In 2015, the age group known as millennials surpassed Generation X as the largest generation in the US labor force. As baby boomers retire and more young people come of age, they will make up nearly half of it by 2020.
Young generations are often misunderstood and disparaged, and the millennials are no different: they’re called every name in the book, from lazy to entitled, accusations which are largely unfounded.
Since millennials are becoming the majority, and quickly, it’s time to pay attention to what they have to offer the American workforce. The commonalities they share — many of which are positive — are reflective of changing times rather than sweeping personality traits. Understanding their needs also mandates that you understand the individual and shared needs of the rest of your team, whatever generation they may belong to.
So, how do we adapt workplaces to millennial needs without rocking the boat for other associates? Here are four ways millennials do business differently than previous generations, and how companies can adjust their practices to optimize the talents of all team members.
1. Millennials favor work flexibility
The days of the office 9 to 5 grind are grinding to a halt, and it has nothing to do with laziness. With technology comes the ability to work and communicate remotely, on top of which concepts of what schedules aid productivity are changing. For example, naps or mid-day exercise.
You may just find that other associates like work flexibility too. Already, it’s a big demand for Generation X (ages 34 to 49), many of which are raising children.
Whether or not they are used to it, people of all ages can benefit from versatile hours and the opportunity to work remotely. You don’t need to change any policies abruptly, but introducing these kinds of options gradually will appeal to team members of all ages without turning the office upside down — on top of which, it can save money.
At my company, we offer work flexibility at managers’ discretion. For example, we reintroduced summer hours this year, where associates are free to leave at noon on Friday every other week by coming in early Monday to Thursday. These types of policies incentivize team members to be productive during the week and make the most of their weekends.
2. They are at ease with technology
Millennials are the first generation to come of age into a world awash with technology, and most are adept with computer programs, social media, apps, streaming and more. When it comes to work, this means that digital connection is a must-have, and beyond just email.
It can be difficult, however, to get a Baby Boomer on board with Skype, Tablaeu, Work.com, and other forms of “newfangled” tech tools. But even other generations can learn a thing or two about technology if they are open to growing their skills. One possible way to bridge this gap is to pair younger associates with older mentors; this way millennials can learn from their experience and Boomers can get a hang of new technologies.
3. They are socially responsible
Millennials are the strongest supporters of CSR (corporate social responsibility) and the most universally engaged in these efforts. Case in point, 9 in 10 say that they would switch brands if one were associated with a cause.
Again, this is a case in which policy change may be appreciated by older generations, too. The idea of aligning a company with a cause may not have occurred to your other associates, but adding or emphasizing social responsibility has very little downside where team members are concerned.
At my company, the AACE (Associates Achieving Community Enrichment) program offers four paid days a year for associates to get involved in their communities. We will be raising that to six in 2017. We have a community involvement leader who puts out a weekly newsletter offering different ways to get involved, host on-site fundraising activities and lastly, host regular luncheons where organizations come in and share what they are trying to accomplish and educate us on how to help.
4. They take calculated risks
Millennials have witnessed older generations’ struggles, from divorces to the Great Recession, in spite of their caution and traditional ways of life. This has made many millennials cautious in their own way, but daring in others: for example, they will take more risks in both dating and work before settling on one partner or career.
This means young people are quite entrepreneurial, and are generally more willing to think outside of the box. As a result, the “box” as we know it is changing. Companies need to negotiate the changing shape with the policies established within, and encourage innovative thinking without letting it get out of hand.
As I’ve written about previously, there are many ways to encourage your team to take calculated risks. These are useful for all associates, who you may find are more capable of deviating from tradition to innovate than you expect.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the individual
While these points address how the millennial generation may differ, I truly believe that the best way to lead is to treat everyone as an individual. We all have our own unique needs and motivational drives. It’s important to understand broader scopes of difference, but all adjustments should be customized to the team as a whole rather than the generations within it.
Essentially, you shouldn’t be creating flexibility only because of millennials. You should make an effort to constantly address the individuals on your team’s needs regardless of generation or other categorization, and creating flexibility to meet their needs and the needs of the company.
The philosophical differences that I (and many others) have outlined raise a different question. How often are we actually checking in with our current group of associates to make sure that our benefits really help them? How do we know that what we offer is actually of use? Looking at millennials — a huge generation — may be the first step, but the ultimate way forward is to analyze our workforce both on a whole and a person-to-person basis.