At the recent launch of new guidance on mental health at work, Health Minister Earl Howe said: "A good working environment is crucial for our wellbeing."
But, with three or four generations of people in the workplace - all with different needs and working styles - how can employers create the right environment for everyone? The latest research says that millennial workers don't care about the size of their office or desk. Mobile technology means that they are much more adaptable to working 'on the go' and used to just blocking out distractions with headphones!
At big companies like O2, they can afford to have a mixture of enclosed spaces, open plan offices and 'coffee shop' style spaces to suit everyone. But what about SMEs?
Recruiting, retaining and getting the most out of millennial workers is particularly important for SMEs in terms of succession planning and growth. They may not have the luxury of big budgets but in my view SMEs are actually offer a much more attractive working environment for millennial workers who don't want to be pigeon holed and are looking for variety and autonomy.
Creating the right working environment for millennial workers
Most employers used to believe that giving members of staff a sense of belonging and importance with a desk or office of their own was the way to keep them engaged and part of the team. However, many find this doesn't actually lead to better engagement and communication - even between people at adjoining desks!
Even big, traditional law firms are moving from corridors of panelled offices to glass walls and open plan working - and SME employees tend to be much more adaptable and less precious about hierarchy so this shouldn't be a problem.
If millennial workers aren't bothered about the size of their desk or office, then why are SMEs still spending so much on their buildings - especially when all their staff tend to be out and about a lot of the time?! If millennial workers are happy - if not happIER - working from anywhere at any time, there is an opportunity for SMEs to be more efficient and effective by offering hot desks and allowing flexible hours and 'coffee shop' working.
However, measures need to be put in place to prevent injury from long term working using mobile devices on different surfaces - and it is almost impossible to do a risk assessment of your workspace when it changes daily! Plus, the 24 hour nature of mobile technology means that millennial workers find it hard to switch off - so increased stress is a risk. It's up to employers to give their staff guidelines on how best to manage all of this and then give them the freedom to decide what's best for them. Remember that millennial workers are a new breed who have grown up like this so may not suffer from the same issues as their predecessors!
Maintaining company culture and getting buy-in from millennial workers
The fluid nature of roles in SMEs means that company culture and team work are vital - that can be very difficult to create and control when people aren't physically in the same place or working in the same way!
However, getting buy in from employees to your business goals is primarily about autonomy and trust - not where they are sat! It is also about what their performance is measured on - then it's up to them how they meet their targets and goals.
It's important to get team members of different generations to empathise with how others work and see the benefits of their different styles and strengths. Give your staff the opportunity to say what they contribute to the company culture and how they see their role in the team.
Embracing technology for millennial workers
If millennial workers (and others for that matter) are given the freedom to work wherever and however they want, the right infrastructure needs to be in place to ensure lines of communication are open and things can easily be shared. They are used to being in close, constant contact with lots of different people so are unlikely to be out of touch for long!
Technology for enabling informal conversations, remote team meetings and shared drives is becoming much cheaper and easier for SMEs to access. However, security can be an issue. Why not get your millennial workers to keep on top of the latest technology and come up with ways of implementing it for everyone?
Making sure everyone else is catered for
It's not just millennial workers that are demanding greater flexibility in their role and workspace. They are also not the only ones who are becoming 'slaves' to technology! Mobile working has meant that everyone is now more adaptable and the lines between work and home are becoming more blurred.
When working parents see millennial workers being given the flexibility to work 'wherever, whenever', they will see the benefits of not having to be in the office for a specific time every day. New mums in particular are incredibly adaptable and efficient. Perhaps long maternity leave with no contact is no longer the best solution. But there has to be boundaries of course (see recent Daily Mail article about new mother who was hounded by her boss in hospital)!
Also, there is a risk that by embracing millennial workers, you alienate older people or those who are simply more set in their ways! Some people still want an enclosed office and won't be able to concentrate in a busy environment. Try and create a workplace that caters to different needs and consult staff on the best solution for everyone.
There is an opportunity for SMEs to be more productive and efficient if they adapt to the next generation of workers - but it will need to be a gradual change, and one that manages the risks as well as the opportunities!