By Melissa J. Anderson

Many work/life experts have indicated that companies interested in attracting and retaining Gen Y employees need to work harder to develop flexibility programs for staff. But a new global study by JB Associates complicates that view.

Report author John Blackwell writes:

“It’s Generation Y that are beating the drum for new working practices – demanding the freedom to work remotely, use wider intellectual connections and stimuli such as social networks, and to continually have the latest ‘i’ technologies – the iPhone, iPad, iCloud, et al. Or so we are told.”

In fact, according to the research, those with the strongest desire for work/life flexibility were not the youngest generation of workers. Older staff expressed significantly more enthusiasm for flexible work practices. Here’s why.

Validating Workplace Practices

The report, “Challenging Perceived Wisdom: Are Our Workplace Preconceptions Valid?” measured the viewpoints of 24,500 people at five major companies living in 19 countries. All of the subjects had been hired within the last two years, and ranged in seniority from recent graduates to board members. The study set out “to test and validate all aspects of the workplace and work practices.”

Blackwell explained, “To often, we see studies with a sample bias – just graduates, or just senior executives, et al – but there’s been a complete absence of a quantitative comparative study to inform us of generational views, or an accurate gender perspectives, or many other factors that are impacting the direction of our workplaces.”

This kind of bias could be leading to an incorrect understanding of what diverse groups are looking for in their career – as well as encouraging companies to develop corporate policies with the wrong motivations in mind.

For example, the report says, “Younger staff expressed 15-20 per cent less desire than their older colleagues to choose their time and place to work. In fact, they actively seek out every opportunity to be in the office in the closest proximity to their boss.”

It continues, “We found a direct, almost linear correlation between age and appetite for flexible working – declining from 70+ per cent enthusiasm with older staff to sub 40 per cent enthusiasm with Generation Y staff.”

Companies that are creating flex work programs that are directed at younger workers could find that individuals aren’t taking advantage of them. And they could also be creating unnecessary discord between Gen Y workers and their Gen X and Boomer counterparts, whose family responsibilities demand more workplace flexibility, but don’t see flex programs for themselves.

Flexibility and Trust

The study explains that one reason younger staff are more keen to work from the office than older ones is because older employees feel their bosses trust them more – and younger staff don’t feel their bosses trust them to get their work done from home.

Blackwell writes, “Older staff perceive 10-15 per cent greater levels of trust from both their managers and their organisation in allowing them to choose their work time and location. In turn, this led to greater confidence and motivation to explore new workplace innovations.”

The study revealed, younger workers are more likely than older ones to see believe that presenteeism is key to their career success.

“It was also surprising to note the greater emphasis that younger staff placed on working longer hours in the office and putting work before family as vital to their career development. Overall, when compared to their older colleagues, younger staff felt 10-15 per cent stronger that this was essential to advancing their career.

Finally, Blackwell says that these views around trust and flexibility could ultimately cost companies more. He explains:

“Without effort put into retooling management with a greater appreciation of the gains of trust and actively encouraging staff – especially the newly hired – to seek opportunities for temporal and spatial location autonomy, then it will be challenging for any organisation looking to realise the financial gains from leaner workplace design.”

The study did not gauge the attitudes of management toward flexibility and trust, so it could very well be true that younger employees are validated in their belief that managers do not trust them to work from home. A culture of mistrustful management could be encouraging younger employees to stay in the office to perform work that could be done anywhere. Either way, the report reveals the importance of performance based management – if employees of any generation were evaluated based on the quality of their work, rather than perceived experience or trustworthiness, presenteeism wouldn’t be an issue.