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Everything you know about millennial employees is wrong: What they really want and how to adapt

October 31, 20164 Minute Read

Nap pods, gummy bears, and bouncy balls may seem like the contents of a kindergarten classroom, but they have also become staples of workplaces filled with millennial employees.

Millennials are now the biggest generation in the Canadian workforce. Baby boomers are retiring and members of Generation X are assuming higher-level leadership roles, which means millennials are now the engine on which Canadian businesses run. However, they’re also the least engaged population of the workforce, which directly impacts their productivity and performance. Actively disengaged employees cost the North American business economy $350 billion in lost productivity a year.

Failing to prioritize their preferences also makes attracting and retaining them difficult. It’s well documented that millennials don’t consider, accept, or keep jobs that they don’t enjoy, yet many companies remain mystified about what millennials want and struggle to engage them. Google began showering lavish perks on employees and creating playground-esque office spaces because it knew that this would give the company an edge when recruiting the best and the brightest talent. Google recognized that millennials aren’t enticed by generous retirement plans or even financial bonuses the same way as previous generations.

Engaging millennials requires more than offering catered lunches and on-site laundry. Millennials are a unique generation with a distinct set of motivators and desires, which, when tapped into, can yield inspired, creative, hardworking, and, yes, even loyal employees. Millennials may have different priorities than their older counterparts, but they’re no impenetrable mystery.

What millennials want

Millennials place a premium on work-life balance. They’re not interested in pouring their hearts and souls into corporate jobs that allow no time for life outside of the office. This doesn’t mean that they need, or even want, to work fewer hours—it means they prefer when their work lives and their personal lives are integrated to the point that they can flexibly and fluidly move between the two. They want the option to work from home and take time off when they need.

Flexibility is linked with autonomy. This generation is independent and self-sufficient; rather than being ordered around or coddled, they prefer to forge their own way. In terms of work-life balance, this means they dislike being chained to their desks, but will happily work longer hours if they can do so remotely.

In addition, millennials are turned off by rigid corporate hierarchies and the idea of “climbing the ladder.” The idea of a boss who issues commands from on high or a manager who tells them how to do their work can send them in the other direction. Millennials want the space to think creatively, solve problems, and shape their workday and career path based on their own preferences.

Research from Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter found that millennial employees seek out meaning in their jobs and “want to work for companies where they feel that they’re making a meaningful difference in the world.”

This desire to feel that their work matters is part of why millennial workers crave constant feedback and recognition. They want to know in real-time how they’re doing and are always seeking out opportunities to learn, grow, and improve. It’s important that they find their work stimulating and are given opportunities to push boundaries.

Adapting to millennial workers

This unique set of expectations and preferences is driving a profound shift in company cultures across the country and across industries. Engaging millennials requires throwing many traditional notions about the workplace out the window and rewriting the corporate playbook.

To bridge the generational gap, consider allowing your employees to work remotely. When visiting a doctor’s office, driving a kid to school, or even taking a vacation requires layers of permission or bureaucracy, workers become frustrated and unhappy. Giving millennials control over their time keeps them satisfied and loyal. Companies can also engage millennials by flattening their corporate structures and providing each employee with a greater degree of trust and autonomy. Millennials love to collaborate, so replacing a top-down ethos with a more holistic, team-based, horizontal approach gives employees a sense of freedom and flexibility.

This approach also precludes millennials from feeling like they’re just a cog in a machine. Annual performance reviews aren’t going to cut it; companies can engage their millennial employees by creating feedback systems that show employees their work is noticed, valued, and making a difference. On a more macro level, businesses can engage their employees by emphasizing a sense of shared purpose by making a mission statement a living, dynamic ethos that informs how the office—and organization at large—works.

We’ve all heard members of older generations bemoan what it’s like to work with millennials—they’ve called them lazy, wilful, entitled, and narcissistic. But this disregards the great things millennials have to offer. They’re creative, curious, and adaptable. Given the right environment, millennial employees can take your business to new heights.

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