Thursday, April 3, 2014

Managing Millennials in the Workplace

Is it really different?

Read any business or HR oriented publication, website or blog and you’ll see countless articles on the challenges of managing those Gen Y’s, the Millennials! They’re so unique; we just must manage them differently in the workplace! If we want our businesses to succeed and grow, we must embrace this new breed of employee and blow up our organizational structures to suit them!! Really? What makes them so different from any other generation upon entering the workforce (or continuing in the workforce, for that matter)?

A poll of these articles will tell you that the millennials are self-centered and overly confident of their own abilities; that they don’t often want to finish what they start; and that they don’t appreciate or understand the traditional structure of most organizations. All this may very well be true, but is it any different than any other generation? Is it really? For the most part, I don’t think so. The same things have been said about the baby boomers or Generation X employees when they first entered the workforce.

On the positive side, millennials have been described as wanting to make a real difference in the world; that they "get" the concept of globalization. Anyone remember the 1960’s? There was a generation who wanted to make a difference, both here and abroad; they may have gone about it differently (since we really didn’t have the internet then) but the passion for making a difference was certainly there. And yes, they and others "got" globalization as it was understood at the time.

I think the one characteristic that has been ascribed to this generation – that of entitlement – may have merit, although certainly not exclusively. When you’ve been in management and HR for any length of time, you come to realize that there are no real unique characteristics you can pin on any one age group, industry, job type or any other grouping you care to use.

Where does that leave us in answering the question about how to manage millennials? Pretty much the same place we end up in answering the question of how to manage any employee.

Let’s take a look at some the areas where millennials are seen as "unique".

Millennial’s parents are and have been heavily involved in most aspects of their life. These parents micromanaged their kids’ daily school and extracurricular activities, and continue to do so after high school and even college. The idea of allowing them to experience failure or disappointment or to deal with stress of any kind is somehow foreign to the parents of this generation. The problem here is that it doesn’t end there. More than a few bosses and HR pros report receiving calls from parents. I’ve received calls from parents of applicants wondering why their child wasn’t given an interview, or even better, why their child wasn’t hired (when little Johnny hadn’t even been selected for an interview, much less the job). The ability and/or willingness to problem-solve or to accept responsibility for their actions does seem more pronounced with the millennials. But again, I’ve seen this with many people in the work place, regardless of generation.

Gen Y’s are often accused of not taking critical feedback well. They seem to want only praise and thank you’s for everything they do. They don’t respond well to authority and leaders and managers must prove that they are worth following. But, at the same time, they are hungry for feedback – the right feedback. They want to know how they doing and what more they can do to succeed. The key is for managers to build that relationship first. This generation of employees is used to adult supervision from people they know support them and have their best interests at heart. Isn’t that what everyone wants? Whether in our professional lives or personal lives, we want affirmation, solid advice and gentle correction when things don’t go well. Constructive criticism, delivered clearly and without malice works for everyone.

Lacking structure, focus and a strong work ethic? Everyone needs some structure and focus. Work ethic is defined differently by different people. Providing structure for your workforce is vital to your organization’s success – without being rigid just for the sake of control. Reports have monthly due dates; jobs have fairly regular hours; activities/tasks are scheduled every day, week or month; meetings have agendas; goals should be clearly stated and progress is evaluated. These are necessary to an organized and productive workplace. We all deserve to know the rules of the game upfront, what is expected of us and the consequences if we don’t play by the rules. Flexibility can be provided where it fits, but structure where necessary needs to be maintained.

Demanding work/life balance is also seen to be a defining characteristic of our Gen Y’ers. They’re not willing to give up any part of their lifestyle for their career. Eventually, they choose careers that allow them to live their chosen lives (don’t we all strive for this?). The problem may come in getting there. Their social life may bleed over into their professional life in unacceptable ways. Their social media savvy also plays into this with uninhibited use of Facebook, Twitter, Vine and other social networks at home, work and play. Providing structure and limits will be necessary to keep the extraneous distractions at bay.

Used to communicating short, fast messages through instant messaging, texting, Facebook and e-mail, acceptable business communication styles are a challenge for them. Face-to-face communication is less important and the preferred way. As a result, they are often unaware of their non-verbal cues. As a result, this generation tends to have more miscommunications between friends, co-workers and bosses. They forget that words only account for a small part of the communication. In business, communication with customers and clients, whether internal or external, is key. Managing expectations surrounding use of "text-speak" or the need to have an in-person meeting will be important.

Millennials have grown accustomed to instantaneous connection and nearly immediate responses each time they Tweet or post. In the workplace, they expect the same. They want to be able to ask questions and get career advice all the time. Having to wait for requests, responses and feedback in a normal corporate structure will need to be tempered with reality. However, the rest of us can take a page from their book and learn to remove unnecessary obstacles caused by bureaucracy.

The 9-to-5 workday has been fading for quite some time, partly as a result of the Internet and our ability to be constantly connected, and the millennials are right there for this! This can be a good thing; however, research shows that 81% of millennials think they should be allowed to make their own hours at work, compared to only 69% of boomers. They prefer a flexible environment, including the right to work remotely and go into the office only sometimes or maybe not at all. They maintain that as long as the work gets done, the amount of time spent in the office shouldn’t matter. Face time in the work world is still important, although the strict adherence to start and end times is less necessary in some businesses – hence the move to "core hours" many companies have adopted.

Seventy-nine percent millennials think they should be allowed to wear jeans to work at least sometimes, compared to only 60% of boomers. An astounding 93% of millennials say they want a job where they can be themselves at work, and that includes dressing in a way that makes them comfortable. They also seem to prefer casual attire because they don’t separate their personal and professional lives in the same way that baby boomers do. (Ok. They got me on this one. While my workplace is fairly casual a good part of the time, being able to wear jeans and t-shirt most of the time would up my engagement score by a bunch.)

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