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Redefining the workplace

As millennials climb further up the career ladder, their increasing influence is changing the workplace, heralding the beginning of a new managerial era. How, then, are millennial employees and managers reshaping corporate culture and what do businesses need to keep in mind as they rise through the ranks?




In 2015, a small but significant change took place. According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, this was the year that millennials became the largest single group in the US workforce.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that it means we should stop treating Generation Y (known as the millennials) as a new group that has to fit into an existing workplace culture. They are now the majority and so, to an extent, they are the work culture. Second, millennials are normally classed (roughly) as the group born between 1980 and 2000. This means the oldest millennials are not only well into the workforce, many of them are also well into their 30s. They are millennial managers.

In the workplace of the popular imagination, millennials are still heavily stereotyped. They are 20-somethings who want offices full of beanbags, ping-pong tables, and free sushi. They arrive bursting with entitlement and believe that they are qualified to run the company despite having little experience beyond a clutch of internships. They are fabulously disloyal and likely to leave after three years. And they spend half their working days on Facebook and Instagram.

Running in parallel with this, there is a less frivolous, more downbeat narrative. This says that millennials have been dealt a historically awful hand. The flattening of organisations that began in the 1980s has resulted in workplaces with severely truncated career ladders. Boomers are retiring later, curtailing promotion opportunities still further. The long recession means that pay rises have been miserly. Staff are endlessly rotated between roles in the name of enrichment and experience but rarely move up. Companies talk about authenticity and meaning and values – because these cost them nothing. Millennials have been horribly short-changed.

Coming of age in the workplace
There is some truth to both of these. And there is also truth to a third view – that what Generation Y is going through is not altogether new. After all, Generation X experienced many of these issues and did OK. Besides, plenty of companies do still have some layers of management – and not everyone swaps job every three years. So what are we actually seeing as millennials come of age in the workplace?

In their recent book ‘Millennials Who Manage’, Chip Espinoza and Joel Schwarzbart identified a number of changes that will happen as Generation Y comes to dominate the workplace. Some of these are very positive. They point towards an end of annual performance reviews. Instead, the authors say, millennials (both managers and managed workers) expect continual feedback and communication.

Espinoza has also said that staff are more interested in “work-life blending” than work-life balance. This means that, yes, you might look at e-mails in the evening, but that you are also likely to be posting on Facebook during the day (this quid pro quo is sometimes known as ‘homeing from work’.) In keeping with this, the relational lines between work and non-work are more blurred and the idea that you cannot be friends with colleagues and managers outside work has all but disappeared.

All this could have some healthy outcomes. One might be a decrease in the long-hours culture and presenteeism. If you are continuously measuring performance and communicating better with the staff you manage, then you know whether they are delivering and you do not necessarily expect them in the office from 8.30 to 6.30. Moreover, many companies have finally become comfortable with the idea of staff working from home at least some of the time.

Conversely, it could also result in a reinforcement of the always-on work culture where people never truly switch off and relax, and where lives (and work) suffer because a small percentage of people’s brains is always thinking (and stressing) about work.

Searching for meaning
Certainly, millennials do want different things out of their jobs. The search for meaning, authenticity, and values is one. This is something that many believe has drifted over from the world of consumer behaviour. Twenty years ago we were happy to buy a pair of trainers that were functional, stylish, and reasonably priced. Now, on top of all this, we want our trainers to be sustainable, to demonstrate tax transparency, and to reassure us that the manufacturer is committed to the village in Indonesia where the trainer factory is located.

Increasingly, millennials expect this from employers too – today’s 20- and 30-somethings want to work in a company that makes a positive impact on the world. A 2017 survey by Deloitte showed that millennials are more likely to be loyal and stay more than five years at a business that provides charitable opportunities than one that does not (35 per cent vs 24 per cent). Similarly, they are more likely to view the impact of the business as positive (85 per cent vs 66 per cent).

These slightly softer factors spill over into the physical environment companies provide too. Juice bars and chill-out zones may be held up as jokes, but you only have to go to an office in Shoreditch or Silicon Valley to see that they are firmly rooted in reality. And where these places lead, inexorably, the rest of the world follows.

Richard Kauntze, Chief Executive of the British Council for Offices, notes that millennials are more focused on physical and mental health than their predecessors. “It’s becoming increasingly important for business leaders to consider how their buildings can embrace well-being, and therefore support the attraction and retention of talent,” he says. Your life involves healthy eating and environmental concerns and you want your employer to reflect these too.

Non-traditional employment patterns
For all this, most businesses are still arranged around teams, and most teams still need managers. So promotion does happen. But something strange may be happening here too. The thing is, millennials themselves may not want to climb what remains of the career ladder. Rather, they are much keener on non-traditional employment patterns than their predecessors – a 2014 report by the US-based Freelancers Union found that: “Millennials are more likely to freelance than older workers – 38 per cent of millennials are freelancing, compared to 32 per cent of those over 35.”

It’s not just freelancing either. Having come of age against a background of cool Silicon Valley start-ups that reflect their values, many of them want to be entrepreneurs – or some combination of the two. Today’s flexible world of work means that skilled knowledge workers can make a perfectly decent career out of working for a company two days a week, doing freelance projects on the side, and running a small business on a platform like Etsy.

This leaves many organisations with a problem, says Jane Clarke of business psychologists Nicholson McBride. They need to ensure they keep hold of the right people because increased flexibility means good people have a smorgasbord of options in front of them.

“There will always be a small percentage in any sample who are prepared to really go for it – to get to the board or make partner in a law firm,” Clarke explains. However, these may not be the people an organisation wants to retain. Many of the really talented people take one look at what is needed to get to the top and realise that they can make good money and have a far nicer life as consultants or freelancers. “So companies lose their best staff – especially women – and are left with the really ambitious people.”

Senior managers, Clarke adds, do not help themselves here. Having entered the world of work a generation before, they feel they have made the sacrifices and worked the inflexible long hours. So the idea that millennial managers might get to the top without doing this causes them resentment. “They think, ‘I’ve had to sacrifice my life, so why shouldn’t they have to sacrifice theirs?’”

Often this means that they seek to actively thwart flexible working. “They’ll schedule meetings when the flexible workers are supposed to be going home,” says Clarke. “They feel they have suffered and want those who are now coming up through the ranks to suffer too.”

Caught in the middle
The millennial managers in question, she says, can “feel caught in the middle”. They know they have been promised a modern way of working. But they also know that, to please their boss, they will have to work all hours. So they vote with their feet. Clarke suggests that in order to deal with this situation, older managers need to be reverse-mentored by younger millennial managers.

It’s also a mistake to think that millennials do not need guidance. Jane Barrett, an executive coach and author of ‘Taking Charge of Your Career’, says that even in the fluid new world of work, there can be a tacit assumption that once you join an organisation you are on a career track: “Then you discover that no one is managing your career.” Organisations, she says, need to empower their millennial staff to take charge of their own careers. It’s not a question of trying to replicate a traditional career structure, more a case of equipping staff to navigate the world of work.

Here, millennials often have many of the necessary skills. They are, for instance, terrific networkers. Again, this is something which draws heavily on technology. Younger people link prolifically and organically – and, because of the way online networking occurs, they will often form strong relationships with people who they would never meet normally.

This can often have real work benefits. Perhaps there is a problem that nobody in the team in London or Geneva knows how to solve, but one of the team has a good online connection with someone in Singapore who they chat with regularly on Twitter or LinkedIn. That person has the necessary expertise and is happy to help. Forward-thinking companies need to encourage this sort of informal, organic collaboration.

You are your network
This also plays to the idea that, in modern workplaces, a lot of power now resides in the informal networks and in spheres of influence that people create for themselves. Networks enable you to get things done, they help you to get ahead, they bring opportunities your way, and they often enable you to circumvent traditional organisational power structures. Moreover, they exist both inside and outside the company. Where once you were your job title and your place in the pecking order, now you are your network.

However, although this emphasis on the flexible, networked individual who controls their own destiny sounds great in theory, there are some real drawbacks too. Flexibility can be a synonym for replaceability and insecurity, and there is a strong argument that the ‘gig economy’ is very attractive to a super-talented minority and far less so to everyone else.

Carl Cederström, an associate professor at Stockholm Business School, Stockholm University, says that if you look at the idea that employees move every few years, this does not necessarily mean they are swashbuckling masters of their careers: “The millennial who moves after three years will be in desperate need of a reference from the employer in order to move forward – so, that employer has a pretty good grip over the employee.” Moreover, he adds: “If you’re only going to have the employee for three years, many employers might think of it as renting a car – you have no need to think about its health and well-being in the long run. You just use it while you have it.”

Similarly, although the focus on abstract values such as community involvement and nice working environments may seem like an unalloyed positive, Cederström says that “this can be a good way of diverting staff’s attention away from the fact that pay rises and promotion are not happening”.

So are millennials better or worse off than their predecessors? It may actually be too early to tell. They may be a majority in the workplace but they are still relatively poorly represented in senior positions. So perhaps the great change is yet to come and in, say, 15 years’ time, we’ll be surrounded by flexi-CEOs who work three-day weeks.

Or maybe the change will not be that great at all. It’s worth remembering that 20 years ago, we were told that the slackers of Generation X wanted a fundamentally new way to work. But today, if you have a discussion about the changing world of work, many people skip straight from the boomers to the millennials without even mentioning those who were born between 1965 and 1980. So perhaps, in 20 years’ time, we will be having the same conversation about Generation Z and the millennials will be a historical footnote.