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Younger Chicago workers seek stability while older colleagues want flexibility

PaulEricksBeam Inc. Deerfield Ill. Tuesday March 12 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Paula Erickson at Beam Inc. in Deerfield, Ill., on Tuesday, March 12, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 23, 2013 1:25PM

Twenty-six-year-old millennial Alicia Highsmith has spent her entire professional career in the midst of recession followed by slow economic recovery.

Forty-four-year-old Paula Erickson has lived through economic booms and busts.

Both place a high priority on job security, mirroring the views of respondents to a new Ernst & Young survey of Chicago area white collar workers that looks at what’s important to millennials, Gen Xers, Gen Yers and baby boomers and that revealed some unexpected results.

While often viewed as greater risk takers and job hoppers, younger workers value full-time jobs with benefits more so than their older counterparts.

And at a time when high profile companies Yahoo and Best Buy are ending telecommuting because of concerns the practice impedes collaboration and hurts productivity, Chicago area workers across generations say they want and expect to work more flexible schedules and at locations of their choice in the future.

Among millennials, ages 26 and younger, 79 percent said retirement benefits will be important in the future when assessing employment opportunities. Less than half of those 35 and older said they feel that way.

“Millennials really have spent the vast majority of their careers during this recessionary environment,” said Ernst & Young Chicago Managing Partner Kelly Grier. “It is what they know in terms of their work experience, and I think that is informing the premium they place on security and benefits. Citing retirement benefits as something important in making job decisions is not something that we would have expected of this millennial generation pre-recession.”

The survey found millennials plan to work for fewer employers. Seventy-six percent said they expect to work for no more than six companies during their careers. That compares to 56 percent of baby boomers ages 48 to 55.

The survey also looked at workers’ expectations of employers and included input from employers.

Across all age groups, the survey found workers expect employers to use more contract workers in the future. But millennials were less open to doing such work than baby boomers.

Highsmith, an assurance senior at Ernst & Young, who performs financial audits for retail and consumer products clients, said she prefers traditional work with benefits as opposed to contract work.

“I like the idea of stability,” she said. “I like the idea of knowing what I’ll be doing potentially now and five years from now. It helps in knowing how to plan your future.”

She added she most values the traditional benefits, including medical and dental coverage, a 401[k] match and “definitely a pension program and knowing that I am secure in my position, that I do have a secure job.”

On the telecommuting front, more than 30 percent of employee respondents said they expect to be primarily working from home in the next five to 10 years. Of those working traditional hours, 67 percent said they believe they will work a more flexible schedule in the future.

Flexibility is important to Gen Xer Erickson, a vice president at Deerfield-based spirits company Beam Inc., where telecommuting and flexible work schedules are allowed.

“When I grew up, my dad worked at the same company for 35 years, and there was this clear division between work and home life,” Erickson shared. “When he came home, his work was left at the office, and when he was home, he was home, fully present with the family. This is not reality any more.”

The Long Grove resident is the mother of three children ages 9, 11 and 13.

“It’s not unheard of, looking at myself, where I’m doing work in between sporting events on a weekend or at night,” she said. “It’s important to me to be at the basketball game. But if there are two basketball games in a row, in between those games, I’m inevitably doing work.

“My opinion is it doesn’t matter where the work gets done. What matters is that the work does get done.”

The survey should show employers that they need to understand the importance of work-life balance.

“That also means trusting your employees that if they’re not here in the office, but they’re working from home, that they’re getting their work done and getting it done in a quality fashion,” Erickson said.

Many people at Beam “work from home at some point on certain things,” said Mindy Mackenzie, chief human resources officer at Beam. But she sees no one perfect solution for all employers.

“I do think it depends on the role, the function,” she said. “There is a time and place to have people together collaborating and working on stuff, and they need to be together. You do get a different spark of activity when you have people in a room with one another, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a time and place for people to be able to work form home or work remotely in a different way.”

Technology is seen as playing an important role in bridging the gap between flexible work arrangements and the benefits of face-to-face interaction, according to the survey.

It found that roughly 50 percent to 74 percent of respondents expect cloud computing, online virtual meeting rooms, video conferencing, tablet computing, mobile phones, instant video chat and social media to become more important in the next decade.

The survey showed loyalty taking a hit post recession. Nearly 70 percent of respondents expect employees will be less loyal to employers, and nearly 64 percent said employers would be less loyal to employees.

That didn’t come as a surprise to Erickson.

“When I think about my generation, the Gen Xers, I think my generation has gotten a little cynical,” she said. “We’ve seen our friends get let go from their jobs. We’ve seen downsizing. We’ve lived through the boom, the bust. We lived through Enron. We’ve lived through this tough job market over the last five years. I think that probably plays into this loyalty finding.”

Employers need to be concerned about worker loyalty because the war for top talent is severe, said Grier.

“There’s no abatement on that, particularly for the highest performing folks,” she said. “The ability to engender that loyalty, to create a sense of trust is absolutely essential to [employers’] ability to retain people and continue to grow and develop that work force.”

The key to creating more loyalty among employees is to create meaningful engaging workplaces where employees feel appreciated and where their work is valued, said Brad Keywell, co-founder of deals site Groupon and managing partner and co-founder of Lightbank, a $200 million investment fund.

“The more engaged employees are around shared goals, a shared sense of culture and a shared sense of purpose, the better and more effective that company is,” he said.

Mackenzie shared that view. Listening to employees is also key, she said, noting Beam has an ongoing dialogue with workers on what additional benefits would be important to them.

“What we heard is they wanted to be able to go and contribute in the community, so we started a Beam Cares program where people get two days paid time off anytime they want to use in a year to go work for the charity of their choice,” she said.

Beam employees also said they wanted more recognition.

“So we really ramped up our internal recognition awards,” Mackenzie said. “ We just had a huge awards ceremony, kind of like the Oscars, and it was global. We had everybody dress up at the office. We had a red carpet. They come in at 10 a.m. in the morning, and everybody dressed up and got into it. They wore their tuxedos and their long dresses and celebrated, and it was awesome.

“Everybody wants to feel valued, like they have a chance to use their talents and see the impact of their work ,” Mackenzie stressed. “They want to work with people in an environment that is fun and rewarding. I think that matters a great deal.”

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