Millennials Are Challenging Corporate Culture But Maybe They’re Onto Something

They’re young, they’re smart, they don’t like hierarchy and, by 2030, they will make up roughly 75 percent of the world’s workforce.

Also dubbed Generation Y or millennials, those born between the early 1980s and late 1990s are the topic of a global conversation on how to manage young workers.

As the millennial generation comes of age, there has been a mixed reaction to the latest members of the workforce. And despite the fact that only half of millennials are working-age adults, they’ve already been branded with some damming nicknames. Terms such as “the Me, Me, Me Generation”, “the No-Collar Generation” and “Trophy Kids” plague Gen Yers with a frustrating and often self-fulfilling prophecy.

The millennial stereotype holds that young workers are prone to narcissism, are high maintenance and often have noncommittal attitudes about their employer. While that may sound like an HR nightmare, those willing to dig deeper into leadership toolkits will find this fresh generation brings a wealth of talent and energy to the table, experts say. They may be shaking up the traditional workplace, but experts believe millennials are more misunderstood than anything else.

Life/work balance is key to millennials, says David Ulrich, professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan.

“There is a lot of research on the millennials,” said David Ulrich, professor of Business Administration and director of the Human Resource Executive Program at the University of Michigan. Ulrich said that easy access to information through technology has given millennials a sense of alienation and more distrust of the authority of institutional organizations. “With these trends, their work ethic may not be less, but their work style may shift,” he said.

For instance, young adults are more likely to focus on life/work balance instead of work/life balance, use technology to facilitate work flexibility and want to see how their professional work affects the broader world, according to Ulrich.

And there’s more at play here than the perennial grumblings of older generations decrying the behavior of “Kids these days.” There are many social and historical circumstances that set millennials apart from older generations. As children, many experienced the abundance of the booming 1990s economy only to be spit into a workforce in the throes of one the deepest recessions in history. That, topped with doting baby-boomer parents and a popular culture celebrating individualism, makes for a unique perspective.

“They had Nickelodeon and lots of products and services that made them grow up realizing their individual differences. That continues into the workforce,” said Jennifer Yugo, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Management at Oakland University.

Perhaps of all these factors, technology has been the biggest game changer for Gen Yers. Millennials have little memory of life before the Internet. Today, virtual venues like Twitter and Facebook give young people the idea that their opinion-”on everything from breaking news to breakfast cereal-”is something to be reckoned with. And due to the Internet’s fast-paced nature, feedback is prolific and just seconds away.

Still, many are unsure what to make of millennial workers. A recent online survey of 2,500 HR professionals conducted by specialty-staffing firm Designed Learning showed that respondents believed work ethic in young hires is at an all time low. The survey, titled “The New, New Hire,” asked participants to evaluate the performance of today’s college graduates compared with college graduates 10 years ago. The results showed 61 percent of seasoned HR professionals believe today’s grads are unprepared for the workplace and are less accountable for their work.

Respondents listed numerous negative attributes of young workers, deeming them entitled, less socially tactful in face-to-face interactions, less tolerant of corporate cultural norms and less likely to make a long-term investment in one company.

They also noted some positive attributes, namely their willingness to take risks and their ability to use social media to form business relationships.

Who’s the boss?
While millennials may not be prepared for the workplace as it exists, they are more prepared for what it is becoming, according to Bill Brewer, director of Client Relations at Designed Learning.

“The days of GE workplace model are over,” Brewer said. “A leader needs to shift their thinking from ‘How do I get people to work hard?’ to, ‘How can I connect people on my team deeply and personally so they feel they are working toward a bigger goal together?'”

The key is adapting a management style that works to harness millennials’ energy in a positive way, according to Yugo.

“I am cautious to say they are not ambitious. What’s frustrating is that the workplace is not finding ways to engage them,” Yugo said.

Accommodating for millennial behavior could mean big changes in the traditional corporate hierarchical model. In fact, HR practices are already shifting to reflect that, according to Ulrich.

“When we ask someone to draw an ‘organization,’ many immediately think of a pyramid which pushes authority and power to the top,” Ulrich said. “But most of today’s employees would envision their organization more as a circle where information, authority, decision making and rewards are shared.”

Rather than a boss higher up the pyramid hiring and firing, team members are more committed when they have a voice in the process, he said.

Increasingly, this is happening with the rise of information technology (IT) in national and global industries. Some companies are already using what has been called a flat or “bossless” office model.

At Menlo Innovations, an Ann Arbor software company, the co-founders and CEO have stepped aside to let the team of employees make all of the decisions, including hiring, firing and budgeting. And many of Menlo Innovations’ employees are young people coming directly out of college.

“I want to be very careful here because the term ‘bossless’ gives the impression that it’s leaderless,” said Rich Sheridan, Menlo Innovations CEO and author of “Joy, Inc.,” an upcoming book. “We did get rid of hierarchy, but in its place put a structure that everyone understands.”

Sheridan prefers a sports analogy to describe his business model. “In baseball, when the players run out onto the field, everyone knows how to play together as a team,” he said. “People who really understand baseball would say, ‘Well, they each have a role to play but their real purpose is to win the game.'”

Sheridan said he doesn’t even decide where he sits in the office. “I sit where the team puts me. People aren’t lined up to ask me what to do next. I’m not the bottleneck.”

For Sheridan, this nontraditional structure was born out of a “long career of pain in standard corporate America.” He recalls his years of experience in traditional corporate settings as being, “command and control environments.”

“I wanted to remove the fear of the organization. It robbed everyone of their collective energy,” Sheridan said.

Technology in many ways has become a young person’s game, as Generation Y was raised to be comfortable and proficient in it at an early age, experts say. This comes as good news, particularly in Rust Belt states like Michigan, where economists predict that technology will replace manufacturing labor jobs in the decades to come.

One 25-year-old IT worker said being a millennial in a corporate workplace is an empowering experience.

“The power dynamics are different,” said Michael Harris, an IT specialist at a major pharmaceutical technology firm. “For instance, my boss can’t do my job. He’s never done my job because my job didn’t exist until 2006.”

Harris said there is no one above 40 in his entire department, including the supervisors. “The idea of a ‘corporate ladder’ is greatly diminished; it’s more like, ‘I can’t believe you are so wizard-like with these computers,'” Harris said. “We have more bargaining power.”

But the sense of moving up company ranks is something still coveted by young workers, especially in IT. Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm, asked more than 2,000 IT consultants nationwide to name what causes the most frustration on the job. Nearly half of respondents said it was too few opportunities for advancement.

“Companies must make an investment in employees-”IT professionals or just any professionals,” said Karen Wilson, branch manager at Robert Half Technology’s Southfield office.

One way to invest is to provide access to ongoing education, especially in the fast-changing field of IT. Because millennials like to be engaged in their career success as individuals, Wilson makes sure she and her management team checks in with everyone frequently through weekly divisional meetings that embrace the idea that employee opinions matter.

“Pull your team together and ask them, ‘How are you feeling? What would you like to see?'” Wilson suggests. “It’s vastly different than traditional models, but it works.”

Performance measures
Brewer said now, more than ever, the need for authentic conversations in the workplace is paramount. And performance appraisals? If it were up to Brewer, they would be a thing of the past. “They focus on weakness,” he said. “On a couple’s wedding anniversary, no one said, ‘Time for your performance review.'”

Millennials want real connections, says Bill Brewer of Designed Learning.

Others believe performance appraisals still have a place in corporate culture; they just need a major facelift. Yugo said what makes traditional performance appraisals less effective is that they only happen once or twice a year.

“With the technology we have today, there is no reason why we can’t be evaluating in real time,” she said.

For example, Halogen Software created eAppraisals, a real-time reporting platform that gives executives, managers and HR professionals fingertip access to performance metrics, delivered in straightforward reports. and Google use similar software to create a social network interface for real-time performance evaluations. And these aren’t the traditional one-way reviews, either. They use what is known as 360-degree feedback-”also known as multi source feedback-”that comes from an employee’s peers and subordinates as well as their managers, all with equal input.

The positive feedback is public, so workers can check their own profiles and see what people in the office are saying about them at any given time. The negative feedback is confidential and available only in reports the program compiles for managers and supervisors to evaluate. That way, evaluations are treated more like research data.

“Imagine a Facebook just geared to people complimenting and making notes on other’s work,” Yugo said.

Another benefit to the 360-degree feedback model is that it helps new workers with career development choices over time. Based on an individual’s performance data, managers can help guide their employees based on what they are good at, making it easier to place them on the right track for advancement, according to Yugo.

Work the perks
Because millennials place a higher value on quality of life, the challenge for HR professionals is to find creative ways to liven up the workplace.

And while competitive pay and benefits are always important to attracting talent, it’s not always money that makes people tick.

“I have yet to see any real evidence that money motivates or changes performance. Period,” Peter Block, HR training guru, author and partner at Designed Learning recently told Training magazine.

Yugo notes that the companies offering out of the box incentives have some impressive results to show for it.

Nearly 450 of DreamWorks’ 2,200 employees are millennials, and the company has a 96 percent retention rate. How do they do it? They realized early on that young people are not motivated by money alone. The California-based animation studio offers recreational learning opportunities to employees including painting, karate and sculpting.

And companies like Google, Zappos and Procter & Gamble have designated nap rooms where employees can take up to 30 minutes to doze off and reboot.

While the concept of nap rooms and karate classes in the workplace may have seemed absurd 15 years ago, more HR departments are warming up to the idea that all work and no play (or rest) doesn’t necessarily make for high efficiency.

At Robert Half Technology’s Southfield Branch, employees nominated a fun captain, who is in charge of planning fun events and maintaining a playful energy around the office. They also have informal working areas were ergonomic red beach balls replace desk chairs. Wilson also suggests putting some visual entertainment around the office-”jokes, pictures, and cartoons-”anything that will get a smile on a busy day.

“I know it sounds silly, but we have a lot of fun around here,” Wilson said.

Having little contests with small prizes-”like a $5 gift card or an extra hour or two of paid off-time-”can really boost morale, Wilson said.

Another perk that is highly coveted by mobile millennials is flexible scheduling.

Today’s technology makes working remotely from home or elsewhere easier than it ever has been. Still, only 30 percent of companies offer any form of flexible scheduling. And some companies, including Yahoo, have cut flextime altogether. Why?

“I think there’s a danger of employee disengagement,” Yugo said. “But with all the technology we have today the answer is not to take it away but to modify it and enrich it.”

Yugo suggests setting core hours-”for example from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.-”where everyone needs to be in the office but the rest is fair game, as long as projects get done. That way, workers will still communicate face to face, but also get to shape their own schedules to some extent.

For Harris, flextime is a treat, but also he likes the energy his work environment provides. “I can do most of my job from almost anywhere in the world,” he said. So how does he feel driving to work knowing he could be at, say, the beach?

“There is something to be gained from human interaction. We synergize. We have a community,” Harris said. “I learn things by overhearing them. I shout things over the cubicle walls. It’s a bee hive.”

Fit to commit?
One of the biggest gripes HR professionals have about millennials is that they don’t commit long term to one company like their predecessors. Instead, they jump from job to job or have blended careers.

The first step to talent retention is to hire the right people, Yugo said. Work is considered meaningful when it fulfills an employee’s values and goals. That’s why it’s crucial to make sure the values of the people you select align with the goal of the organization. Part of that means asking the right questions during the interview process. She said a lot of companies have used personality-based questions during interviews. When considering a candidate, ask yourself, ‘What would I do with this person if I had a long layover at the airport?” Yugo said.

Another approach is to create a culture that treats coworkers like part of a family. If you work full time, “You spend more time with people you work with than your own family,” Wilson said. She said having “family” gatherings at the office where everyone eats together and shares stories from their personal life is a great way to deepen inter-office relationships. “Use every opportunity to communicate. I cannot stress that enough.”

Rich Sheridan, Menlo Innovations CEO and author of “Joy, Inc.,” an upcoming book, says the baseball-team approach works for his Ann Arbor company. All players are equally important, he explains.

Yugo said mentorships between older and younger workers have shown promising results. Both the mentors and mentees bond by sharing experiences and thus overcome some of the negative stereotypes associated with various generations.

And paid sabbaticals-”once reserved for academia-”are gaining popularity in the corporate world providing incentive for commitment. Some companies like Patagonia allow long-term employees to take large blocks of time off to work with a grassroots organization of their choice. Others offer time off for workers to go back to school full time.

While Generation Y be a wild card in today’s corporate workplace, it’s important not to overlook the generation’s potential.

“Anyone who laments that young people don’t have the work ethic of us baby boomers has created the wrong system,” Sheridan said. “Millennials want what we all want. They’re just not afraid to ask.”