Generation now

They crave feedback, rapid advancement and flexibility — but here’s why millennials are changing the workforce for the better, and how managers can get the most out of them.

The phrase “in my day” is so common in discussions of workplace culture that it’s now cliché. But in the case of the new kids on the block — millennials — it’s true. There are fundamental differences between previous generations and this one, and that disparity can really shake up the workplace.

“Millennials are hard working but they prioritize living in the moment sooner than I did as a new professional,” says Rachel Culbertson, a partner in the assurance and advisory practice at Deloitte’s Edmonton office. “They are very innovative thinkers who want to be heard. I wanted to be heard, but back then hierarchy was more important.”

Their older colleagues often consider members of generation Y, who were born between 1980 and 2000 or so, high-maintenance and sometimes even entitled. Boomer and gen-X managers don’t quite know how to relate to these “kids,” with their often outspoken desire for flexibility, meaningful work, learning opportunities and rapid advancement.

The why behind the Ys

Ask an HR expert why millennials behave the way they do and you’ll get a simple answer: their upbringing. They were raised in the era of gold stars. As a group, they’re into work-life balance, they expect recognition and rewards and jump from company to company in search of better opportunities. They grew up between recessions and didn’t see their parents lose jobs, which is why they’re confident they can leave their job and find a new gig with ease.

But what older generations regard as selfishness or entitlement isn’t the whole story. Millennials are also hugely passionate, technologically savvy and confident. They often leave university with huge networks (thank you, social media) and international experience, which was unheard of 20 years ago.

At 30, Jennifer Lee, an assistant portfolio manager at the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, is firmly entrenched in this demographic. For her, the top three requirements of any job are culture, variety of work and drawing a direct connection between her tasks and a goal she identifies with. “It’s important to be rewarded for hard work, but salary is not the most important thing to me,” she says. “I crave breadth and variety and I want to learn. Salary, titles and management tasks come with time.”

She says she sees a difference between her generation and previous ones, and she can see how a reputation for entitlement could develop. “We can be more impatient for praise, promotion and more challenging work.”

It’s this shift in workplace demands that’s driving a cultural change in offices nationwide, at least in part — Culbertson points out that it’s difficult to separate the impact of millennials from the impact of technology and a significantly faster pace of business. But the bottom line remains the same: “The system of hierarchy and the idea of doing your time to move forward is gone. It doesn’t exist,” she says.

Penny Partridge, chief human resources officer and partner at PwC in Toronto, agrees. “Everyone wants connection with a leader, but millennials will just show up at my door. Or call the CEO,” she says. “They’re comfortable doing that. They don’t feel the same way about hierarchy as older generations do and, frankly, I respect that.”

Partridge knows what she’s talking about: 80% of PwC’s workforce in Canada are members of generation Y. In the late 2000s, the Big Four focused on technical skills. Since then, PwC has pivoted. It’s looking beyond business candidates to recruit employees with “diversity of thought and experience” and prioritizing candidates who have built networks with ease — both key characteristics of millennials. In fact, the company has remade itself over the past five or six years in order to better attract them by improving access to national and international secondments to give anyone who’s interested a variety of experiences. Plus, they’ve developed a strategy around flexibility, going so far as to require a discussion of employees’ work-life needs at team meetings. “Formalizing these changes benefits all staff and has helped to evolve workplace culture,” Partridge explains.

As more millennials flood the workforce, they’re definitely making their mark on office culture, and both Culbertson and Partridge say it’s for the better. That said, the ubiquity of this generation and the changes it’s unleashing require managers to learn new leadership strategies.

Lead the way

There’s good and bad news for managers. The good: the key to managing younger employees is relatively simple — communication. The bad? Communication takes practice. A boss who’s clear about goals, trusts employees and prioritizes work-life balance makes a company attractive and is instrumental to a millennial’s happiness at work.

That’s why “it’s not all about millennials adapting to us. We have to adapt to them,” says Partridge. Here’s how.

Provide opportunities: More than anything else, millennials want to feel like their work matters. Give them the chance to tackle a problem and watch their engagement — and results — skyrocket. “If their ideas don’t align with the business, take the time to explain why they can’t be incorporated. You don’t want to squash innovation and enthusiasm,” says Culbertson.

Teach: “They love to be taught,” says Partridge. “They love to understand the bigger picture, maybe more so than some previous generations, who were more likely to say, ‘Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.’ Millennials are more, ‘Tell me what I need to do, how it fits the bigger picture, what I’m going to learn from that and then show me.’”

Manage expectations: “We don’t promote people based on years of experience anymore; today it’s outcome-based,” says Culbertson. That said, millennials might want a promotion before they’re ready. Talk with your employee about what he or she wants from the position, your expectations and what the company’s needs are. Then figure out how you can make it all mesh.

Dole out feedback: “In the old days, no news was good news, right? It was more, ‘If I don’t tell you you’re doing a bad job, assume you’re doing a good job,’” says Partridge. “Nowadays, it’s continual feedback. Millennials want to know how they’re doing every step of the way. If you manage them that way, the product is better.” PwC’s approach to training is based on the Socratic-style training medical residents receive — problems are tag-teamed, younger employees have a chance to pitch ideas and, by its very nature, it allows managers to have meaningful interactions with even very junior employees.

Rethink rewards: Raises and bonuses are a baseline, but the best kind of recognition for a millennial is face time. Book a one-on-one lunch or invite the employee to an important meeting. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time reminding our partners that it isn’t about bonuses,” says Partridge. “It’s about how we treat them every day and showing appreciation with our time and our teaching, which is an important shift in our mindset around managing.”

Prioritize flexibility: “One thing they’ve taught me is to make sure you’re not sacrificing your personal life,” says Culbertson. “It’s that living-in-the-moment thing. It’s not bad to do a little reprioritizing where you can.” While this new approach can be overwhelming for managers of older generations, targeting your management style to cater to millennials will have far-reaching effects. “They are driving a cultural change,” says Partridge. “And I think it’s all for the benefit of everybody. Who doesn’t like to be appreciated? Who doesn’t like flexibility? They’re helping to really embed that into the way we do things every day, which really dictates the culture. I think that’s a good thing.”