Managing Gen Y employees requires flexibility and patience.
The much-anticipated wave of Millennials is upon us, with their addiction to social media, their attachment to consumer devices and their merging of work and personal lives.
In fact, Millennials or Generation Y make up more than a third of the U.S. workforce and are quickly moving into management ranks, according to a recent Ernst & Young study. So, what have we learned about managing Millennials, particularly when it comes to IT?
In a nutshell, Millennials are associated with the following work behaviors and mindsets:
- A collaborative approach to work.
- The expectation that their opinions count, despite existing hierarchy.
- Use of consumer-oriented technologies in the workplace, such as apps, mobile devices, social networking.
- Inclination to work anywhere/anytime rather than set, on-site work hours.
- The desire to be involved with a mission that’s meaningful to them.
“They are more willing to challenge the norm and look for better ways to do things, but I have also seen some of them who seem to have a sense of entitlement,” says Samuel Satyana, mobile wallet platform architect in the North America region at Ericsson.
Tim Elkins, CIO at Prime Lending, agrees. “One story that comes to mind is when an entry-level employee who had been at the company less than three months found herself in a disagreement with a vice president in technology,” he says. “Instead of going to her manager for guidance and resolution, she confronted the vice president. Despite the obvious hierarchy, she felt she deserved to be heard and respected.”
“They are completely different from their Gen X peers,” agrees Michael Kirven, CEO and founder of IT recruiting firm Mondo, where 80% of employees are Millennials. “I’ve had to make myself more adaptable to attract and retain these folks.” Since they’ll be the majority of the workplace in 10 years, Kirven says, “You can either adapt now or later, but everyone will have to.”
Here are four ways that employers can adapt to the new world of Millennials.
1. Enable Collaboration
No.1 on Kirven’s Millennial to-do list was to eliminate private offices in response to the flat infrastructure and “open” environment preferred by the new generation. “They want to be able to shout out questions they might have and get immediate feedback,” Kirven says. “It’s not the standard protocol of e-mailing the boss and waiting for a response.”
To support their collaborative style of work, Mondo has also implemented Salesforce.com’s Chatter platform, as well as Google Chat, to enable communication across national offices. “Right now, I have 15 chat windows open,” Kirven says. “I can go all day and my phone won’t ring once. It’s a dinosaur sitting on my desk.”
Elkins is also considering new collaboration and chat platforms to support this Millennial preference. “We know that our customers, business partners, and employees are social and collaborate outside of work, and we’re working to figure out how to foster that collaborative nature in-house,” Elkins says. Internally, Prime Lending is using Chatter and Cisco’s Jabber for instant messaging. The company is also building a mobile app for its customers and partners to support better external collaboration and transparency, as well.
2. Facilitate the free flow of ideas
Beyond peer collaboration, Millennials also expect to freely share their ideas with higher-ups in the organization, Kirven says. And while not all of these opinions are worthwhile, he says, he has adjusted his own workstyle to ensure he is available to hear them out. “If I listen to eight bad ideas, I’ll get two good ones out of 10, and it might also increase retention,” he says. “When I’m in any of our offices, I plan on doing basically no work in the traditional sense. They don’t have traditional barriers — they just storm in, but it’s OK; I’ve had to adapt.”
One area where Kirven encourages ideas and opinions from Millennial workers is employee benefits. Mondo set up a cross-functional committee to brainstorm benefits they would like to see implemented and then pitch these ideas to the executive staff. One of the committee’s most successful ideas was for Mondo to help pay down employees’ student debt (or for an MBA degree) after one year of tenure.
“The group felt empowered, and the innovation happened from within, which is where it should happen,” Kirven says. “If I can keep someone an extra two years because we’re helping to chip away at their student debt, that sounds great to me,” he adds.
Even while giving Millennial employees lots of airtime, Kirven also has to manage their expectations for moving quickly up the organizational hierarchy. “They have a tendency to want a lot in a really fast timeframe in terms of promotions and more responsibility, and they get impatient if it’s not given to them,” Kirven says. “So part of our job is to govern that by trying to slow them down just a touch and let them know a bigger title and team doesn’t mean you’re more successful and that there’s plenty of time for all that.”
3. Accept the blending of work and life
At Prime Lending, Elkins has noticed the Millennial tendency to operate from an “anytime/anywhere” standpoint. “They’re checking e-mails constantly, regardless of location,” he says. “Work is part of their life and is not necessarily separate.”
This means it’s just as natural for a Millennial employee to conduct personal business at work as it is for her to work at any time of day or night at home. “I could send anybody in the company an e-mail at 11:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, and I’ll get a response in a minute,” Kirven says. “It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m CEO – it’s just their culture.”
The workplace at Mondo has increasingly incorporated elements of private life into the office, Kirven says, including in-office yoga classes and end-of-day beer breaks. “They might take the class from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. and then jump back on their computers and work from 7:00 to 9:00,” he says. “It’s just one life to them, with personal and business rolled into both, and you can’t draw rigid boundaries,” he says. “I remember the first time I saw someone wearing earbuds while they were working, and I asked, ‘How can you concentrate?’ But now, every single one of them does it.”
At the same time, managers need to apply a filter, Kirven says, such as, “No, you can’t take a 2.5-hour nap in the middle of the day while you’re getting your feet massaged.” And at the company’s 15-minute daily stand-up morning meeting, no one is allowed to bring a phone. “It captures everybody’s attention, but it’s no longer than 15 minutes, so no one starts to drift off,” Kirven says.
4. Recalibrate retention expectations
Even after making workplace changes that suit the Millennial style, businesses still can’t be assured they’ll stick around for very long. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the tenure of employees aged 20 to 34 is just 2.3 years, compared with the average tenure of all U.S. workers, which is 4.6 years. To Kirven, that’s just something he takes in stride.
“If I can get three to four years of highly productive, positive work from them, great, and when they get tired of working here, I’ll introduce them to people,” he says. His logic is that if they enjoyed working at Mondo, they’ll function as ambassadors wherever they go. Kirven is even considering developing an “alumni hall of fame” that celebrates where ex-employees work after leaving Mondo.
“It’s counter-intuitive to the traditional ‘turn off their computer access, show them the door and send them a stern legal letter,'” he says. “But you can’t do that anymore – you need to assume they’ll move on.”
Making changes that are attractive to Millennials can be as easy as considering the ideas that employees generate, Kirven says, and responding with small but frequent tweaks to the current culture. “We like to make changes every quarter because we want an evolving blend of cool stuff that makes Mondo an attractive place to work,” Kirven says. “It just takes listening to what they want and moving the needle toward them.”
Even very traditional companies can take heart, he says. “They don’t care necessarily if you’re Google, Facebook, Mondo, a publishing house or an ad firm,” he says. “What they care is that the company is changing and growing, trying new things and not stagnant. They don’t want to work at a place that will do the exact same thing in two or three years. They want to see you’re trying new stuff and on the cutting edge of whatever vertical you’re in.”