The Right Business Environment Can Motivate Younger Workers
Abstract: Millennials and Gen Z make up the largest and fastest-growing components of today’s workforce. To motivate these under-40 employees, businesses must re-engineer their operating environments to prioritize a connection between assigned tasks and community welfare. A well-calibrated workplace will boost the bottom line by inspiring employees to peak performance.
Every business wants motivated employees. A productive workforce, though, doesn’t happen by accident: Employers must create an operating environment that inspires their people and gives them the tools needed to succeed.
If the tools vary with the times, lately the times are all about Millennials. These employees, ranging in age from roughly 25 to 40, now make up the largest workforce component according to the Pew Research Center. Hard on their heels is the fastest-growing labor segment: Gen Z, aged roughly 15 to 25. Both groups tend to job hop more frequently than previous generations—all the more reason for employers to make the right moves now so high performing “A players” don’t jump ship for the competition. (Because they share many characteristics, Millennials and Gen Z will be combined in this article unless otherwise noted).
“Millennials can be very loyal employees and can bring important talents to the workplace,” says Jason Dorsey, President of The Center for Generational Kinetics, Austin, TX (jasondorsey.com). “However, businesses must take the time to understand their priorities and recognize how to best meet them. None of this is about spending more money, but about understanding the Millennial mentality and then building a work environment that reflects common ground.”
So what do Millennials need? It all starts with a connection between work and life outside the shop. “While everybody wants to do meaningful work, it’s much more important to Millennials than to previous generations,” says Jack Altschuler, President of Fully Alive Leadership, Northbrook, IL (fullyaliveleadership.com). He describes the Millennial mentality this way: “If all I’m doing is putting a screw in a widget on the assembly line, I’m not going to be motivated. In fact, I’m going to be out of here as soon as I can find something else.”
Millennials need to know their work activities contribute to society. The details of daily labor are only meaningful when they enhance the lives of customers. Furthermore, the organization should be involved in community affairs. The expectation is for the employer to be a good corporate citizen, actively supporting causes not just through money but also with action. “Millennials want their employer to participate in such things as charity events, rallies, walkathons, and runs,” says Richard Avdoian, an employee development consultant in Metropolitan St. Louis (richardavdoian.com).
Prospective employees will even use the Internet to assess an employer’s social commitment. “Millennials will check on places like Glassdoor where people share reports about companies where they work,” says Altschuler. “They will find out if a company does things like organizing blood drives or conducting volunteer work at retirement homes.”
Finally, the workplace must reflect an appreciation for diversity: The staff makeup should reflect the racial mix of the local community. “Millennials’ assumptions about diversity are quite different from, say, Boomers,” says Altschuler. “Part of the reason you see so many young white faces at Black Lives Matter rallies is because they see people who are different from them as really pretty much like them. That’s a tectonic shift.”
But there’s a second level of meaning that’s crucial to this age group: the connection between their work and organizational health. Managers must communicate how employees contribute to the bottom line. One way to show the connection between employee actions and profit is to explain how quality work and service create loyal customers.
Even more, can be done: Consultants suggest involving the staff in decision-making. “Consider establishing a rotating committee of employees to talk about the entire operational progression from the entrance of the customer to follow-up after the sale,” says Avdoian. “The committee can address questions such as, ‘How can the business increase the quality of its service?’ and ‘How can it improve interdepartmental relations?’”
If that sounds like a bottoms-up approach to business management, that’s because it is. “Millennials want somebody to listen to them,” says Randy Goruk, president of The Randall Wade Group, Scottsdale, AZ (leadersedge360.com). “They have ideas and opinions. They may come up with a technique for changing around an installation process so it’s easier, faster, or safer. But they are going to need someone to give them permission. If the boss isn’t listening, they see it as a problem. They may leave for another company where they can share their ideas.”
Professional development is more important for Millennials than for previous generations. “Millennials need opportunities for learning on the job,” says Dorsey. “They feel that they have to keep developing their skills in order to have more security in their careers.”
There’s a special reason for the long-range view of this age group: Their experience with the nation’s economy. “Millennials feel like they’ve been book-ended with significant negative events,” says Dorsey.
“On the front end was the great recession, which led to unemployment and wage stagnation. On the back end is the Covid 19 pandemic, which has led to job losses and a slowdown in career progression. That’s not only because of restricted job opportunities, but also because the generations preceding them are staying longer in the workforce.”
Given this background, Millennials realize they need to lay the groundwork for their future security—and they expect their employer to provide guidance. “Just training Millennials for the work they are doing currently is no longer sufficient,” says Avdoian. “They expect employers to help them enhance their skills for positions they may take in the future.”
Successful employers communicate a personal interest in Millennials’ future. “Take the guesswork out of advancement,” suggests Lauren Star, a business consultant based in Bedford, N.H. (lauranstar.com). “Create a career path for Millennials where training is offered, coaching is provided by skilled individuals, and transparency is intact.” Depending on the proclivities of each employee, the pathway can include expansion of job duties, the introduction of management levels, and even progression into leadership positions. (Reference – Golf Course Superintendents are struggling with Maintenance Labor Shortage – by Linda Parker)
Feedback is the flip side of professional development. And Millennials concerned about job stability and advancement need to know how they’re doing more frequently than older workers. “Millennials need interactions at least once a week from their direct boss, or supervisor, in order to feel that they’re doing a good job and their position is secure,” says Dorsey. “It could be a text message, a Zoom session, or an in-person discussion.”
Saying the wrong thing can set back an employee, in ways that are not favorable to performance. “Make sure that whoever’s providing feedback has been trained on how to do it well,” says Goruk. “There are ways to inspire, empower, and engage people with your feedback. And there are ways to be destructive.”
Flexibility and mobility
As the above comments suggest, Millennials tend to look beyond the walls of the shop when they plan their lives. “Unlike previous generations, Millennials don’t identify who they are by their job,” says Avdoian. “They are looking for flexibility in their daily work schedule.” Some are juggling work and children while others are holding down more than one job. Because they have a variety of serious interests which they want to pursue, the usual 9 to 5 expectations may require modification.
Mobility goes hand-in-hand with flexibility: Millennials want to work from home when they can. It helps that the generation is digital savvy. “Because they are technology driven, Millennials get work done differently and faster than Boomers,” says Star. The Millennial who quits work at 4:00 in the afternoon may complete a project by banging on a laptop late at night.
The same mentality that values long range planning and work-life balance also puts a great deal of importance on benefits. “Healthcare and retirement matching are very important to Millennials right now,” says Dorsey. He adds that this is one area where there is something of a split with the younger generation. “While benefits are very important to Gen Z as well, health insurance does not seem to interest them as much as retirement matching. That is very, very important to them, which is surprising given how young they are.”
Gen Z also shows a pronounced preference for what’s called ‘earned wage access,’ a system in which employers pay half wages at the end of every shift. “This is an expectation that they are bringing to employers in many industries,” says Dorsey.
This article has highlighted characteristics common to a Millennial-friendly workplace. Perception, of course, can differ from reality. While an employer may feel a workplace meets the needs of Millennials, they may have a different opinion. The good news is that they will offer constructive advice if asked. Indeed, the wise employer will recognize the desire for organizational involvement by Millennials and will reach out for feedback before the high performing ones depart for greener pastures.
A structured approach can work wonders. “I suggest scheduling regular meetings with employees to understand why they are staying with the company,” says Avdoian. Encourage Millennials to answer questions such as these: What aspects of the company or your job excite you?; What motivates you to succeed here?; What would make your job more satisfying?; Are you pleased with how we are recognizing and compensating employees?; Are you happy with your work-life balance?; What training would you benefit from?”
The answers to such questions can help any employer better understand the Millennial mindset and create a workplace responsive to employee needs. “What gets measured gets done,” says Goruk. “Companies that systematize their feedback process will continually improve because they are measuring what they are doing. And when they determine they’re not doing as well as they could, they can make refinements that will help them achieve greater success in the future.” (For an assessment of your own workplace, take the quiz in the sidebar, “Are You Millennial-Ready?”)
The end result of a properly re-engineered business environment will be a highly motivated workforce and a more robust bottom line. “Millennials and Gen Z are bringing tremendous value to the workplace,” says Dorsey. “Rather than seeing them only as young employees, see them as a generation that brings different strengths, perspectives, and a desire to make a difference. We think it is a very exciting time for employers who choose to recognize this and act on it.”
Phillip M. Perry is an award-winning business journalist based in New York City. He covers management, employment law, finance, and marketing for scores of business magazines.