Corporate Leadership: Are you ready for the next generation of workers?

Much as we like to celebrate our individuality, we are all products of our generation.

In the workplace, people who grew up during World War II and the Great Depression tend to value tradition, formal communications and loyalty. Baby boomers who grew up between 1946 and 1964 are likely to be very competitive and hard-working because they spent their lives trying to stand out from an enormous peer group. The next generation, known as Gen X, watched driven baby boomers and concluded that there was more to life than work and that a work/life balance was key. Now comes the Millennial, or Gen Y, generation, with a work style and expectations all its own.

Gen Y’ers grew up with cell phones, e-mail, Internet, video and computer games and, quite often, involved parents who taught them to reach for the stars. This generation:

•Values technology

•Multi-tasks with ease

•Seeks meaningful work

•Enjoys collaboration

•Expects freedom to enjoy life

•Wants flexibility at work

•Questions authority

•Is socially conscious

•Changes jobs in search of more fulfilling work

Employers who can adapt their cultures to the demands and expectations of this new generation will improve their ability to recruit top talent and retain their youngest workers. Here are a few steps that companies can take:

•Offer flexibility: Gen Y’ers want to be able to shape their job to their lifestyle. Whenever possible, give them choices in how they work. Options to consider include part-time positions, non-traditional work hours, or even just a few days off after an intense work period.

•Provide tasks in context: Gen Y’ers want to work on things that they find important and meaningful. Before assigning a task, take the time to explain why the job is important and how it contributes to the company’s success.

•Break up the routine: Millennials grew up with constant stimulation. They are not going to be happy if all of sudden they are left doing the same work day after day. Vary the types of assignments given new employees, and provide a variety of different types of learning opportunities.

•Start a mentoring program: Millennials want the feedback and crave the sense of community gained from working with and learning from others. Encourage more senior employees to get to know a younger worker, listen to his or her ideas, answer questions and discuss long-range planning issues. This mentor will come to understand what motivates his or her younger co-worker and will be able to communicate this information to senior management.

•Clearly communicate goals for specific projects: Millennials are the products of a testing culture. They want to know what they need to do, how their performance will be measured, and what constitutes a great job. Separate work responsibilities into specific projects and clearly communicate expectations for success. Use multiple ways to communicate to enhance understanding.

•Provide regular feedback: Forget annual reviews. Millennials grew up with instant feedback from computer and video games, hovering parents and text-messaging friends. Create a coaching culture in which employees get feedback and support on a regular basis. A coaching culture requires giving and receiving feedback, so be ready to truly listen to Gen Y perceptions of your personal and the organization’s leadership style.

•Hold leadership summits: Millennials don’t hesitate to challenge authority or think of ways they could do a job better than their boss. Let them voice their opinions and ideas in regular brainstorming sessions where ideas are welcomed from all employees. Solicit input about the company’s goals and policies and be prepared to amend current goals and strategies if feedback indicates that a change is needed.

•Invest in technology: Millennials are accustomed to communicating and working with technology. They have been known to leave a company that they feel is technologically behind the times.

•Expand community service programs: Meaningful work – especially for those less fortunate – is very important for socially aware Gen Y’ers. They welcome the opportunity to get involved in the community and tend to be very interested in doing volunteer work. With proper supervision, volunteer work is also an excellent way to give young employees a chance to learn and expand their skills outside of the company’s building.

In the end, your ability to create a meaningful work environment will depend on your flexibility and adaptability to the many needs of the new workforce. Embracing this fact sooner, rather than later, will help your company attract and retain the top employees of tomorrow.

Jim Kimberly is founder of Sapphire Consulting, an Amherst-based workforce performance consulting and training firm that serves clients throughout New England and the United States as well as in Canada and Europe. He can be reached at or 603-889-1099.