There’s no doubt Generation Y is shaking up the workplace. Here are insights into—and ways to motivate—the young millennial employees of your team.
BY JULIE A. PALM
As a mattress retailer, your business is undergoing a major shift. No, we’re not talking about how consumers research and buy mattresses. This transformation is coming from the inside as millennials—the youngest generation in the labor force—stream into workplaces, replacing retiring baby boomers.
Members of this generation, also called Generation Y, are significantly different than the Generation Xers and boomers that preceded them. To keep this new group of employees satisfied, challenged and onboard, you may need to change how you operate as an employer.
As a 2011 report, “Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace” from the global business consulting firm PwC, puts it: “Attracting the best of these millennial workers is critical to the future of your business. Their career aspirations, attitudes about work and knowledge of new technologies will define the culture of the 21st-century workplace.”
Generations aren’t neatly drawn. Birth-date boundaries can shift a few years in either direction depending on who is doing the defining, but millennials generally are considered to be people born from 1980 to 2000. There are roughly 80 million of these 16- to 36-year-olds in the United States, making them an even larger demographic group than the baby boomers. Analyzing U.S. Census Bureau data, the Pew Research Center calculates that millennials surpassed Generation Xers in early 2015 to become the largest group in the U.S. workforce. Today, more than one in three U.S. workers is classified as a millennial, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank says.
The sheer numbers of millennials mean they will redefine the workplace as the boomers did before them, but in new ways.
Millennials—in broad strokes
What do we know about this generation? Well, millennials have a reputation as being demanding and even entitled, having been raised by hovering “helicopter” parents involved in virtually every aspect of their children’s lives and educated in a system that emphasizes self-esteem and rewards participation as much as excellence. Radio personality and author Garrison Keillor’s quip describing his fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, springs to mind: “Where the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” This group craves feedback and recognition.
Given their experiences as children, millennials are used to having their needs met. Instant gratification, ease, immediacy and efficiency are big with millennials, according to “The Millennial Consumer: Debunking Stereotypes,” a 2012 report from the Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm based in Boston. This is not a group inclined to stick with a single employer for years or to wait patiently to move up the corporate ladder. In fact, they plan to move around.
“In 2008, 75% (of millennials) expected to have between two and five employers in their lifetime, but in this survey the proportion has fallen to 54%. Over a quarter now expect to have six employers or more, compared with just 10% in 2008,” according to the 2011 PwC report.
Millennials also are known for being active, involved and socially conscious.
“The generation that was taught to recycle in kindergarten wants to be good to the planet and believes that collective action can make a difference,” the Boston Consulting Group report says. “Millennials believe that working for causes is an integral part of life, and they are drawn to big issues.” This means they favor not only buying from companies that support sustainability, “fair trade” and other social causes, but also prefer working for companies with a social conscience, if not an overt social mission.
And, of course, millennials are the “digital natives,” who’ve grown up with smartphones as toddler toys and computers throughout their homes and classrooms. Millennials have never known a world when every question wasn’t instantaneously Google-able and they stay connected—seemingly always connected—to friends and family through social media. More than any other generation, this group sees technology not as an accessory but as a necessity. Millennials are both consummate multitaskers and early adopters of new devices and apps.
“It’s hardly surprising then that millennials have specific expectations about how technology is used in the workplace. Millennials expect the technologies that empower their personal lives to also drive communication and innovation in the workplace,” the PwC report says. “Fifty-nine percent said that an employer’s provision of state-of-the art technology was important to them when considering a job, but they habitually use workplace technology alongside their own.”
The near-constant presence of their uber-involved parents (a 2015 study found mothers spent 10.5 hours a week with their children in 1965, but 13.7 hours in 2010) and an emphasis on structured, team and group-oriented activities during childhood have made millennials a social group—both online and off.
“Millennials are much more likely than nonmillennials to engage in group activities—especially with people outside their immediate family,” according to the Boston Consulting Group. “They dine, shop and travel with friends and co-workers.”
Given all this, it’s not surprising that millennials look to multiple sources for information before making decisions and tend to trust the advice and guidance of friends and family more than other sources of authority. This also makes them inclined to readily share their own opinions and ideas with others—including their bosses.
Millennials’ views of money and work were heavily shaped by the Great Recession, and they’ve faced lower incomes, higher unemployment and more student loan debt than Generation X or the baby boomers. Yet, “despite being hit hard by the recent recession, millennials are optimistic,” according to the 2014 report “Millennials: Breaking the Myths” from Nielsen, a New York-based measurement, information and research group. “They’re also ambitious. While 69% don’t feel they currently earn enough to lead the kind of lifestyle they want, 88% think they’ll be able to earn enough in the future.” This generation has a strong interest in startups and entrepreneurship.
OK, so these are the millennials in the broadest of terms. (You can find a breakdown of groups within millennials in the January/February cover story, “Meet the Millennials”) And this brings us to a problem when writing about demographics: It comes with a necessity to generalize. But, as a mattress retailer, you’re not dealing an entire generation, you’re dealing with specific employees—real people.
Below, we explain several ways that your millennial employees are likely to differ from those in previous generations and for ways to keep millennials satisfied and productive, while taking advantage of their skills, talents and tendencies. You can use this information to help you better understand your millennial employees and to shape your corporate culture and human resource policies. But remember, above all, to treat every employee as a unique individual.
Let’s be honest: Almost everyone works for the money. When they don’t, we call it volunteering, and millennials need to bring home a sufficient paycheck just like the generations before them. But, argues millennial Alyson Krueger in 2014 Forbes.com article, many millennials care just as much about other benefits and perks, too. The PwC report backs that up, finding that millennials put the opportunity for advancement ahead of a high paycheck when choosing an employer. (More on those other benefits to the left.)
“The good news for companies is that they don’t have to spend money on constant pay raises—three months off to backpack around Asia or a health-food packed cafeteria or a training program will often be much more valuable to their young employees,” writes Krueger, a contributor to Forbes.com, in the piece headlined “5 Things Every Boss Should Know About Working With Millennials.”
The key with millennials is to get to know what motivates each employee—and for you, as a manager or employer, to get comfortable with policies and reward systems that may not be one-size-fits-all.
2. Keep them interested by keeping them educated
Turnover among millennials can be a problem for employers, particularly retailers, who long have coped with this problem. (Remember the PwC stats from earlier?)
In an October 2015 Huffington Post article headlined “The Secret to Attracting Top Millennial Talent to Your Firm,” Evin Joseph, a millennial author, philanthropist and entrepreneur, says that the thing millennials want most from their employer is a continuing education.
“Firms should emphasize that their employees receive a true education in tangible, concrete technological and communication skills that will feed millennial interest, ambition and entrepreneurial spirit,” Joseph says. “This helps differentiate a firm as an attractive incubator of young leaders, and may even help reduce turnover.”
So, your millennial employees may not want to spend their entire career in retail or the mattress industry, but if, for example, you can help them improve their communication, marketing or management skills, they will stick around and give you their energy and ideas in return. Mentoring programs are a great way to motivate and build the skills of millennials, as are opportunities that allow millennials to train in other departments.
In addition, “Millennials’ ease with technology means that they respond well to a range of digital learning styles and delivery methods, which might include online learning modules, webinars or interactive game-play,” the PwC report says. “They are innately collaborative and accustomed to learning in teams and by doing. A one-sided lecture is less likely to hold their attention. The best training programs will mix classroom instruction, self-directed study, coaching and group learning.”
3. Provide meaningful employment
Few workers enjoy tedious or repetitious tasks, but millennials are more likely to speak up to tell you they have no interest in doing grunt work. You can take advantage of this trait by allowing these energetic workers to tackle duties and responsibilities you might not typically give an employee at their level. You may be pleasantly surprised by what they can do and what they have to offer. Still, you need to be clear that everyone is expected to pitch in on less interesting, but necessary tasks when required, Krueger writes in the Forbes.com article.
4. Value their input and give them feedback
“Everyone from their parents to teachers to coaches to college professors asked (millennials) to voice their opinions and treated them more like partners than subordinates,” Krueger writes. “And they are bringing that to the workplace.”
Managers and co-workers not used to this tendency may find the openness jarring, even disrespectful, but good things can come from such directness. For instance, millennials are less likely to stew over issues and let them fester, preferring to deal with them quickly. And, most helpful to you as an employer, they will freely share ideas for ways to do things differently. If you’re willing to listen, they can improve your business.
To help them improve—which they are eager to do—provide feedback.“Millennials want and value frequent feedback. Unlike the past where people received annual reviews, millennials want to know how they’re doing much more regularly,” the PwC report says. “Give honest feedback in real time—and highlight positive contributions or improvements on key competencies.”
5. Help them create a work-life blend
“Generation X managers popularized the term work-life balance, but millennial managers are seeking a blend of work and life,” writes Lisa Evans in an article headlined “This Is How Millennials Will Change Management,” for FastCompany.com posted in October 2015. Older workers are used to trying to keep work and personal life separate, and many employers have policies that prohibit employees from, say, taking personal calls or checking email during work hours. Millennials chafe against such restrictions, Chip Espinoza, author of the books “Millennials Who Manage” and “Managing Millennials,” tells Evans in the article.
“Gone will be systems that lock employees out of their personal lives while they’re at work, and in will come more flexible work-life arrangements that allow employees to work from home or work flex hours so they can spend more time with family or engaging in their personal activities,” Evans writes.
Online-only mattress retailers may have an easier time instituting flexible schedules and working arrangements than a brick-and-mortar store that needs retail sales associates on the floor at specific times, but even traditional mattress retailers can look for creative ways to offer RSAs and other employees more flexibility and be open to the idea of a blurrier line between work and home.
Julie A. Palm is chief wordsmith at Palm Ink LLC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has 25 years of experience as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines and as a publications director. She is a past editor in chief of both Sleep Savvy and BedTimes magazines. She can be reached at email@example.com.