Millennials in the Workplace: They’re Not Complicated, We Promise

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By Meg Murphy

The ancient Greek economist, Hesiod, had a low opinion of the young people around him: “They only care about frivolous things. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly … impatient of restraint.”

More than 2,000 years later, we still hear the same tired and overblown rhetoric about how the newest generation just doesn’t get it.

Millennials aren’t the enigma everyone makes them out to be. They want what every generation before them wanted: to feel appreciated, to know their work is making an impact, and to feel part of something bigger than themselves. The only difference between millennials and other generations is that millennials actually expect their employers to provide a fulfilling work life. If this demand is not met, millennials aren’t afraid to ask for change or leave for another company that promises more.

Millennials’ age and inexperience are working against them. Detractors point to millennial struggles and argue that they are lazy or entitled, but the reality is that these are growing pains, not incompetence. Millennials want to work and expand their skills, and companies have to invest in their growth if they want to reap the rewards. The challenge is ensuring millennials’ needs are fulfilled.

There’s strong incentive to meet that challenge. According to Dale Carnegie and MSW, companies with engaged employees outperform others by 202 percent.

Engagement and the new professionals

Company culture exists on a spectrum. On one end is the drab 9-to-5 company: It’s plagued by disingenuous or nonexistent connections among co-workers, unhealthy competition, and opaque management strategies, and employees go home as soon as they’re allowed. Any emphasis on “culture” comes from the top and feels insincere.

On the other end is the company that prioritizes culture above all else. These companies’ commitments to their employees are genuine and pervasive. It’s not just from upper management; it’s from everyone. They offer flexible hours because they trust their employees. Workers stay engaged not necessarily because they love everything they do, but because their work is appreciated and has a visible impact on the company, their co-workers and their clients.

Engagement is more than the warm fuzzy feelings that accompany getting along with co-workers. An engaged workforce delivers serious ROI for its company. Today, with millennials making up the largest part of the workforce, it’s more important than ever to ensure they’re actively engaged with their work.

As with any large group, it’s impossible to apply a one-size-fits-all strategy. This is especially true for millennials, who are the least homogenous group the American workforce has ever seen.

With so many different people to please, what is the secret to keeping millennials engaged?

How to keep millennials engaged

It’s no secret at all. The same rules apply to them as everyone else — they’re just more in tune with their needs and more empowered to ensure those needs are met. To keep millennials engaged, leaders should provide these six things:

1. A Mission

Our company operates under the belief that we can’t motivate people on our own. Instead, we hire people who are already motivated to solve the kinds of problems we’re working on. If our mission resonates with an employee, that employee is much more likely to stay engaged and stay with the company for the long term.

More money isn’t always the answer. Millennials work for a purpose, not a paycheck. Many younger millennials also don’t yet have responsibilities like children or mortgages, so much of their energy is devoted to finding fulfillment. It’s important to give them opportunities to do something meaningful to keep engagement and retention rates up.

2. Growth opportunities

As the youngest demographic in today’s workforce, millennials are the lowest on the totem pole. They are the unpaid interns and entry-level workers, and they are eager to get to the next step quickly.

Capitalize on this drive by letting them work on cross-departmental projects or mentor a new recruit, and make sure they understand what must happen to push their careers to the next level. Benefit managers need to think creatively and holistically about unique opportunities to help young workers grow.

3. Empathy

Business is about more than numbers. Empathy from management, among colleagues, and for customers and clients makes workers feel more connected to the people around them. Leaders should recognize that they work with humans, not numbers, and treat their employees as the people they are. Companies that prioritize relationships and emphasize genuine human connections reap the greatest rewards of engagement.

4. Transparency and honesty

Marketing-wise, no other generation has been targeted quite like millennials have — they can spot deception from a mile away.

The more opaque, bureaucratic half-truths they get from a company, the less likely they are to buy into the company’s mission or stick around for longer than a couple of years. Honest and consistent messaging from management helps employees feel valued.

5. Ownership

Millennials, like the generations before them, want to be treated with as much respect as the older members of the workforce. They want opportunities to own their work and to be recognized when that work is done well. The more grunt work they have to do and the less appreciation they receive, the more likely they are to look for other opportunities. Instead, provide opportunities to contribute to, or run a project on their own.

6. Diversity and interconnectedness

Millennials are digital natives, so they are accustomed to being connected with everything, everywhere, all the time. They care about other parts of the world and social issues affecting the globe. Companies have to create diverse workplace environments that allow millennials to connect to the larger world through their work.

No generation has ever been perfect, and every new generation takes flak from those who preceded it. But millennials aren’t “impatient” or “entitled.” They’re also not a riddle. They do have great potential, though, and it’s up to leaders to bring it out of them.

Image credit: Flickr/University of the Fraser Valley

Meg Murphy runs communications at Maxwell Health, a revolutionary operating system for employee benefits. She is passionate about transforming the health care industry for the better and sits on the Institute for Healthcare Consumerism’s Editorial Advisory Board and graduated from Bates College in 2013. Connect with her on LinkedIn or find her on Twitter @megalegamurph.

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