20 August 2012

Millenials in the Workplace: How To Build a Better Office

Emily Matchar recently wrote in the Washington Post about "millennials" (those born between 1982 and 1999) in the American workplace. Ms. Matchar states that educated millennial are seeking "engaging, meaningful, flexible work that doesn’t take over their lives" and are willing to flit from job to job until they find it. She concludes that Generation Y will shake up the workplace with their desire for flexibility, perks, and respect despite their inexperience.

Does this song sounds familiar? It should. Media commentators and business analysts were singing | the | exact | same | tune about Generation X. Generation X-ers also wanted flexibility, feedback, and performance-based promotions. They wanted lots of vacation. And lots of respect. Why, then, has the workplace not been revolutionized? Why is the Economist publishing columns like "Generation Xhausted"?

Inertia is a powerful force. Habits within large companies and organizations change at a frozen molasses pace. Baby boomers still fill the majority of management posts, and may be slow to take on major changes. While some things have changed, the more "radical" perks of which Ms. Matchar writes (e.g., unlimited paid vacation) seem distant possibilities unless you are working in a social media start-up. But unless things continue to to change, organizations will have to endure millennials leaving for where the grass is greener.

Radical perks may not be necessary to build a millennial-friendly workplace. But they are often easier than creating a good office. Instead, I offer seven difficult ways to build a better office.
  1. No culture of overworking. I want to be challenged. I will go the extra mile when necessary. But I do not want to be beat down with a 12-hour, soul-sucking slog five (or six!) times a week. You cannot possibly have a fire drill every day unless you are a fire fighter. Please hire more people instead of overworking your staff. I would rather earn less to work a shorter week.
  2. Flexible work times and work. You do not need me to be at work at 6:45 a.m. every day. I would much prefer to arrive there at a time that works better for me -- say, 9:00 a.m. or 9:30 a.m.. If there is an early meeting, I will go. If I have to stay late to finish up, I will stay. Please let me work from my home regularly as well. That way I do not have to change out of my pajamas. 
  3. Flexibility about human capital. Keep giving me interesting work. If you do not have any, lend me to the office next door for a short-term project or two. Organizations' budgets should allow for cross-unit cost-sharing; this will enable managers to share employees rather than firing (or running short-handed) when the work-stream shifts. [Small organizations may be less well-equipped to handle this.] 
  4. No turf wars and no bad bosses. Stop fighting over work-streams with the neighboring office. Do not let personalities and hang-ups get in the way of doing good work. Stop promoting people who are incompetent -- I do not care who he knew if he cannot manage his way out of a shoe box. Start collaborating more; share your good idea rather than hiding it. I will start by sharing my idea: no turf wars and no bad bosses.
  5. Vacations without guilt. I like to travel. I like to save my vacation time up for two- to four-week trips. I will ask in advance so you can plan around me. Please do not make me feel guilty for having a holiday. Also, please give me more vacation time; I will be more productive when I can take a day off every now and then without needing to be sick.
  6. Break down hierarchies. I have great ideas. Do not ignore my insight because I am young. I have ambitions. If I am doing excellent work, do not expect me to wait and wait and wait for a promotion or a leap in responsibilities. I am impatient. Show me that the organization is responding, or I may leap elsewhere. Did I mention that I am impatient? I am impatient.
  7. Dress code only when it counts. I enjoy wearing suits, but not everyone does. If there is no big meeting, we do not have to be dressed as old-time bellhops. Do not stress about it as long as people look presentable. 
Like many other millennials, I want to enjoy work. I want to solve interesting problems, collaborate with intelligent people, and do good things. I just do not want to have to suffer rigidity, long hours, bad leadership, and unproductive in-fighting to do it. Are my needs self-indulgent? Perhaps, but -- as the kids say -- you only live once.

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