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Working with Millennials: Keeping Them Happy in Your Workplace

Big Think Edge | September 28, 2017

Keeping any employee happy and engaged with their work is a constant challenge for employers. Happy workers tend to be more productive and better able to focus on tasks than unhappy, disengaged ones. And, they’re less likely to leave your company of their own volition. This is as true of Millennial employees as it is of Baby Boomers, Generation X, etc.

For example, according to data from Gallup, “Work units in the top quartile also saw significantly lower turnover (25% in high-turnover organizations, 65% in low-turnover organizations), shrinkage (28%), and absenteeism (37%)”

Yet, while the importance of keeping workers happy is the same no matter what generation they’re from, the specifics of how you can keep workers happy can change dramatically from one generation to the next. The things that got Baby Boomers excited for work might not motivate Millennial workers nearly as well.

So, how can you keep Millennials happy so they’re more productive and contribute less to voluntary turnover?

1) Talk to Millennials About Their Career Goals

You want Millennials, or anyone from any generation, to be happy and feel engaged at work? Try talking to them directly about their career path and goals.

Sarah Robb O’Hagan, the CEO of Flywheel Sports, and former President of Equinox and Gatorade, has turned around some failing businesses by working directly with Millennials. One piece of advice that she has shared with Millennial workers in an Inc.com article about job-hopping was to “make sure you really understand this part of this company that you’re in before you move to the next one.”

Here, O’Hagan, a contributor to Big Think, is speaking to Millennials who might want to try new things, but haven’t considered the impact that hopping around will have on their career.

The most important thing to note is that her primary concern wasn’t what was best for the company, but instead for the employee’s well-being. Focusing on the long-term career needs/goals of the employee—whether or not they include staying with your organization—is an effective way to demonstrate compassion. This helps build trust and engagement, while also helping the employee with their long-term goal setting and career planning.

2) Provide Regular Feedback—Both Good and Bad

One of the biggest challenges in managing a modern workforce staffed with Millennials is that some managers rely on more traditional, and distant, management styles. These managers spend much of their time in their offices and rarely venture out to interact with their employees directly—even while claiming to have an “open door” policy.

While maintaining some professional distance might can be good for avoiding favoritism, employees need regular feedback about their performance. Jeremy Kingsley, a leadership expert and author of Inspired People Produce Results, noted in an article for Forbes that “this generation responds well to encouragement and immediate feedback.” The article goes on to state: “Make it clear from the beginning that you reward good work, and then keep an open line of communication to let them know how they’re doing and how they can improve.”

Basically, if you want to keep Millennials happy, you have to be engaged with them and provide feedback—both positive and negative—so they’re not in the dark about what you think of their performance. Also, when providing feedback about areas in which a Millennial needs to improve, be sure to present it as an opportunity and not as a recrimination for poor performance.

Taking the time to personally and informally reach out and congratulate employees who are doing well or provide guidance for those who are struggling is much more impactful than rigid quarterly assessments. A piece of paper saying “you didn’t hit your goals: do better” just doesn’t hold a candle to having a leader take a personal interest.

3) Give Employees Time for Personal Projects

One of the often-cited characteristics of Millennials is that they, as the Forbes article states, “are more likely to look for meaning and impact in their work and aren’t satisfied simply punching a clock.” Yet, “punching a clock” is exactly what many organizations keep telling Millennials to do.

The Millennial comes to work, clocks in, sits (or stands) at their assigned spot and does some pre-assigned tasks for hours on end. This isn’t inspiring or engaging—it’s drudgery. Even the most dedicated employee will lose their zeal for work if this is all they do every day.

Giving your employees some time to work on personal projects they think can help accomplishes several things:

    1. It creates variety. Letting people take time to work on personal projects breaks up some of the monotony of the daily grind.

    2. It promotes critical thinking about job tasks. Challenging an employee to come up with an alternative task that could help the business encourages them to really think about why they do certain tasks.

    3. It can lead to innovative solutions. You never know when an employee will have an idea that could save the company money or help draw in customers if you never ask. Some employees may have effective solutions to productivity problems you might not have considered.

    4. It boosts engagement with work. Giving employees leeway to work on personal projects helps them feel like they have some control over their work, as well as providing a voice in the company. This helps to boost engagement with work so employees are more productive.

The Forbes article notes that “progressive companies like 3M and Google have had success offering employees time to work on a project of their choosing, helping them feel more engaged and in control” at those companies.

Of course, not every employee is going to have an idea for some passion project that they want to work on off the top of their head. For these employees, it could be helpful to have a list of potential projects they could work on. This could let you learn a bit about what interests these employees have without pressuring them to come up with a passion project of their own.

4) Be Transparent with Millennials

Nobody appreciates feeling like they’ve been lied to, especially not Millennials—and lies of omission are just as bad as actual misinformation. When employees are kept out of the loop, they’re not going to be as invested in their work because they don’t see the impact of it.

This is why Natalie Wadsworth, the Vice President of people at Sailthru, said in a Fortune Insider article:

“I’m a big believer in giving employees the data that reflects a holistic picture of the business and its underlying mechanics… If you give people real information and data—and the freedom to think beyond their day-to-day function—they’re given the tools needed for greater empowerment and accountability. We’ve found that the byproducts of that empowerment are striking; we see greater employee participation and engagement, and begin to identify emerging leaders within teams.”

In other words, be open and give employees the “big picture” view of the business and their place in it. In turn, you can have employees who feel like they’re an important part of the team. This creates a sense of empowerment, but also responsibility, that motivates Millennials and fuels a sense of accomplishment when they, or the larger organization they’re a part of, achieves a goal.

Working with Millennials to keep them happy and motivated takes time and effort. One thing that can help is to learn from the examples of other business leaders who have successfully integrated Millennial workers into their organizations to improve the business as a whole. Taking lessons from several diversity luminaries and business leaders, such as Jon Iwata, Jennifer Brown, and Ruth Porat, could provide just the insight you need for integrating Millennials and keeping them happy in your workplace.

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