Millennials, the self-entitled generation born after 1982 who have grown up in the age of the iPhone, Google, Amazon and Facebook – viewed as challenging; difficult to manage; wanting lightning fast progression; and disloyal. We have been discussing the Millennial problem for close to a decade and still, businesses have failed to create a culture which engages this problematic ‘Now’ or ‘Disposable’ generation.

Why is this?

These views of Millennials are commonly expressed. Views usually articulated however by Baby Boomers or Gen X’ers, the generations who feel most at threat. The very language and associated negativity expressed highlights the point, and in this perceived threat lie the reasons large companies have failed so dismally to change with the times.

The business case for diversity has long been accepted, particularly around gender and ethnicity, even if implementation still lags acceptance. However, take the two most senior levels in your company, the C-suit and the level below. What percentage are aged 35 or younger? Half of them? I thought not. The excuse they don’t have the experience just doesn’t cut it anymore. As Salim Ismail points out in his excellent book Exponential Organisations most Nobel Prize winners do their formative work in their late twenties and the average age of NASA engineers on the Apollo programme was 27.

How much of a problem is it?

This is a huge issue for large organisations. We face a global employee engagement crisis with 70% of employees disengaged report Officevibe. Companies with disengaged employees generate two and a half times less revenue whilst highly engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave.

Almost every piece I read on the topic focuses on these challenges of attracting, retaining and engaging this new (or not so new) breed of worker. But while this is a big issue it’s also missing the point. PwC famously reported that by 2020 Millennials will make up 50% of the workforce and they are currently the largest single generation. This means they are the most important group of employees but also consumers. Organisations that demonstrate they are out of touch with their younger generations of employees are equally worryingly out of touch with their customers.

Baby Boomers and Gen X undoubtedly bring experience and expertise that is valuable but so do Millennials in equal measures. Unfortunately, when looking into the future the new rules of the digital age operate on the Millennials’ patch. Failure to engage their thinking is potentially disastrous. Just ask Blackberry, Kodak, Blockbuster or Nokia whether they wish they’d engaged their younger generations better in how they saw the future.

Every time I hear people talking about Millennial challenges my toes curl. It’s true they have a different rule book, but so much is changing in tandem that a focus on Millennials is misleading. Advances in technology such as data analytics, AI, VR, social technology, IoT and blockchain continue to change the way we live forever. With the world changing so quickly, including the workforce, large organisations are failing to keep up. The question should be how do we design the organisation of the future?

What do big companies need to do?

It’s been well documented that Millennials place as much priority on development and progression as pay, but what else do large organisations need to do? As discussed the generational imbalance at senior levels urgently needs addressing but here are three more areas of focus to design the organisation of the future. 

1) Authentic purpose & transparent impact

Dan Pink highlights the importance of a clear purpose in his book Drive (or video). He shows money to be a poor motivator of performance compared to a clear sense of purpose, autonomy and mastery of skills. Too many large companies don’t have in a single sentence a clear, authentic and inspiring purpose or a Mass Transformational Purpose as Salim Ismail calls it. You need to create a clear purpose that you live and breath to inspire and align your workforce that employees can relate to.

71% of Millennials believe companies should do more to address global issues. Companies have long dabbled with CSR initiatives partnering with charities and becoming more sustainable. This is no doubt admirable but can lack authenticity by partnering a charity with no solid connection to their mission or the primary purpose is to support the growth of the company.

Another challenge is employees feeling too far removed from the end result. If for example , ou are a clothes retailer perhaps you should set up a foundation or partnership to provide clothes to developing countries. Employees would have visibility of the village that their individual or team’s efforts contributed towards and even photos or messages from those they helped. The sum of all their efforts over time would appear on their personalised contribution dashboards with high contributors recognised.

2) Hyper-communication & hyper-flexible

It’s a misconception that Millennials want to work for themselves or change job frequently, according to Deloitte 65% would prefer to be in full-time employment. They do however want flexibility and attempts so far have fallen short. Companies need to offer permanent employment with gig-working flexibility.

Better efforts need to be made to integrate work into employee’s personal life, Millennials no longer expect or even want a hard division between work and play. Netflix and LinkedIn already offer unlimited paid holiday, while the idea of wearing a suit is alien to the staff at Virgin. Organisations need to consider an end to formal office hours where people are trusted to be in the office only when they need to be and arrange their own diaries accordingly. Working from any place anytime as suited to the individual and the nature of the work at hand. Offices will resemble informal shared working places of the tech startup rather than the stuffy offices of the city.

The technology exists for all this to happen but not the working practices or trust from the leadership. This gap needs to be bridged and companies need to do more to become hyper-connected. Deloitte found that Millennials want more straight talking and direct communication from the top. Leaders need to engage directly and transparently utilising channels used in our personal lives such as blogs, podcasts or Twitter style sound bites.

HR needs to look at their tools and drastically overhaul two in particular; the employee engagement survey and performance management. Short regular (every couple of weeks) employee engagement insights with analysis provided in near real time by AI with action delivered in 30 days. Existing Performance Management approaches are withering on the vine and need to be put to bed, replaced by methods that are much more responsive, transparent and reflective of reality.

3) Innovate & gameify

Forbes report that Millennials want to work for companies who are top in terms of innovation. This is good news as speed, agility and innovation are going to be the new currency for business’ to survive and thrive. Organisations can use this as a vehicle to solve one of the challenges of the increasingly virtual world, the loss of regular human contact.

Humans are social animals and crave interaction to build the relationships underpinning a strong engaging culture. In his book ‘Leaders Eat Last’ the inspiring Simon Sinek outlines the biological reasons behind this. The release of serotonin and oxytocin from these interactions enable us to feel valued, belong and form bonds of trust and friendship. This cannot be shortcut by virtual interactions so organisations need to create opportunities for intense and meaningful employee interaction that work alongside the new flexible and virtual workplace.

Atlassian does just this and it’s no coincidence that they are the number one place to work in Australia and one of the most innovative. They hold regular ‘Ship It’ days where the whole organisation participates across different sites. This two-day event allows employees to work with anyone on anything innovative they desire with only two rules; it can’t be anything connected to their day job, and they have to deliver something overnight. The outcomes are then played back in fun events and have resulted in thousands of new innovations.

This can be taken further by gamifying the outputs to select what gets implemented. Organisations will need to look for opportunities to gamify more areas of working life. Salim Ismail discusses how gaming is not just something Millennials do, it is part of who they are. The average Millennial racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the time they’re 21, the same amount of time spent in the classroom in high-school.

Of course, there will be the usual rebukes that these measures won’t work in our organisation or they’ll be too expensive. Sure they cost money but take a look at the business case for reducing your office footprint by 50%, increasing innovation significantly, reducing turnover or increasing revenue by two and a half times. Better still ask HMV about the cost of staying in business.