Making the most of millennials


Millennial workers generally get pretty bad press. They’re accused of being disloyal, self-centred and lacking in respect for their managers. They want constant praise and quick promotion – and if they don’t get it, they’ll be off to the next job in the blink of an eye (well, within two years anyway).

They are, however, also the future workforce and will have a huge impact on the way businesses evolve in the future.

So, is what we hear about millennial workers true?

There’s no doubt that these Gen Y employees are causing disruption in the workplace – and there’s been much discussion in HR circles about the best way to ‘fix’ the problem and mould millennials into model staff. I believe this is a short sighted approach. Millennials may well be a thorn in the side of their managers right now, but before too long, they will be the majority in the workforce and will be the ones calling the shots. Organisations have a choice. They can either fight against these incomers with their new and unfamiliar ways – or they can embrace the sea-change and find ways to integrate millennials smoothly in the workforce.

But what can companies do? My recommendation is instead of judging their behaviour and trying to change them, it would be better to accept that Generation Y is here to stay and find ways of taking the best from their preferred ways of operating. That doesn’t mean you should throw away all of your established values and ways of working – because of course you need to find ways of accommodating all your employees. What’s interesting though is when you start to dig down, you realise that there as many similarities between the generations as there are differences. Older staff value things like flexibility and openness just as much as Gen Y, for example. They’ve often just not been as vocal about it.

As to what specific areas of HR companies need to focus on, it varies from company to company. You could start by looking at what your values are as a company – and how this is reflected in the way you encourage employees to work and grow.

Deloitte have done some interesting research recently which shows that millennials are more likely to choose employers whose values reflect their own and that almost half won’t carry out a task that goes against their personal ethics. So it’s important that as a business you have a clear picture of what your values are and are able to communicate this to employees in a way that makes it clear how they are expected to behave and go about their work. Millennials will soon call you out if you are not walking your own talk!

As for retaining millennials, where retention rates are notoriously low there are some things that companies can do to improve this.

One important thing to remember is to be honest! Part of the problem is that, as employers, we naturally want to paint a picture of our organisation as an exciting, vibrant place to be. But if the reality is somewhat different, millennials will soon be headed for the door. You need to make sure that during the recruitment phase, you give candidates an accurate description of what it’s like to work for you, where the business is headed and what the challenges and opportunities will be. It’s no good, for example, saying that collaboration is one of your values if managers are operating in silos or constantly in conflict with each other. Or saying that you invest in training or support employees doing voluntary work in the community, if that never happens. People are much more likely to stick around if the picture you paint matches reality.

It does appear that in most business sectors, millennials are less willing to compromise their work-life balance than previous generations. But that doesn’t mean they won’t put in the effort. If they are passionate about what they do, they will go the extra mile. It’s important to understand what’s driving this desire for greater flexibility. With older generations, it’s often about the need to balance work with caring responsibilities. For millennials, however, it’s just as likely be about finding a way to arrange their working life so they accommodate charity work, a hobby they are passionate about or even to allow them to set up their own business on the side.

Millennials are much more ‘connected’ than previous generations. They are great at building networks both in and outside of work and are natural collaborators. There are also used to being able to access information at the click of a mouse and have grown up managing their personal affairs on-line. As a result, they find it quite puzzling when they get into an organisation and find they are blocked or limited in their use of social media and still have to use paper-based processes for simple tasks like booking annual leave or updating their bank details. They also don’t understand why they often get push-back if they ask to work remotely or from home, when the technology to enable this is freely available. If organisations want to get the best out of millennials they need to embrace their more fluid ways of working – and also look at the transparency of their communications in general. Open and free-flowing communication is highly valued by younger workers – they want to know what’s going on, where the business is headed and what changes might be afoot, so that they can react accordingly.

And finally, what about us, as managers of people – what can we do to improve things. All the research is pointing to the fact that millennials are turned off by bureaucratic management styles and want a more informal, coaching style relationship with their managers. They are hungry for on-going feedback and want support to help them solve issues themselves, rather than having someone constantly looking over their shoulder. This is counter to the way the newer generation of employees are typically managed, but if organisations want to get the best out of them, they need to shift to a more informal, enabling approach and let people fly instead of trying to rein them in.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments what experience you’ve had working with millennials, and how you may have adapted your practices to suit.

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