Millennial workers aren’t lazy or entitled, they just want to feel empowered by their employer in meaningful ways.
Like it or not, the workforce of today is increasingly made up of millennials. And these younger workers in my generation are driving fundamental changes in the way we do business. We increasingly won’t put up with what we’ve never liked anyway: long days in cubicles, little room for creativity or balance, closed door management and overly bureaucratic approaches to things like reviews.
As a result, millennials have been labelled as lazy, entitled or even worse. And there’s no shortage of advice available on how to motivate your millennial workers, how to manage across generations, and how to talk to these alien youths now stalking the halls of the office. A generational explanation for what’s happening is easy, and appeals to whatever biases we already have. Depending on your opinion on which way the wind is blowing, these millennials are either reshaping the workplace for a better world or destroying the values of hard work and competence that make great companies.
However, as is often the case, the explanation closest at hand may not be the best one available. If we want to understand millennials in the workplace, rather than reaching for overbroad generational definitions, we may want to think about the actual subject we’re discussing: millennials in the workplace.
Millennials, those born from roughly the early 80s to the late 90s, entered a workplace that had fundamentally changed. For the earliest millennials entering the workplace, email and cell phones already tethered them to the office long after “work hours” technically ended. For younger millennial office workers, they’ve never had a job where their work wasn’t carried in their pocket 24/7, with the attached expectations of constant availability.
The flip side of this is that white-collar millennials have only known an office where many, if not most, functions could be done remotely from any properly configured workstation. For young workers, the workplace is any location with an internet connection.
Facing this technologically empowered workplace, millennials have come into office life with different expectations than previous generations. What they’re looking for is meaningful empowerment. But this isn’t about charitable efforts or brand values or a connection to youthful “cool.” Meaningful empowerment of millennial workers is about embracing flexibility, accountability and communication.
In the market research firm where I work, our leadership has wholeheartedly embraced this ethos. Rather than an abstract accountability to a clock, employees are responsible to their co-workers and immediate supervisors. Scheduling is flexible, but driven primarily by client and team needs, and made possible by clear and constant communication enabled by emails, phone calls, Slack messages, texts and more that keep employees in the loop with each other at all times.
The biggest impact of this is what we call Flex Location. Extending the idea of “flex time,” this policy is about allowing employees to be where they need to be as long as they’re accountable for their work. Working from home when feeling a little under the weather (but not wanting to take a full sick day), working from another state because a family member is sick and you need to visit, working from a coffee shop just because you feel like a change of scene – all of these are enabled by a policy that meaningfully empowers employees while ensuring that they remain accountable.
Obviously such a policy is not right for every business, but it provides a useful example of the meaningful empowerment craved by millennial employees. In order to make the best use of millennials in the workplace, companies need to treat them like adults on terms that make sense in the contemporary workplace. In an interconnected world, this likely means many workplaces will be forced to adapt to more flexible and fluid ways of doing business if they want to retain talented younger employees.
Meaningful empowerment is not about pandering to some generational trait. It’s about leveraging innovations in technology and communication to extend trust and freedom to employees. You may be surprised by the loyalty and productivity you gain in return.