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How to retool your business for millennials

By |  July 2, 2021
Photo: izusek/E+/Getty Images

Wise employers will recognize the desire for organizational involvement by millennials. These same employers will reach out for feedback before high-performing millennials depart. Photo: izusek/E+/Getty Images

Every business wants motivated employees, but a productive workforce doesn’t happen by accident. Employers must create an operating environment that inspires their people and gives them the tools needed to succeed.

Tools vary with the times. Lately, the times are all about millennials. These employees, ranging in age from 25 to 40, make up the largest workforce component, according to the Pew Research Center.

Hard on their heels is the fastest growing labor segment: Gen Z, aged 15 to 25. Both groups tend to job hop more frequently than previous generations – all the more reason for employers to make the right moves now so high performing “A players” don’t jump ship for the competition.

“Millennials can be very loyal employees and can bring important talents to the workplace,” says Jason Dorsey, president of The Center for Generational Kinetics in Austin, Texas. “However, businesses must take the time to understand their priorities and recognize how to best meet them. None of this is about spending more money, but about understanding the millennial mentality and then building a work environment that reflects common ground.”

Meaningful work

So what do millennials need? It all starts with a connection between work and life outside the shop.

“While everybody wants to do meaningful work, it’s much more important to millennials than to previous generations,” says Jack Altschuler, president of Fully Alive Leadership in Northbrook, Illinois.

Altschuler describes the millennial mentality this way: “If all I’m doing is putting a screw in a widget on the assembly line, I’m not going to be motivated. In fact, I’m going to be out of here as soon as I can find something else.”

Millennials need to know their work activities contribute to society. The details of daily labor are only meaningful when they enhance the lives of customers.

Furthermore, the organization should be involved in community affairs. The expectation is for the employer to be a good corporate citizen, actively supporting causes not just through money but with action.

“Millennials want their employer to participate in such things as charity events, rallies, walkathons and runs,” says Richard Avdoian, an employee development consultant in metro St. Louis.
Prospective employees will even use the Internet to assess an employer’s social commitment.

“Millennials will check on places like Glassdoor where people share reports about companies where they work,” Altschuler says. “They will find out if a company does things like organizing blood drives or conducting volunteer work at retirement homes.”

Profitable labor

There’s a second level of meaning that’s crucial to this age group: the connection between their work and organizational health.

Managers must communicate how employees contribute to the bottom line. One way to show the connection between employee actions and profit is to explain how quality work and service create loyal customers.

Even more can be done. Consultants suggest involving the staff in decision-making.

“Consider establishing a rotating committee of employees to talk about the entire operational progression from the entrance of the customer to follow-up after the sale,” Avdoian says. “The committee can address questions such as: How can the business increase the quality of its service, and how can it improve interdepartmental relations?”

If that sounds like a bottoms-up approach to business management, that’s because it is.

“Millennials want somebody to listen to them,” says Randy Goruk, president of The Randall Wade Group in Scottsdale, Arizona. “They have ideas and opinions. They may come up with a technique for changing around an installation process so it’s easier, faster or safer. But they are going to need someone to give them permission. If the boss isn’t listening, they see it as a problem. They may leave for another company where they can share their ideas.”

Professional development

Professional development is more important for millennials than for previous generations.

“Millennials need opportunities for learning on the job,” Dorsey says. “They feel they have to keep developing their skills in order to have more security in their careers.”

There’s a special reason for the long-range view of this age group: their experience with the nation’s economy.

“Millennials feel like they’ve been book-ended with significant negative events,” Dorsey says. “On the front end was the Great Recession, which led to unemployment and wage stagnation. On the back end is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to job losses and a slowdown in career progression. That’s not only because of restricted job opportunities, but also because the generations preceding them are staying longer in the workforce.”

Given this background, millennials realize they need to lay the groundwork for their future security – and they expect their employer to provide guidance.

“Just training millennials for the work they are doing currently is no longer sufficient,” Avdoian says. “They expect employers to help them enhance their skills for positions they may take in the future.”

Successful employers communicate a personal interest in millennials’ future.

“Take the guesswork out of advancement,” says Lauren Star, a business consultant based in Bedford, New Hampshire. “Create a career path for millennials where training is offered, coaching is provided by skilled individuals and transparency is intact.”

Depending on the proclivities of each employee, the pathway can include expansion of job duties, the introduction of management levels and even progression into leadership positions.

Feedback is the flip side of professional development. Millennials concerned about job stability and advancement need to know how they’re doing more frequently than older workers.

“Millennials need interactions at least once a week from their direct boss or supervisor in order to feel they’re doing a good job and their position is secure,” Dorsey says. “It could be a text message, a Zoom session or an in-person discussion.”

Saying the wrong thing can set back an employee in ways that are not favorable to performance.

“Make sure whoever’s providing feedback has been trained on how to do it well,” Goruk says. “There are ways to inspire, empower and engage people with your feedback. And there are ways to be destructive.”

Flexibility & mobility

Millennials tend to look beyond the walls of the shop when they plan their lives.

Photo: izusek_E+_Getty Images 2

Professional development is more important for millennials than for previous generations. Photo: izusek_E+_Getty Images

“Unlike previous generations, millennials don’t identify who they are by their job,” Avdoian says. “They are looking for flexibility in their daily work schedule.”

Some are juggling work and children while others are holding down more than one job. Because they have a variety of serious interests they want to pursue, the usual 9 to 5 expectations may require modification.

Mobility goes hand-in-hand with flexibility. Millennials want to work from home when they can. It helps that the generation is digital savvy.

“Because they are technology driven, Millennials get work done differently and faster than Boomers,” Star says. The millennial who quits work at 4 in the afternoon may complete a project by banging on a laptop late at night.

The same mentality that values long-range planning and work-life balance also puts a great deal of importance on benefits.

“Health care and retirement matching are very important to millennials right now,” Dorsey says, adding that this is one area where there is somewhat of a split with the younger generation. “While benefits are very important to Gen Z as well, health insurance does not seem to interest them as much as retirement matching. That is very, very important to them, which is surprising given how young they are.”

Gen Z also shows a pronounced preference for what’s called “earned wage access,” a system in which employers pay half wages at the end of every shift. “This is an expectation that they are bringing to employers in many industries,” Dorsey says.

Assess results

Perception, of course, can differ from reality. While an employer may feel a workplace meets the needs of millennials, millennials may have a different opinion. The good news is they will offer constructive advice if asked.

Wise employers will recognize the desire for organizational involvement by millennials. These same employers will reach out for feedback before high-performing millennials depart.

“I suggest scheduling regular meetings with employees to understand why they are staying with the company,” Avdoian says. “Encourage millennials to answer questions such as these: What aspects of the company or your job excite you? What motivates you to succeed here? What would make your job more satisfying? Are you pleased with how we are recognizing and compensating employees? Are you happy with your work-life balance? What training would you benefit from?”

The answers to these questions can help employers better understand the millennial mindset and create a workplace responsive to employee needs.

“What gets measured gets done,” Goruk says. “Companies which systematize their feedback process will continually improve because they are measuring what they are doing. And when they determine they’re not doing as well as they could, they can make refinements that will help them achieve greater success in the future.”

The end result of a properly re-engineered business environment will be a highly motivated workforce and a more robust bottom line.

“Millennials and Gen Z are bringing tremendous value to the workplace,” Dorsey says. “Rather than seeing them only as young employees, see them as a generation that brings different strengths, perspectives and a desire to make a difference. We think it is a very exciting time for employers who choose to recognize this and act on it.”


Are you millennial-ready?

Does your work environment meet the core needs of millennials? Find out by taking this quiz. For each question, score 0 for never; 4 for seldom; 8 for often and 10 for regularly. Then, total your score and check your rating at the bottom of the chart.

1. Do you explain how your business improves customer lives?
2. Is your business involved in community affairs?
3. Do you involve your employees in decision-making?
4. Do you show how employee actions contribute to the bottom line?
5. Does your workforce reflect your community’s diversity?
6. Do you provide opportunities for professional development?
7. Do you provide regular performance assessments?
8. Have you established flexible work hours?
9. Does your benefit mix reflect employee preferences?
10. Do you solicit employee feedback about your workplace environment?

What’s your score?

• Over 80. You have a millennial-friendly workplace.
• Between 60 and 80. It’s time to retool your organization to better motivate employees.
• Below 60. Improve your millennial IQ. Re-engineer your workplace by instituting suggestions in this story.

Phillip M. Perry is an award-winning journalist who is published widely in the fields of business management, workplace psychology and employment law.


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