I recently watched a movie where the main character’s place of work had been acquired and the new owners wanted a complete overhaul of the organisation – to be more relevant, engaging, cutting-edge etc. Enter the millennials: bright lipstick for the women, beards for the men, pool tables and bean bags for the office, and of course the cat videos abounded. While that was clearly a caricature of the millennial generation, I appreciated the representation of us as an influential force to be reckoned with.
Most discussions on millennials in the workplace, particularly how they’ll change the demography of the workplace, are somewhat static. They take as given that millennials are on the receiving end of instruction and growth and development as opposed to influencing and delivering it. We forget that millennials are people (surprise!), and are therefore growing and evolving. Furthermore, we are increasingly supervisors and managers in the work place.
An interesting question which then arises is whether some of the characteristics used to describe us will change how business is done, both today and in the future. Specifically, I’m interested in thinking about how the workplace will change as millennials increasingly become decision-makers and leaders in organisations. I think about the rise of the millennials ushering a new dawn in three main dimensions: feedback, purpose and diversity.
Firstly, millennials are a feedback-hungry generation and I believe that that will make for feedback-hungry, agile organisations. Our desire to know how we are doing, as exasperating as other generations may sometimes find it, is driven by an aim to course-correct in real time and do a good job. With increasing emphasis on agile organisations, there is a natural convergence between feedback and agility. The only way to be nimble as an organisation is to constantly measure initiatives, creating a ‘running average’ of sorts, in order to make decisions based on the data as it emerges. Similarly, individual and collective performance is improved by having a culture of feedback at more frequent intervals. This enables managers to identify areas of strength to amplify, as well as opportunities for coaching in development areas.
Now, many people will cringe at the thought of more frequent feedback as the image of awkward, stilted and often disappointing performance review conversations come to mind. It is thus important to add that feedback is only useful when given appropriately – it’s up to teams to decide on the most comfortable setting for that feedback (i.e. not in front of the whole team and maybe not when we’re working towards a tough deadline). In addition, managers and supervisors must be equipped with the proper tools and techniques to deliver feedback skillfully and in a way that is edifying (regardless of the substance of the feedback).
Secondly, I believe that our emphasis on purpose will impact how we talk about values in the workplace and how we balance work and play. Millennials are increasingly embarking on journeys of self-discovery in order to more clearly understand and articulate our values. I recently came across research that finds that clarity of personal values has positive organisational outcomes. The study says that the best employee is one that has clarity on their individual values as well as the values of the organisation, which is easy to accept intuitively. What was surprising, however, was that the employee with high clarity on their own values outperforms the employee with a lower clarity on personal values but a strong grasp of organisational values. This means that self-aware, centered individuals are better for the organisation than the employee that can recite the company mission statement.
This has an interesting implication for how we talk about work-life balance: Millennials are looking for work-life integration, not balance. We don’t ask how we can fit in to an organisation, but rather how an organisation’s values and culture fit in with what’s important to us. This means that we don’t leave our true selves at the door at work, to be picked up again after 5pm. Instead, we insist on the ability to bring our full selves to the workplace, even if that’s a little messy sometimes. As a result, I believe that the notion of work-life balance will become obsolete, to be replaced by thinking on how to integrate more of our lives into the workplace.
Finally, and linked to the conversation on purpose, our insistence on being able to be ourselves means that diversity and inclusion are no longer a nice-to-have, but a necessity. Our awareness of a multiplicity of identities means we insist that diversity be prioritized in the workplace. If we’re going to be our true selves, it has to be safe to do so. In the South African context, there is a strong correlation between how transformed and inclusive a workplace is and their ability to retain black, female, queer, disabled (and more) talent. Where South African millennials are making hiring decisions, we value working with people different to us and creating a welcoming, inclusive environment. Whatever your views on the concept of the “Rainbow” Nation, I see this as a positive outcome of being brought up to value difference and I hope to see that become ubiquitous.
All this being said, it’s clear that millennials are already an influential generation – even if just by virtue of being so extensively discussed and studied. It’s my view that the things that make us quintessentially millennial – our desire to know how we’re doing, the way we value purpose, and our insistence on diversity and inclusion – are shaping the corporate landscape and influencing the future of work. The Millennial Managers are here and, if we pay attention and learn from them, they come bearing gifts.