When an employee in his 20s wanted a six-month sabbatical, his manager who had been working at the same company for 20 years was stumped. “While the latter struggled to understand the need for his staff to take a sabbatical at this stage of life and career – or at all – the former couldn’t understand his reluctance to support this personal choice,” says Martijn Schouten, management consulting director at PWC South East Asia Consulting, citing a client as an example. This, Schouten adds, is just one of many stories that highlight differences in the expectations of generations.
Gen Y, Strawberry Generation (because they “bruise” easily), Generation Me – the millennials have been called many things, and mostly with a negative connotation. Born between 1980 and the early 2000s, they are seen to be less dedicated to their jobs, have unrealistic expectations of career advancement, require more hand-holding and are self-entitled. But it would be a costly mistake to dismiss them because, according to the 2014 Deloitte Millennial Survey, the millennials will form 75 per cent of the global workforce in the next 10 years. And the key to managing them is simply to understand them.
SAME, SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Three months ago, global research, consulting and training firm Great Place to Work Institute released its inaugural list of the 10 best companies to work for in Singapore, which included cloud computing company Salesforce, technology giant Cisco and hotel conglomerate Intercontinental Hotels Group. Those who made it to the list, to be released yearly, had “a strong corporate culture characterised by high levels of trust, camaraderie and pride”, the report found – qualities that millennials value in the workplace.
But these 10 companies appear to be a rare breed. The clash of generations in the office is increasingly more common, and the typical complaint is that millennials are difficult or entitled, a result of them being more vocal and making greater demands than their seniors. Says Joni Ong, MD of Great Place to Work Institute in Singapore: “Millennials are perceived to be selfish and lazy because they place more focus on their personal lives. Due to stereotyping and misunderstanding of millennial values, this generation will find it difficult to earn respect.”
While it’s true that differences between generations exist, research shows that the divide is not that stark after all. “Bias is brought about just as any prejudice is created – through a fear of change,” says Ong. “One study found that just as baby boomers griped about millennials’ use of slang, emphasis on social rights, beliefs and tolerance of controversial subjects, they were criticised by the World War II generation for the same.”
Many myths about millennials were dispelled in a 2013 Nextgen study by PWC. “Contrary to popular belief that millennials were less committed to their work or less satisfied, our study revealed that millennials and non-millennials were equally committed to the workplace,” says Alywin Teh, consulting leader Singapore at PWC South East Asia Consulting.
But they may be more likely to leave if their needs for support, appreciation and flexibility are not met. Forty-one per cent of millennials surveyed preferred to be rewarded or recognised for their work at least monthly, if not more frequently. Because of their desire to overachieve, Ong says they are more likely to seek career-enhancing opportunities – outside the organisation, if necessary – as well as rapid promotions and salary increments.
Rather than view this as a lack of loyalty or impatience, companies can benefit from this achievement-oriented mentality, says Ong, as millennials will go the extra mile to help their organisation succeed. Instead of hiring with long-term “loyalty” in mind, employers may need to shift mindsets and see themselves as a contractor of skills, she adds.
Bear in mind that this is a generation that has grown up with technology. Armed with laptops and smart mobile devices, a cafe or the park could be office for the day. And often, these locations can be more creatively stimulating than an indoor cubicle (see next feature, Office Reconstructed). In the light of a changing work culture, organisations might want to rethink policies, such as allowing more flexibility in work location or schedule, says Schouten.
With these considerations, organisations should reject a one-policy-fits-all mentality. Teh says: “Understanding generational differences will help companies come up with customised solutions that promote retention and an engaged workforce.”
Stereotyping might be the easy way out to explain what we might not understand. But sometimes, the solution to an issue could be sitting right outside your office this very moment. As H.G. Wells sums it up: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”
HOW TO ENGAGE (AND RETAIN) MILLENNIALS
Here are top tips to maximise their potential.
01: Assign a variety of tasks and challenges to keep them interested. At the same time, allow them responsibility and the flexibility to do the job their own way, says Joni Ong.
02: Tell them what results are expected and show them how their contributions are in line with the company’s goals and objectives. Millennials value personal growth so provide opportunities such as training and mentoring. They also enjoy teamwork because they like the sense of unity and collaboration, says Ong.
03: Martijn Schouten also suggests cultivating a culture of on-the-spot feedback to address the need for more frequent and swifter recognition and appreciation. At the same time, implement sharing sessions so that employees from different generations can develop a better understanding of each other’s work processes and benefit from individual expertise.