Millennials: Leading a New Way of Working


by Christina Miller and Matt Beran
October 13, 2015

People have been categorizing each other for centuries, in part, as an attempt to better understand humans and what makes them tick. One way to group individuals is by generation, which is defined by a set of individuals who were born in the same period and have experienced the same significant events. Each generation has their own set of unique experiences and exposures, and each generation has their own set of characteristics that makes them unique from those before and after them.

generations characteristics

Baby Boomers, for example, are generalized to be very competitive and dedicated to work, maybe even overworking at times. This dedication and work focus is driven from their exposure to the two generations before them—their parents and grandparents who lived during the Great Depression and World War II—who taught them to be hard workers. Baby Boomers also aspired to The American Dream, which promotes hard work and dedication as a way to get ahead. This generation also saw a man walk on the moon for the first time, an event that promoted out-of-the-box thinking and striving for what was once considered impossible.

The children of Baby Boomers, better known as Generation X, are sometimes stereotyped as lazy and negative. This is attributed to several factors. First, this generation tends to be resentful of their parents, who worked long hours and were not home often. As a result, Generation X members were more independent during childhood. They also saw the previous generation being laid off repeatedly. Next, they experienced both Watergate and the Cold War. These events led to a more cynical attitude and a predisposition of feeling like the world was against them. It also led them to desire a better balance of work and personal lives than those before them. Many of them carry a work to live, not live to work mantra, which is quite the opposite of the Baby Boomers.

The members of the Millennial generation have similar contexts when we group them together. They experienced September 11, sheep cloning, and the creation of the internet and its subsequent domination by Google. Members of this generation are popularly considered to be impatient and distracted and having a sense of entitlement. This group’s access to the internet and smart-phones has given them access to constant and instant information. Social media allows instantaneous interaction with people all over the world.

The internet also brings online classes. The Millennial group is considered the most diverse and most educated out of any of the generations before them. The internet and exposure to virtual learning has played a big part in how Millennials work; they prefer flexibility over when and where they work. 

Hiring and employing Millennials may seem like a challenging task.
Tweet: Hiring and employing Millennials may seem like a challenging task. @ThinkHDI

In general, Millennials prefer impactful jobs over higher pay, and they desire transparency and truth. This mindset can be attributed to their easy access to information. This attitude can sometimes be perceived as insubordination, entitlement, or even questioning of authority.

The Internet has also enabled many different new types of entrepreneurs during this generation’s life.  From Uber and Lyft, to eBay and Etsy, it is easier than ever to create a business and profit independently. In a world so enabled, it’s easy to understand why Millennials come across as entitled compared to other groups.

In general, we tend to place people into a generation based on the year they were born. However, life is not so black and white, and people of all ages may exhibit typical generational attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. We use the term Millennial here to describe those who depict the typical characteristics of that generation and not necessarily those born during a certain time.

Millennials desire a flexible working schedule like no generation before. Because of this, hiring and employing Millennials may seem like a challenging task. Instead of punching in at 8:00 A.M. and out at 5:00 P.M., some people prefer to work when they are inspired or when it works for them. This flexibility can influence their effectiveness while working on multiple objectives in a very positive way.

Millennials desire a flexible working schedule like no generation before.

This freedom can’t extend to all jobs universally. If you let short order cooks skip the lunch rush, they probably will. If this is the case, there are other opportunities for flexibility in management styles and opportunities to innovate. Maybe some people prefer the lunch rush over boring night shifts, or you can make the lunch shift shorter or higher paying. Giving your employees the freedom to choose has many benefits and, if well balanced, it can reduce waste.

Anything you can do to clearly communicate your company culture and expectations of your future employees will save you hundreds of wasted interviews, time reviewing resumes, and ultimately employee turnover. Whatever your cultural expectations are, make them clear as early in the process as possible.

Inspired employees whose goals align with their employers may require less compensation. Millennials say they are strongly influenced by how innovative an organization is when choosing where they want to work.

Attracting top millennial talent requires transparency to company impact on the world. Are you making society better? Do you promote diversity and equal rights? Millennials care about these things, and organizations with this type of culture are more desirable. Company events and objectives should support these messages. Millennials are also charitable and keen to participate in public life: 97 percent of Millennials prefer using their individual skills to help a cause, according to the The Case Foundation’s 2014 Millenial Impact Report, Inspiring the Next Generation Workforce.

For years, marketing, recruiting, and public relations have been concerned with company image. How is your company perceived? How does your company connect what you do with real world impact? Do you share information? Remember that people now value transparency more than ever before. Services like GlassDoor and Facebook make it painfully clear what it is like to work at your company. A potential recruit simply needs to enter a generic search of your company to determine if it matches their expectations. If your company isn’t purposefully managing your image, someone else will.

Once you have established your company’s reputation as desirable and you’ve hired some Millennial talent, how do you keep them? The same way you keep any employee; show them that you trust and value them. Listen to your employees, give them a voice, and give them authority. Extend the same respect to your employees that they would want of you. Many employees desire open conversations about opportunities, career path, or other things they are interested in exploring. Building a culture that supports exploration and learning will help avoid costly turnover and promotes great contributors. This approach, of course, has limitations. Burger flippers may want to be managers. But even if there is no room for another manager, invest in training the burger flipper. Have them shadow the manager. And if they want to leave your company to become a manager, let them. Keeping an unhappy employee is worse than having to handle turnover.

One pattern millennial workers follow when there isn’t a clear career path is to change companies for promotions and raises. According to The Millennial Survey 2014: Big demands and high expectations (Deloitte), almost one in four Millennials are asking for a chance to show their leadership skills. Additionally, 50 percent believe their organizations could do more to develop future leaders.

Putting millennial workers in positions of authority and responsibility is a great way to quickly adapt to their needs. In fact, 28 percent of millennials are already in management, a number that may reach 66 percent by 2024, according to The 2015 Millennial Majority Workforce: Study Results, commissioned by Elance-oDesk and Millenial Branding.

When considering actions to plan for management succession, think about the working styles of different teams. How will management resources that value transparency change your systems? How do they learn from your existing talent? Do you have a mentorship program? Are the right people involved in the program? Are you training your existing workforce to be quality mentors? Millennial workers are eager for systems of engagement and knowledge capture.

Some have raised concerns about Millennials lacking people skills and what previous generations labelled professionalism. These skills and expectations are often representative of an organization’s culture and are therefore hard to communicate and even harder to change. An organization may decide they want to be more flexible and relax the dress code policy to match, but current employees already entrenched in their routines and wardrobe may baulk at this decision. They have managed and grown to appreciate the status quo through the years. Why does this need to change? These current employees may fight these changes and possibly blame Millennials. To prevent that resistance, it’s key to have these changes documented and communicated, along with the why, how, and benefits your employees will realize.

How do you teach people skills? What are your professionalism expectations? Having a training program in place is great, policy is even better, and being open and communicative of expectations is what all employees need. When implementing change, inform your employees why the change is needed.

This sentiment applies to all business processes. It’s not uncommon for Millennial workers, old and new alike, to buck a process or system unless they are given a clear understanding of what is expected and why. Many Millennial workers are inherently process efficiency experts, even if they weren’t assigned the role specifically. Millennials are known for their desire to innovate, and they often try to find the fastest and most efficient way to complete their tasks and achieve group objectives.

Another area of heartache for Millennials is out-of-date enterprise tools. Millennials have been excelling with their side projects, volunteer organizations, and/or school work with tools that complement their team’s needs. These tools give flexibility, are user friendly, allow for easy collaboration, etc. Cumbersome tools that are not properly enabling will be immediately apparent to newly hired Millennial employees, and such tools will quickly frustrate them.

If your culture is ready and requires change, accountability to learn new tools and change personal habits to meet the needs of the group as a whole shifts to the individual employee. Innovation and flexibility like this does not easily scale. To think that every group needs to leverage the same tool and workflow is unrealistic. How could trainers and enterprise architects possibly connect all the systems of each team and train each team on all of the systems? This also reinforces the need for clear procedures and data policies that are documented and easily understood. This isn’t necessarily a result of Millennial working styles, but the result of a business taking action to innovate in order to retain market share. Millennial working styles complement this goal nicely, but it doesn’t come without failure and challenges. It also inherently increases the amount of communication needed to manage, digest, and curate.

This increase in communications and speed of innovation demands more management time, not less. Distributing management responsibility and training management disciplines to your teams can be a great relief for teams who are already short on qualified management. Learning programs and career paths must support growing these needed skills.

Independence and trust are difficult for a lot of people. These elements of your organization’s culture need to be handled with great care. Without building trust, your team will not function well. Your project leaders need to be more focused and involved. Without this involvement, you cannot address trust issues, and you do not understand what your team is doing. Worse, you don’t know when they are stuck, fighting, or simply not delivering to objectives.

It’s important to empower employees with collaboration tools. People want to work in different ways; some people want to work independently and then share, others want to collaborate real-time. There are as many collaboration styles and preferences as there are people. Enable a myriad of working styles to maximize your team’s potential, and change hiring tactics to match. Ensure this approach is part of what your recruiters call culture fit.

Modern teams desire equality, efficiency, and independent yet collaborative working. These changes support the culture they grew up with; get the right team together with the right tools and accomplish great things. These goals support a desire to be valued and heard and a general sense of transparency.

Understanding how to leverage, reward, and change your own working styles to support the new way of working lets you create positive change and increase your relevance. Companies that are regarded as innovative and supportive—who invest in their people, teams, and tools—attract talent.

We will continue to hear terms like Millennial, Gen X, and Baby Boomer as long as we as a culture continue to categorize in an attempt to understand people. None of these categorizations should feel complimentary nor offensive. Each person, or group of people, has their own preferred working styles. To be successful, your organization must find a way to utilize talented people to their fullest capabilities. An organization should find a way to harmonize all of the preferred working styles by highlighting and leveraging the strengths of each. The need for change and understanding strengths and weaknesses won’t stop with Millennials. Generation Z is on their tails with their own set of experiences, exposure, and characteristics.


Matt Beran is a lifelong learner, always solving problems and finding new ones. He is a founding host of ITSM Weekly and co-host of Hacking Business Technology.

When Christina Miller isn’t wearing her project manager hat, she’s focused both internally and externally on organizational change management. Christina is forward thinking and passionate about understanding people and their experiences and how those experiences affect an organizational culture. She has served as secretary for the St. Louis itSMF LIG, is currently an active member of the Dallas itSMF LIG, and a proud Purdue alumna.

Tag(s): employee engagement, employee satisfaction, human resources, job descriptions, leadership, people, staffing, workforce enablement, workforce enablement, supportworld

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