Engaging the Millennial Generation

Engage MillennialsIf you have been receiving my newsletters, blog posts and so on for a while you may recall that Employee Engagement is one of my areas of expertise and interest. I was with a group of HR professionals and associated Employee Engagement aficionados a little while back, and the conversation evolved into a discussion of how different generations relate to Employee Engagement. I have the research material that breaks down Employee Engagement by generation and by geography so I felt reasonably comfortable in the conversation.

The group took it as read that we all understood the principles of Employee Engagement, the business case for investing in it, and the key drivers that have most impact on improving levels of Employee Engagement. For those who are less familiar with the subject let me provide a very brief overview.

Let’s start this brief synopsis with a definition of Employee Engagement. There are many different definitions and my personal favourite is “How each individual employee connects with your company and how each individual employee connects with your customers.“ (Lucey, Bateman and Hines 2005) I like this definition because it is the only one that I have found that makes reference to customers.

Let’s quickly establish the business case for investing in Employee Engagement. Studies have shown that increased Employee Engagement positively impacts on company results in each of these areas:-

  1. Income growth
    1. Sainsbury’s have found that the level of Employee Engagement can contribute up to 15% of a store’s year-on-year growth.
    2. Organisations that were in the top 25% for the level of Employee Engagement had twice the net annual income (profit attributable to shareholders) than those organisations in the bottom 25%; furthermore they returned 7 times more to their shareholders over 5 years than did the bottom group. (Source: Kenexa Research Institute 2008).
    3. Organisations with high levels of engagement (65% or greater) continue to outperform the total stock market index and posted total shareholder returns 22% higher than average in 2010. On the other hand, companies with low engagement (45% or less) had a total shareholder return that was 28% lower than the average (Aon Hewitt 2011).
  2. Productivity and performance
    1. RSA found in their MORE TH>N call centres that engaged people have 35% lower average wrap times (time between calls) than disengaged people. Engaged staff are able to talk to an additional 800 customers per year on average. In other words, for every eight engaged people they employ they get the equivalent of an additional member of staff without any additional pay cost.
    2. A Gallup study (2012) looking at data from over 23,000 business units has demonstrated that those with the highest engagement scores (the top 25%) averaged 18% higher productivity (and 12% higher profitability) than those with the lowest engagement scores (the bottom 25%).
  3. Customer/client satisfaction
    1. Serco uses the Net Promoter Score (NPS) to measure customer loyalty; customers are asked to assess the likelihood that they would recommend the company to others. Those who score the question highly are classed as ‘promoters’, those who score the question poorly are classed as ‘detractors’, and those in between classed as ‘passives’. Serco worked with Aon Hewitt to look at 274 Serco client contracts and found correlation between Employee Engagement and the NPS. Those contracts serviced by employees whose engagement had improved over the year had NPS scores 24% higher than those employees whose engagement had declined.
    2. A CBI-AXA report from 2007 found that 70% of engaged employees indicated a good understanding of how to meet customer needs; while only 17% of non-engaged employees said the same.
  4. Innovation
    1. Encouraging shop floor input at BAE and creating a more engaged workforce led to more than £26 million of improvement opportunities being identified by the shop floor in the first year, and during the second year the time taken to build the Typhoon aircraft fell by more than 25%.
    2. 59% of the more engaged employees say that work brings out their most creative ideas, against 3% of the less engaged (Gallup 2007).
  5. Absence and well-being
    1. A Children’s Hospice who implemented Employee Engagement programmes found that their sickness absence fell by one third, very similar to the situation in US Federal Government organisations where those with the highest levels of Employee Engagement had sickness absence levels one-third lower than those with the lowest levels of engagement.
    2. Nampak, a leading plastic bottle producer, achieved a 26% reduction in absence levels following the introduction of an engagement programme that improved Employee Engagement by 5%.
  6. Staff retention
    1. Rentokil found the teams that most improved engagement saw staff retention increase 6.7%, providing an estimated saving of almost £7 million.
    2. According to The Hay Group, companies with high levels of engagement show staff turnover rates 40% lower than companies with low levels of engagement.
  7. Health and safety
    1. The Olympic Games of 2012 was seen as a great success for many reasons. The Olympic Delivery Authority achieved an Accident Frequency Rate of less than half the construction industry average, and attributed this to strategies used to improve Employee Engagement.
    2. Gallup reports that those organisations in the bottom 25% for Employee Engagement averaged 62% more accidents than those in the top 25% (Gallup 2006).

2012 Olympics logoThe final element of Employee Engagement that was well understood by those in the room is what contributes most to improvements in Employee Engagement. The order of importance, the ranking of impact, the degree of effectiveness of these improvement drivers does change depending on geography, demography and ethnicity, but please allow me some sweeping generalisations for reasons of brevity.

The three top drivers of EE across all generations are that management are demonstrably, sincerely and sustainably committed to the well-being of all employees, that employees have sufficient opportunities to improve their skills and capabilities, and that the organisation’s brand is seen as strong, trustworthy and socially responsible. Other significant drivers include organisations giving employees significant input into decisions affecting them, companies responding quickly and effectively to any concerns held by customers, and employees having excellent career advancement opportunities.

To return to the discussion amongst HR and Employee Engagement experts – as the discussion progressed the focus increasingly headed towards an evolving and increasingly clear question – ‘What adjustments should leaders, managers and supervisors make to maximise the engagement of Millennials in the workforce?’ Hmm, that is actually a rather big and important question. Thinking about the question led to my decision to publish my research, analysis and (frankly) opinions on the issue.

The first point is to recognise the possibility of an assumption; that the supposition beneath the question was that alterations to Employee Engagement best practices should be made for Millennials. I decided it was best to keep an open mind about whether or not this is true as I approached writing this piece.

Secondly, why focus specifically on Millennials? The answer to that question lies in the fact that Millennials (born between 1980 and 1996) are projected to out-number the baby boomer generation sometime this year (US Census Bureau December 2014), and that they will make up more than half of the workforce by 2020. They have different life experiences compared with what, for now, is still the majority of the workforce. Sheer volume suggests the good sense of at least reviewing whether or not Millennials would benefit from adjustments.

The question arises as to how the life experiences of Millennials are different. The 2014 e-book ‘Motivating Millennials’ (Hoopla Software) identified several relevant factors differentiating Millennials from earlier generations. Comparatively, Millennials are more racially diverse, less interested in organised politics or religion, and have a greater debt burden (largely student debt). Millennials are also less in a rush to get married, are less trusting of ‘authority’, and are far more dependent on, interested in, and connected by social media, reflecting the relatively huge exposure to technology and the increasing pace of change they have experienced.

My postulation is that much of the good practices that drive improvements in Employee Engagement across generations also apply in large part to Millennials. Good practice is good practice and Millennials are humans just like the rest of the generations – so no great surprise there. Additionally, my hypothesis is that organisations can make some crucial adjustments that do not detract from best practice, but address the specific experiences, needs and desires of Millennials. This theory is not yet proven, but I do not think this is an issue of right or wrong, but of design, implementation and split-testing of different options. I will end with the adjustments specific to Millennials, but before that I want to explore some of the existing best practice and experience it though the filters of Millennials.

It is undoubtedly true that one of the big drivers of improvements in Employee Engagement is having strong and involved management; of having the right psychological contract between ‘the Company’ and ‘the Employee’. However it is arguably even more important to Millennials because they have experienced different relationships with ‘authority figures’ (particularly parents) than previous generations. Whilst true that baby boomers had real clashes with Authority (primarily Governments) their parents were far less involved in the details of the development and everyday lives of their off-springs. The Millennial generation grew up experiencing a high level of involvement and management from their parents in far more aspects of their lives than, say, boomers.

In previous evolutions of management theory, a sink-or-swim approach was an acceptable strategy that could be deployed at the level of the organisation, or business unit, as well as at the individual employee level. Previously, an approach of ‘promote them and see how they get on’ was often used and was understood to be acceptable by those asked to drown or survive. This is not the Millennial way – they want regular check-ins and frequent feedback on their performance; with them being the ones who define what ‘regular’ and ‘frequent’ means. They also expect a far greater level of supportive management skilled at providing quality feedback, incisive and adroit coaching, and access to the experience and mentoring abilities of those above them.

So on this first best practice of strong and involved management, do it more and do it better – across all generational groups as this is not a something unique to Millennials.

The second area of best practice to consider is helping employees to connect their work to a higher purpose. Daniel H. Pink, in his book ‘Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us’ identified the basic needs of the human race for Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. He makes the point that purpose is crucial, writing that autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels, but those who do so in service of some higher objective can achieve even more. I have previously written about AMP and you can access this material here:- http://bit.ly/1IgBFwl

greaterpurposeimageConnecting the organisation, and the employees, to some higher purpose is a great driver of improvements in Employee Engagement because it goes to the heart of the brand of the company, which globally is the third highest contributor to improved Employee Engagement. Skype is a good example of this overarching sense of purpose. Their goal is to be disruptive in the cause of making the world a better place. Organisations must have more than just the profit motive.

Evidence is emerging that Millennials will trade higher salaries for jobs that are ‘more worthy’ but pay less. So for the second cross-generational driver of improved Employee Engagement, the message is the same as for the first – do it more and do it better – across all generational groups and Millennials will respond with improved Employee Engagement.

The third best practice on my list (of five, if you are wondering) is making recognition impactful as a way of driving home improved Engagement and results. Recognition is important to all generations, but Millennials are somewhat different in that their formative years were in an environment where prizes have been routinely awarded for attendance, for simply showing up and participating. Additionally they experienced this emphasis on participation at the same time as less emphasis on winners and losers in competitive school sports, and significant grade inflation in academic results. It can be argued the Millennials are the ‘everyone’s a winner’ generation; everybody can appear on nationally-televised talent shows as well as reality TV shows requiring very little talent.

Reality TV showI have heard older generations comment that Millennials seem to want to get prizes for just turning up and doing the job they are employed to do, and to want said prizes on a very regular basis. Think of Millennials as the ‘video game generation’ for a moment. This generation have developed in an era of rapid advances in technology, for sure, and they have experienced these advances through their Play Stations, Game Boys and the like, and now use their Smartphones to play video games. In these games, the rewards are plentiful and frequent, with bonuses in every level, and rewards for completion of each level. Millennials are conditioned to pick up bonuses just for playing the game as well as for achieving the ultimate goal(s) of the game.

That stated (and I will return to recognition when discussing the specific adjustments for Millennials at the end of this article) recognition best practice leads to improved Engagement and results across all generations. It is important to ensure that recognition is timely, is publicly visible and is meaningful to the recipient in their value terms. Being fair and consistent is also essential. Recognising one person for a certain achievement and totally ignoring another for the same accomplishment is positively demotivating and will likely decrease Employee Engagement.

The penultimate Employee Engagement best practice is to adjust the nature of the work people get to do on a daily or at least regular basis. All generations want work to be enjoyable, meaningful and fun; Millennials are no different – although perhaps the boredom threshold is lower with Millennials, who are used to a faster-moving, multi-tasking, highly social life experience than earlier generations. Two of the top-10 global drivers of Employee Engagement are (a) that ‘I enjoy challenging work assignments that broaden my skills’ and (b) ‘I have improved my skills and capabilities in the last year’. Ensuring that work is allocated in such a way as to achieve these twin objectives has a great impact on Engagement. We know this in our own work assignments; we want to do the good stuff we like and are highly motivated, engaged and capable when we actually get to do such tasks. We know what the opposite is like for us as well.

We also know that we want to have clear objectives, to know what the rules and behavioural norms are, to know ‘what good is’. We also want to understand consequences – if I do a good job, what happens then? If my work is not to the required standard are there any sanctions, is any help available, will I get additional training if I just don’t have the skill? What if I have the skill, but not the will? Is the very nature of the task boring? If so, what can be changed to lessen the ennui? Can the environment be made more fun? Can the task be shared amongst a greater number of people so that everyone contributes and the discomfort is shared somewhat? If our regular review meeting is boring, can we do it quicker, can we have a ‘Minister of Fun’ for each meeting, or can we move out of this meeting room which has become associated with boredom, pain and suffering?

The final best practice, which will provide a nice opportunity to segue into my top tips for maximising Employee Engagement for Millennials, is to harness technology to improve the engagement of our employees. Best practice is to establish genuine two-way communication and to make sure there is plenty of it, with content being of high quality. Technology can really help organisations to create, disseminate and store highly engaging communications and it can assist tremendously in capturing the oh-so-vital feedback that indicates whether or not the communications messages have landed correctly.

Millennials_SMSome people want to receive oral communications, others want to read the written word, yet others want to see the communications. There are those who want to have all the detail, some who just want the executive summary or highlights, and others who just want a tweet to tell them something has happened that they can look at later. Technology makes all of these things far easier to achieve than previously. We all have different preferences about how we want to receive and respond to communications and there is a technology channel for all of them. High speed networks and massively powerful servers, desktop and mobile devices and the amount of bandwidth available to us make only our imagination the limit to what can be achieved to boost the connections between employers and employees that derive from great communications. The actual devices that Millennials use may be different from those used by earlier generations, but using technology to increase the effectiveness of communications across all generations is simply best practice when it comes to driving improvements in Employee Engagement.

Before I move on to my top tips, I want to make a brief point about the five best practices above and the impact of them on the Millennial Generation. It is fair to say that the best practices above will improve Employee Engagement across all generations, and that Millennials will gain the benefit of companies doing more of the above and of doing so more effectively and efficiently. However, that does not mean Millennials are not different – of course they are. Therefore it is necessary to not only focus on implementing the best practices above that are familiar to us, but also on developing modifications specifically tailored to the Millennial Generation.

Top tips for driving Millennial Employee Engagement

(Order determined alphabetically)

What/How Why Note
Get as app-savvy as Millennials. Millennials know which apps work well for which purposes. Take the chance to learn from them, and you are likely to reduce your IT costs as a result – many apps are free or low-cost web or mobile apps. Millennials us a wide range of apps. You may well experience resistance from your IT department, but comfort yourself that resistance to this top tip will pale into being as nothing when compared with the next one.
Allow BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Consumer technologies and mobile apps are increasingly being used in the workplace, whether your IT departmentapproved them or not. Isn’t the war for talent hard enough? 56 percent of Millennials won’t accept jobs from companies that ban social media. 60 percent of Millennials (vs. 29 percent of non-Millennials) are engaged in uploading videos, images and text to the Internet.
Rethink your comms channels. Millennials use a multitude of comms channels and you need to embrace these channels. The Millennial world of work is not the previous ‘death by…. (insert presentation software name here)’ and communication by email. In the USA, email usage among Millennials has declined over 25% in the past year.
Rethink your comms style. Millennials are used to high volumes of rapidly-provided communication – they regard it as a natural part of life. From Twitter to Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and Snapchat, this generation is constantly sharing information on social networks. Millennials grow their professional networks on LinkedIn. If you’re still relying on email and phone to communicate, chances are your message is not getting through. Your comms style needs to be consistent with the conversational style and conventions of social media. Have a sensible policy for who owns contact databases such as LinkedIn connections.
Review and reform your PMS (Performance Management System). Millennials are far more used to frequent feedback and want a more supportive environment that provides coaching and access to mentoring. The idea of waiting a year, even a quarter, for a performance review suggests to Millennials such reviews aren’t important. Adjust your PMS to review and reward more frequently. Use it to develop and nurture coaches and mentors to support Millennials.
Change your recognition. Millennials are used to much more frequent recognition, and have been brought up in an environment where participation is rewarded as well as achievement. Their parents had a high degree of involvement in and management of their lives. Think of structuring recognition as levels in a video game – recognition is earned for small achievements on a frequent basis. Help your baby boomers to understand Millennial needs better.
Introduce shorter-term goals. Again, Millennials are used to the video game approach of many short-term goals and are unused to single, annualised objectives familiar to baby boomers. Improve your ability to break long-term goals into shorter-term goals creating more comprehensive Work Breakdown Structures for a greater number of activities.
Get visual. Millennials increasingly communicate in pictures. The ability to take a photo or shoot a video on a smartphone, and share it anytime, anywhere is quickly replacing text as the main form of communication. This is what Millennials have been brought up with and it is natural to them. What can you do to adopt Millennial practices? Can you tell a story using video instead of text? Can you create an infographic to communicate better? Use moving images, creating dynamic dashboards instead of static. Get your message across faster and more effectively by being creative with visuals. Great tweets have great visuals.

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