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Are Millennials Changing Corporate Culture or Vice Versa?

By:  Laura Randall Nov 4, 2013
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Mellenial

Here is a Millennial’s idea of a dream workplace: A flexible schedule, a culture that values ideas and teamwork over tenure, and an environment that is fun, friendly and challenging. A social responsibility arm, advanced technological tools, and good 401(k) program complete the picture.

All this may not yet prevail in today’s offices, but more corporations are striving to add elements that appeal to Gen Y, or Millennials, who will make up 36 percent of the American workforce next year and nearly half of it by 2020.

As more Millennials bring their energy, insight and high-tech savvy to the job market, employers are challenged with making major changes to the way they operate, career experts and researchers say. At the same time, some corporate traditions are not likely to change, which means Millennials may find themselves having to adjust and grow in ways they never have before.

“Millennials are only at the very beginning of their influence on the workplace,” notes Lindsey Pollak, a Gen Y expert and author of Getting from College to Career. “But I do think they are poised to really shake things up, just as the Baby Boomers did with their traditionalist forebears.”

Typically defined as those aged 22 to 29, Millennials want achievable, short-term goals, hands-on guidance from employers, mentorship programs, financial security relative to their peers, and a socially connected workplace that prizes collaboration, according to several recent workplace studies focused on Generation Y.

Young workers are also more interested than previous generations in exploring different types of career paths, rather than locking into one for the course of their working experience, notes Brian Kopp, managing director in the human resources practice at the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), a research and advisory services firm.

CEB found, for example, that younger workers expect on average to work for 13 companies over the course of their careers. "What they’re really saying, however, is they want to have 13 different experiences," Kopp explained.

Therefore, to prevent high turnover, employers need to find ways to let workers move across different parts and geographies of the company "in a much more creative way than they ever have," Kopp says. "They need to realize this [turnover] time horizon is shorter than they think it is," he adds.

In other efforts to recruit and retain young talent, companies have added reverse mentorship programs, in which Millennials advise senior executives on how younger generations think about their work, products and office culture. Others, aware of a growing awareness of social responsibility on the part of Millennials, are allowing workers to take sabbaticals of several months in the nonprofit sector, with the expectation that the worker will return.

Coca-Cola, for its part, is placing a great deal of priority on collaboration, reinvention and sustainability in its Workplace 2020 initiative, which includes a major redesign of its Atlanta campus. All of these issues are important to Millennials, along with having the sense that a company cares about the well-being not only of its employees, but also its consumers, notes Kristin McDonald, a manager in Coke’s work environment and employee engagement program.

"We understand capitalism in a different kind of way. It's about building shared value and using talent and resources to change the world for the better," McDonald explains. She points to Coke's annual International Coastal Cleanup event and a recent internal Startup Weekend event, an entrepreneurial pitch fest that challenged Coke employees to tackle ideas outside the scope of their day jobs, as programs that are attuned to the hopes and desires of the Millennial generation.

Some researchers believe that more investment will be necessary to address Millennials' fundamentally different approach to work. Others predict that as the young generation ages, its behavior and approach to work will fall in line with those of the previous generations.

Whatever happens, the typical workplace will include a variety of generations for years to come. And, for the most part, everyone accepts that, Pollak says.

She points to a workplace study by The Hartford, an insurance and investment company, which found that 90 percent of Millennials agree that Baby Boomers bring substantial experience and knowledge to the workplace, with 93 percent believing that Millennials bring new skills and ideas to the workplace.

Her advice: Embrace the different work styles and skill sets that each person brings and benefit from the diversity through give-and-take mentoring programs and the creation of informal advisory boards that span generations and cover both personal and professional topics.

“Many Millennials tell me they want to get better at classic workplace skills such as giving presentations, negotiating well, and being good people managers," she says. "They have a lot of respect for people who have a experience and can mentor them in these areas.”

The reality is that Millennials aren't as different as we might think, CEB's Kopp adds.

“What motivates their performance is relatively similar to other generations, but the best companies meet these needs in new and different ways,” he concludes.