptions to online learning platforms. We hire trainers to come to our office to assist with developing skill sets, like agile development, time management and leadership. For those that are interested, we also support postgraduate education such as masters.

Transfer of tacit knowledge from others in the business is also very important. Our organisation is filled with smart people who are constantly learning, so being able to share that knowledge is imperative. This also facilitates a culture where people help each other and respect the value that other team members bring. We do this through skills shares, project reviews, informally helping each other and appointing subject matter experts.

In a fast-moving knowledge economy, to stay the same is to fall behind.

Respect for them and their opinion

Occasionally, we like to think of our staff as capable human beings. They are entitled to question anything, and give their opinion. Where possible, reasons for decisions are explained, and problem situations openly discussed and solutions publicly explored. This approach allows for better decision-making by having more perspectives, and generates higher engagement with the team by valuing their contribution.

In previous jobs, I have witnessed older managers neglect or marginalise Gen Y staff, and then blame the subordinates for the result. Some old school managers feel that their high organisation position gives them the right to act like a dictator - make all decisions unilaterally, withhold information and not ask for the input of subordinates. At times, this is required of a leader, but if every decision is made this way the full value of the team is not harnessed, and subordinates will become disengaged. Being more respectful of subordinates can be confronting for some managers who have spent decades patiently letting their superordinates control all. Thankfully, those days are gone, with the exception of large bureaucracies, and who wants to work there?

Coach rather than command

Our management style is more coach than command and control. We like this style as managers, and our staff do too.

Command and control style comes straight from the scientific management principles of the late 1800s, where the people at the top did the thinking, and the workers were to use their hands and not their minds. These concepts have long been disregarded from management best practice principles, yet bad habits stick.
Our style encourages each person to take responsibility for their work and their career. Renee says that this is one of the best features of working at Butterfly, and it makes her feel supported.

Select the right fit

Some commentators say that all Gen Y are job hoppers. We don't agree, but we take steps to filter out job hoppers during our recruitment process.

I do agree that there are a lot of people that seem to flit from job to job. It sticks out like a sore thumb on their resumes: 1-2 year jobs followed by 1-2 year jobs. If they are older than 30 they may have had six jobs. This isn't limited to Gen Y – I know baby boomers and Gen X people that do this too.

Sometimes 1-2 year employees can be a good fit. They can bring knowledge of how different organisations approach a common challenge. With fresh eyes, they might know what you need to do to get your organisation to the next level. In the past, we've had a number of key short-term employees who have helped Butterfly move forward, and create a bridge to a better place. But if I'm looking for a long-term employee, generation Y or otherwise we don't even interview these people, and I believe this has contributed to our team stability and staff retention.

My opinion is that in complex roles it is possible in two years to learn enough to talk about a role with authority in a job interview, but rarely enough to master the role.

Conclusion

This article describes different elements that combine to create a place where Generation Y thrive. Alone, each element will not work - what is required is a workplace culture that is committed to all of them. A great culture is worth the years of effort invested in creating it. It is worth the hard actions required to protect it from mediocrity.

Zappos illustrated that a great culture with motivated employees can make boring jobs at a call centre into something special – breaking all the rules and creating an attractive work place where people clamoured to get jobs . After just 10 years of selling shoes online (like so many others), Amazon bought Zappos for $928 million USD and Zappos' culture was integral to this purchasing decision.


My mission is to create a culture where all people can thrive, and that just happens to tick the boxes for Generation Y people too.
 

References

An example is in The Sydney Morning Herald 

Google Zappos to learn more, or read this case study.

Go back to Inside Butterfly