by Caroline Pomilla — Originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of BOMA Magazine
The topic of generational differences is what Erik Lucken, director of Workplace Strategy for RSP Architects, calls “a crowd-pleaser.” No kidding. Today’s infosphere is saturated with commentary on how workers from the millennial and Gen Z generations are significantly different than those who came before them. Driving this narrative are ubiquitous headlines like “The Real Problem with Millennials at Work,” “Why Working with Millennials Is the Worst” and “Gen Z at Work—8 Reasons to Be Very Afraid.”
Ironically, this attempt to identify new issues in the changing workplace has created one of its own: Emerging professionals in commercial real estate now must face the added challenge of fighting these stereotypes while doing their jobs. And with the influx of new technology and a fast-moving industry to keep up with, their jobs are more complicated than ever. In fact, younger property professionals are beginning to rethink the fundamentals of working life as they consider how to foster a successful, decades-long career.
“I think for millennials, there’s a preset idea that we are all the same,” says Thomas “Mick” Newell, CMCP, CPM, property manager for Washington Holdings and co-chair of BOMA/Seattle-King County’s Emerging Professionals Committee. “You come into the workplace and there’s an expectation that you’re going to perform and behave in a certain way, but we’re just like any other generation. There’s a lot of range in terms of what our career goals are, how we like to work, what keeps us up at night and what makes us tick.”
“It’s a misconception that all emerging professionals are entitled, impatient or needy,” echoes Melanie Bellinger, RPA, facilities manager for the Wounded Warrior Project in Jacksonville, Florida, and the vice chair of BOMA International’s Emerging Professionals Committee. Contrary to mainstream opinion, millennials are not asking employers for superfluous amenities like foosball tables or free snacks—or those infamous participation trophies. What Bellinger and her cohorts really want is simple: “Just give me the opportunity to prove myself and to have a place at the table.”
Newell agrees. “There is an idea that we expect everything to be handed to us, but I personally would never expect anything before putting in the hard work to make it happen,” he says.
But, if these stereotypes are so off-base, what has provoked them? Workplace strategist Lucken explains that early-career ambition has always existed within the workforce. What’s changed, however, is that millennials are the first generation to have the platforms in place to publicly express those aspirations. “For previous generations, there were fewer public avenues to share that desire to grow. It just has more of an outlet now.” And, many millennials are now well into their 30s and taking on more senior roles, making stereotypes about them seem not just misguided but outdated.
Plus, these mainstream beliefs aren’t just misrepresenting emerging professionals to their employers, but they also are misinforming how the very commercial spaces they are managing should be designed to accommodate the younger generations. For instance, millennial workers often are assumed to prefer an open office style. Lucken points to a nationwide study conducted by COMMERCIALCafé, which indicates that only 10 percent of millennials think an open office environment is ideal. In fact, 43 percent of millennial workers answered that a private office would be their first choice.
Keeping up with tech
So, no: Emerging professionals in the commercial real estate industry are not losing sleep over the lack of an espresso bar in their office, nor do they expect a promotion within their first two weeks on the job. Instead, younger workers are grappling with a fast-moving industry and constant pressure to stay relevant and connected.
“Emerging property professionals take on the new, unique pressure of serving occupants who see tech as an essential, not an amenity,” says Newell. As businesses become increasingly tech-savvy, they expect the buildings they work in to reflect the same level of sophistication. Adds Newell, “They want building staff to know what they’re talking about and they want the building to provide all the latest technology, because that’s what they expect at this point—especially tech tenants and financial firms.”
But, knowing which technologies are right for your building can be time-consuming and a bit of a gamble. “We have to closely monitor the marketplace to determine which technologies have staying power versus those that are just a hot topic,” explains Newell. For him and many other emerging professionals, this means making the extra effort to attend trade shows and solution showcases and routinely read up on the latest developments.
Of course, this takes time and time is an especially precious commodity in the industry. “There’s also a new expectation for us to be available 24/7, because we now have occupants who are working in the middle of the night,” Newell continues. Modern technology has provided the ability to communicate instantly, allowing many businesses to serve their clients and consumers during a longer window of time. This places a demand on the newest generation of building staff to mirror that flexibility in their own property operations and services.
Reinventing professional life
Our current age of technology is driving what Lucken identifies as the most significant issue emerging professionals face today: “keeping skills and knowledge current in a world that generates new information at an ever-increasing rate.” This pressure is affecting professionals of every age, but it is especially relevant to those who have the bulk of their careers ahead of them.
Lucken explains that staying current is not so simple, due to the constraints of an antiquated “school, work, retirement” life model. For decades, the U.S. workforce has adhered to a standard where one is expected to attend school through the first 20-something years of life, immediately join the workforce for about 40 years and then enter a full retirement. This standard took shape in the 1950s, a time when both the workforce and the economy looked very different than it does now.
Just as both society and technology have changed significantly over the past 70 years, Lucken argues that the accompanying life model also should evolve. “In this rapid age of information, going to school for a few years is not enough to stay relevant for even 40 years, not to mention the 65-years-long careers we will start seeing with more frequency.” Lucken suggests that a revised model might be more fluid and include intermittent gaps where employees can take time away from the office to expand their knowledge base through internship, sabbatical, research and volunteer opportunities.
Some organizations already are challenging the standard model with policies aimed to reduce skill stagnation; one of Lucken’s clients has even prohibited employees from staying in a specific role for more than 10 years. “They believe that is the point where an employee has mastered and almost started to disengage from the work,” he explains. “I’m hoping that organizations modernize their career progression models to create this paradigm where employees are better able and encouraged to do something like that. It’s that idea of an office where there’s a 60-year-old intern. I think that concept has a lot of potential.”
In short, millennials and Gen Zers are advancing in their careers at a time when the very nature of a professional career is being questioned and redefined. There is pressure to not only work diligently at a job, but to question and optimize the very nature of that job.
Professional development: not a want, but a need
Modernizing career progression models begins with providing emerging professionals with the resources and support to become lifelong students of the industry. Albeit, continued education programs vary from company to company, and many industry professionals express that it can be a difficult line item to justify to third-party owners. However, many of today’s emerging professionals feel that their development is non-negotiable, and companies that fail to invest in these programs may pay the price in employee turnover.
“Emerging professionals consider professional development programs to be a benefit much like health insurance,” says the Wounded Warrior Project’s Bellinger. “Salary isn’t enough to attract emerging professionals today. There needs to be a total benefits package with strong professional development programs included if a company wants to attract and nurture top talent.”
Bellinger’s employer sets an example of a strong professional development program. Her company invites employees to identify two or three “learning and development” programs in which they are interested. The company will cover the cost for any program that the employee selects, as long as it is beneficial to their career and the company as a whole. “It’s a win/win scenario: I bring a new skill back to the company and I also gain personal fulfillment in pursuing and strengthening my interests,” says Bellinger.
Whatever the professional development plan, the path needs to be identified at the very beginning of a career—especially because most emerging property professionals didn’t go to school specifically to study property management. This issue prompted BOMA International and BOMI International to jointly create an independent certification institute to launch a new credential for early-career professionals. The Certified Manager of Commercial Properties™ (or CMCP™) is designed to validate foundational knowledge after one to five years in the industry and 30 hours of continuing education, which can be fulfilled by a variety of industry offerings, including BOMA and BOMI’s online CMCP Exam Prep Course.
Washington Holdings’ Newell, who earned his CMCP earlier this year, says the CMCP is a great way to get recognition early on in your career and demonstrate to employers that you’re a candidate for more professional development investment. “Not only is the CMCP certification a clear route to recognition,” explains Newell, “but it’s also a great way to show employers you know what you’re doing and you have the knowledge to be successful.”
Promoting professional development doesn’t have to be complex. Companies can support their emerging professionals by simply covering the cost of BOMA membership, education and events. BOMA International and BOMA local associations have active emerging professionals committees, and the BOMA network can introduce them to peers in their field from around the world. Newell explains networking is “a valuable tool for emerging professionals to meet new people and be exposed to trends and opportunities that push you to learn and grow.”
When it comes to the topic of generations, the adage that “you can’t believe everything you read” holds true. RSP Architects’ Erik Lucken explains that the concern regarding the younger generation of workers is amplified by a grossly exaggerated idea of how much of the workforce they actually make up. “There is a myth being circulated that millennials will comprise approximately 75 percent of the American workforce by the mid-2020s,” he explains. Based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S workforce will be approximately 169.7 million in 2026, but the entire U.S millennial population in 2026 will only be 75 million. If every single millennial were to be working at that time, it would still be less than half of the overall workforce. But, millennials are the largest generation in the U.S labor force, surpassing Gen Xers in 2016.
And, don’t forget the lowest-cost professional development option for an organization: mentorship. With the so-called silver tsunami of baby boomer retirements approaching, Bellinger says emerging professionals should feel even more eager to absorb all the knowledge that generations before them have to offer. Plus, mentorship can be beneficial for both parties. “Ultimately, mentoring and ‘reverse mentoring’ should occur between generations. It’s that mixing of generational knowledge that is really going to drive innovation,” says RSP Architects’ Lucken.
Not only can mentorship be the easiest professional development tool, it also tends to be the most effective, according to Newell. In some other industries, emerging professionals receive a formal orientation, but Newell explains that’s not exactly how one learns in property management. There is a lot of on-the-job learning, and emerging professionals have to take their questions to an expert in the field. For Newell, “mentorship is all about having someone to bounce ideas and questions off of, whether it’s regarding what I should be doing to get ahead in my career, or as simple as a property-related issue that I need a second opinion on.” These types of relationships can make the difference between deciding to pursue a lifelong career in the industry or deciding to leave due to a lack of support.
As the industry that physically houses the modern labor force, commercial real estate is in a critical position to monitor changing workplace needs. However, research reminds us that millennial and Gen Z workers are not driving these changes so much as today’s high-tech, high-paced environment. Rather than contemplating how generational caricatures will inform future trends, commercial real estate should focus on trusting, training and investing in the industry’s own emerging professionals—the population who will lead the industry through change for years to come.
Who knows: As millennials mature and continue to take on more and more managerial roles, we may see new headlines about them paying forward the support, guidance and positive workplace experiences the industry provides them with now.