Engaging millennials in the workplace

Just two years ago millennials surpassed Generation Xers as the largest generation in the US workforce.

While older, “first wave” millennials, born between 1980 and 1989, vaguely remember dial-up Internet and life before insta-everything, “second wave” millennials, born between 1990 and 2000, entered adolescence with real-time Facebook likes and first-generation iPhones in hand. Today, millennials make up more than 30% of all US employees.

Although many differences between generations in the workplace has more to do with life stage than year born, there are some unique characteristics common to employees born after the late 1970s.

Many millennials, used to instant feedback, expect this rapid response and progress in every aspect of their life – especially at work. Yet expecting workplaces to promote employees every three months – or even every year – is not practical or realistic.

>See also: Knowledge sharing in the age of millennials

This leads to disengagement amongst millennials who crave work that aligns directly to professional progress, and ultimately results in high and costly turnover amongst employees – Gallup estimates that millennial turnover costs the US economy $30.5 billion annually.

For the millennial employee, job hopping may, in the short term, lead to new opportunities, increases in pay and better titles, but these transitions cannot infinitely keep up with a need for regular progress.

As millennials move into mid-level management roles and senior individual contributor positions, they must balance longer periods between levels while finding intrinsic means to remain motivated and engaged towards achieving substantial goals required to eventually move up into even greater responsibility.

Setting realistic goals and ensuring these goals are aligned across upper management and direct reports is one of the leading factors in upwards mobility in the workplace. Yet many employees in this demographic struggle with setting goals and making progress towards them.

Without a sense of purpose and connection to a greater path of progress, engagement fizzles and employees start looking for what’s next versus investing that energy into their daily work.

Many employers are aware of this challenge, and the costs associated with churning millennial talent. Six in 10 millennials are open to different job opportunities, which is the highest percentage among all generations of the workplace.

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The annual performance review process, the antithesis of instant feedback and gratification, is thankfully on its way out. Nearly 70% of millennials think the annual review process is flawed. Millennials crave constant feedback – 80% say they want to receive regular feedback from their managers.

Companies including Accenture, JP Morgan, Adobe, Gap, IBM, GE, and Deloitte have announced the replacement or significant augmentation of annual assessments with real-time feedback and lightweight, progress-focused check-ins.

By providing a structure for managers to provide employees with ongoing feedback, employees not only are rewarded with instant gratification via in-the-moment recognition, they also receive meaningful constructive feedback tied to specific business and developmental goals.

Even without such a system in place, setting goals on a quarterly basis with managers and having an open dialogue about successes, failures and learnings provides millennial employees a sense of direction and a heaping dose of psychological safety, which enables employees to focus on doing their best work, instead of putting that energy into constantly seeking an escape hatch.

Coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety, or “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking,” is the openness to making mistakes and learning from them.

Leaders in high-performing teams provide space for questions and discussion, and make it clear that failure is not only acceptable but is expected en route towards success.

Before judging millennials as the entitled “me” generation, consider that more than half of millennials would take a 15% pay cut to do work for an organisation that matches their values.

>See also: How enterprises can optimise mobile apps for millennials

The generation as a whole is more entrepreneurial than prior generations and, while they hate bureaucracy, are ready to step into leadership roles, with one-in-four “asking for a chance” to show their leadership skills, according to a Deloitte study.

Millennials may struggle to excel in a hierarchical workplace with no feedback or room for growth, but in the right environment this group can–and wants to–be extremely productive.

Organisations seeking to retain and motivate millennial talent are increasingly investing in more robust career path programs which offer not only multi-step levels, but also horizontal movement as well to enable employees to make more structured progress towards professional goals without having to leave the organisation to get ahead.

Borrowing from game design, these level-based systems provide more steps than the standard manager-director-AVP-VP path in the traditional workplace. For example, the manager “level” can be broken down into three to six “bands” which require certain deliverables and criteria met before moving up to the next band.

Offering an individual-contributor track alongside a management track also rewards talented employees who are not interested in management roles, but who clearly add significant value to the organisation through their output as a key player on a team.

>See also: Millennials are shaking up the workplace

While millennial employees will rarely be lifers in an organisation, many would be happy to stay put for a number of years while adding value if a clear path to progress and growth is directly tied into their goals and daily tasks.

Clearly communicating when an employee is not achieving these goals despite mentorship from supervisors is also important–transparency, however painful, leads to increased engagement over being surprised at a year-end review that a worker’s contributions are not meeting expectations.

No organisation can ignore millennials’ needs and be successful. Without the right processes and management styles in place, millennials are much more likely to be disengaged and leave their roles for greener pastures.

The good news is that with the right performance management systems, career path programs and feedback philosophy in place, millennials can be highly productive, loyal, and extremely hard-working, innovative and engaged employees.


Sourced from Rajeev Behera, CEO of Reflektive

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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