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Management has evolved: the rise of millennial managers

Richard Tso

March 28, 2017

The face of management has changed dramatically over the last few years. According to a study conducted by Pew Research, millennials recently surpassed both Gen Xers and Boomers as the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. We are at a pivotal moment in time when business leaders are expected to oversee the performance of millennials, gen-Xers and boomers together within the same teams and organizations. But are managers fully-equipped to meet the challenge?

A cursory online search reveals that the millennial generation has long-since befuddled organizational leaders who seek to maximize workplace productivity. The rise of the gig economy, job-hopping and workplace disengagement are sending HR workforce planning departments into a tailspin as they scramble to offer more competitive compensation packages and attempt to account for shorter employee tenure. And yet, a sustainable solution is not found by simply reacting to change, it comes from adapting existing philosophies, training programs and corporate structures to empower all employees to succeed.

As author and presenter Simon Sinek discusses, millennials aren’t the entitled, unfocused and narcissistic bunch the generations before them make them out to be. In fact, they are a generation seeking purpose. When asked what motivates them in the workplace, millennials respond with an authentic desire to make an impact within their organizations.

Sinek argues it is the responsibility of organizations to adapt by reinforcing workplace behaviors that help millennials achieve their very best. Not only is it a social responsibility, there is an economic incentive in empowering employees to take an active role in their success. Companies providing employees with the right guidance and tools can help drive sustainable productivity gains from increased workplace engagement and stronger relationship ties.

How Companies Can Adapt to the Millennial Workforce

While much of the conversation four years ago centered around millennials just entering the workforce, global workplaces have evolved rapidly since then. Millennials are quickly progressing in their careers and becoming managers of teams, shifting the business philosophies and imperatives along the way. This leadership change is also re-defining culture and management, forever changing the traditional top-down approaches of yesteryear. Due to email and other workplace communication tools, standard hierarchical structures now simply provide a framework for leadership that may not accurately represent the information flow or power dynamics within organizations.

For example, Netflix, Groupon, Zappos and Github pride themselves in being relatively flat organizations that empower their workers to make decisions on behalf of the company and to bring in software that helps people work more efficiently. Conceptually, fewer levels of management equates to less bureaucracy and increased communication between teams.

Workplace communication patterns also differ with each generation since millennials may gravitate to messaging tools like Yammer while Gen-Xers are more accustomed to email and Skype and Boomers to face-to-face interactions. With such disparity in employee backgrounds and work styles, managers are increasingly turning to analytics to better understand work patterns and communication behaviors of the employees they manage.

As Sinek mentioned, the one pivotal factor millennials may need help with is instilling a sense of patience at work. Through no fault of their own, this generation grew up with a need for instant gratification – enabled by technology, millennials live in a time when they can order products online instantly, watch movies on-demand, have their dating-life simplified through apps. What millennials may not realize is that building a meaningful career, forming trusted workplace relationships and driving true business impact takes time to achieve. Careers aren’t built with a click of the mouse or by swiping left or right on a mobile device, it comes after dedicating years towards bettering themselves and their teams along the way.

Since millennials grew up in the digital age, companies are adopting tools to help employees establish balance in the workplace and understand their time management baselines. For example, several companies are providing employees with personalized workplace dashboards like MyAnalytics to help employees better understand how time is spent and underscore the importance of establishing meaningful relationships at work. These tools help employees assess how much time they spend in meetings and emails for a given week, and allow them to measure their progress towards achieving goals like reducing multi-tasking behaviors or increasing focus time.

Understanding Millennial Motivation

With more diverse talent comes new perspectives about what makes an organization successful as well as new expectations for work and life. Millennial research published by Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd notes that “millennials view work as a key part of life, not a separate activity that needs to be ‘balanced’ by it. For that reason, they place a strong emphasis on finding work that’s personally fulfilling. They want work to afford them the opportunity to make new friends, learn new skills, and connect to a larger purpose. That sense of purpose is a key factor in their job satisfaction; according to our research, they’re the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s.”

It is unquestionably in an organization’s best interest to empower employees to be happy and productive but many don’t know where to start. Given the shift in today’s workforce toward millennials, it’s imperative that companies meet their employees half-way to offer fulfilling careers. For some, this means adjusting recruitment strategies to not only attract top talent, but also to retain top-performers through specialized training, tools and mentorship programs. For others it means providing personalized workshops to help managers better understand the nuances associated with the new changing workforce. As work has changed, so must the tools to help employees achieve their very best.

Richard Tso

Richard L. Tso is the managing editor of Microsoft Workplace Insights at Microsoft. Integrated in a team of data scientists, he is responsible for unearthing compelling stories about data, organizational behavior, employee engagement and business performance. He is a regular contributing writer for the Huffington Post, WIRED magazine and Medium.