4 tips for a happier project team

Lessons on work-life balance from the Millennial generation

Today's tip comes from ITworld member Ty Kiisel, Manager of Social Outreach at AtTask, Inc.

The headline reads: A Disengaged Generation: Young Workers Disengaged by Pressures of Work Worldwide. A pretty dramatic headline, isn't it. It's not mine, but I noticed it a couple of days ago on PR Newswire. According to a new study "...conducted among more than 30,000 employees in 29 countries by GfK Custom Research, a global market research agency, finds a labor market polarized between disillusioned 18 to 29 year-olds and their older, possibly more resigned, counterparts."

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"Internationally, two fifths of young workers (39 percent) are unhappy with their work-life balance -- again the highest percentage of all age groups -- while a third (32 percent) feel that work pressure and stress frequently impacts their health -- five points more than those in the 50's, and ten points higher than those in their 60's." reports GfK. "In the US, two fifths of young workers (43 percent) are unhappy with their work-life balance, the highest percentage of all age groups, while nearly a third (31 percent) believe that work pressure is affecting their health, again more than any other age group."

There might be some who would look at this and say to themselves, "I could have told you the younger generation just doesn't want to work hard." But I think that would be an over-simplification and an inaccurate portrayal of the situation.

Over the course of my career, I've observed that most employers want, expect and often demand that the workforce be willing to spend extra hours on the job. There are times when this is important to get a project finished or handle a crisis, but in light of the current economic situation with most organizations trying to do more with less, many project teams are finding it to be a weekly situation -- and it's taking its toll.

In an environment where we need the workforce to be totally engaged and invested in what they're doing, the GfK study suggests, "Young workers around the world are lacking in engagement with their employers and are the most affected by perceived pressures at work, posing long-term retention and management problems for companies and countries..."

As Bob Dylan famously sang, "The times, they are a-changing." And I think that's true with the workforce today and as project leaders, we need to figure out the best way to work with a "new" workforce.

I believe that in many respects, the online shoe seller Zappos is a great example. Their focus on keeping employees happy and content in their work has created an engaged workforce that is less concerned about how many hours they work be because they take personal ownership in what they're doing. Be aware, that I'm not suggesting that if you can encourage a happy project team you can summarily abuse them by working them into the ground. What I'm suggesting is that if the workforce is happy and is doing something they perceive to be worthwhile, they will get the job done -- even if it means "happily" staying extra hours to make it happen when it's needed.

Let me suggest a few things to encourage a happier project team:

1. Encourage "honest" communication and feedback about timelines and deliverables: Those closest to the work understand it the best. Facilitate an environment where team members have some control, or at least a voice, in their work. This encourages individual ownership of tasks and projects.

2. Democratize how work is distributed: I'm not advocating anarchy, but an environment where people are able to volunteer for the projects that interest them the most allows organizations to get people's best work. I've seen this approach work successfully.

3. Avoid a continual call for long days and long nights in the office: A side benefit of involving team members in the project plans is a better understanding of how to allocate your human resources (there's that resource word again). When people are allowed to make commitments rather than a top-down edict about deadlines, project leaders enjoy a better idea of time-lines and project status. Besides, excessive overtime is really an indication of a project that's in trouble.

4. Be aware: Spend some time with the project team. Pay attention to what's going on within the group. How are people interacting with each other. Watch for body language that might indicate a change in how someone is feeling. This might be a little touchie-feelie, but if you are aware of attitude shifts early, sometimes you can offer help to a troubled colleague.

Is there anything you would add to the list? I don't think this concern is going to go away anytime soon. Attitudes about work are changing and how we work with our younger colleagues will need to change too, or we will face retention and management problems for the foreseeable future.

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