Published: 9 November 2021

Sometimes you feel a real cultural shift in the workplace, and I can’t help but think there may be a big one happening now. It’s about inclusion; it’s about recognising diversity, and most of all, it’s about awareness. There is a level of sensitivity and mindfulness growing in the younger generation of workers that needs to be accounted for. What are sometimes referred to as the ‘woke’ generation are changing the nature of the workplace.

Before we think about what this all means to the world of work, it’s worth a moment of consideration about the word ‘woke’. The use of the word as we currently understand it seems to have become commonplace in the last decade or so. It means to be well-informed or aware of injustice in a political or cultural sense. In short, then a woke person is aware of the injustice of discrimination and rejects and often consciously opposes it. Sadly, it is now also sometimes used as a sort of insult to mean overly sensitive or easily offended. The latter use is negative and derisory and is not the woke we are talking about in this article. By woke generation, we are talking about the late millennials and Z-Generation who have adopted a new level of empathy, compassion and understanding. One could almost say they are adopting the values and principles of equality and fairness that previous generations have strived for. Ironically this can lead to a cultural clash. What may seem to be a casual comment or expression made by one, often older team member may well be considered offensive or insensitive by the younger ones.

A change in workplace culture

The difficulty with any generational or cultural change is that, well, it is a change, and a change is often difficult. Team members who grew up in a less woke environment can feel oppressed and even censored by what they see as the over sensitivity of their younger colleagues. This may even be justified in some cases because, as with any accusation of offence or discrimination, there will always be those who seek to use what should be a move to equality as a weapon or for personal gain. Hopefully, these incidents are few and far between, though.

The real focus should be on the positive aspects of this new awareness. Hopefully, for example, we are all now in a position where every business will challenge active and passive racism and sexism. The new generation of workers could well take this further and usher in a more diverse and accepting workplace. To do so, though, will require more understanding of how behaviours and attitudes can be, albeit unintentionally, unacceptable to others. The more aware we are, the more we will be able to integrate appropriate behaviour.

A great example of this is the incredible rise in the general awareness of mental wellbeing and how this is linked to our working lives. The series of lockdowns during the covid pandemic were a big factor in this. The focus on the change to enforced home working helped to accelerate an already growing awareness of the need to care for our own and others’ mental wellbeing. We are starting to change our communal attitude for the better. Mental illness was suddenly no longer seen as a weakness to be hidden and that was a factor in a new culture of support. As a result, we have seen some amazing initiatives in recent times, such as managers who are now specifically being trained to include empathy in their approach and the adoption of mental health first aiders in the workplace. Only time will tell how effective this understanding is in preventing stress and burnout issues, but it is certainly a step forward in mental health awareness. This is the real ‘woke’ in action. A raising of awareness leads to a greater understanding for the benefit of all. Those of us old enough to remember the culture of only a few years past where mental illness problems were often swept under the carpet can only applaud this change.

We're all looking for the same result

So, we are talking about potentially crossing a generational divide in one way, and a mutual learning curve in another when we think about how to accommodate this ‘woke generation’ in the workplace. It will require an understanding that what is offensive or acceptable changes, and that there is a benefit to adapting our behaviour to that new normal. To succeed, though, it will also require the acceptance that cultural change doesn’t appear overnight and that a lot of the time, we are not really divided in intent. We are all looking for the same result - a workplace where equality is more than a set of rules in the employee handbook, where diversity is embraced and accepted and where we are all a little more woke when it comes to how we work together.