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  • Dean Williamson

What does research say about millennials in the workplace?

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

Painting millennials out as different is a lot of fun. It also serves to fill out the coffers of some horse-riding millennial-whisperers, and to give bragging rights to companies who are self-certified millennial employers-of-choice ("we offer hot-desks, because millennials like to work when they want, where they want").

However, my experience in working in organisational development roles across many of our clients is mostly different from this - millennials never really seem that different as a group. Want to know the real deal with millennials, via actual research? Read on.

What does peer-reviewed research say about millennials in the workplace?

We were recently given the opportunity to come to grips with millennial's workplace expectations first-hand, by a client who employs nearly 400 of them. As usual, we started with evidence - what does "good" research say?

Our findings:

  1. There's a lot of bad research out there that drives a lot of hype. There are only a handful of good quality, peer-reviewed comparative studies about millennials in the workplace. Most 'studies' commit the research crime of assuming that the group is unique and then studying them on their own. They then attribute findings to millennials, without knowing if they are actually talking about a larger group. Independent academic research has found that millennials actually want very similar things to other generations from from their workplaces. For example, Haslam conclude that “Millennials are very similar in what they want from work. Exaggerating the minor ways in which they diverge (from other generations) obscures their commonalities.” Similarly, a meta-review of 20 studies by Costanza stated that "meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist in the workplace.”

  2. When you include all workers (not just millennials) in a study, you find that people, on the whole, want the same things from a work environment. Millennials, like other groups, want environments which promote purpose, respect, belonging, contribution, excellence, balance, opportunities for progression and acknowledgement. I know, crazy right?

"Meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist in the workplace"
young people working outside

What did our research find?

Although a small contribution by comparison, we conducted 3 focus groups with 17 millennial staff to understand their experiences of our client's workplace, and how our client could enhance their experience. Our findings largely support the research outlined above. The millennials we spoke to had very reasonable expectations of their workplace, and discussed frustrations which were in line with our other organisational development clients. It felt like we weren't talking to millennials at all - just workers.

Factors which affected the workplace experience of millennials

A list of the factors which most affected the experience of the millennials we spoke to (in no particular order):

  1. Communication (or lack of)

  2. Opportunities for development and progression

  3. Providing a great customer experience

  4. Levels of teamwork, team trust and support

  5. Feeling trusted, valued and respected

  6. Integrity, and others "practicing" what they preach

  7. Focusing on positives, not restricting feedback to mistakes

  8. Feeling heard or involved

Let's be fair to millennials

Now, I can hear all the nay-sayers howling "back in my day we weren't so entitled!" When they were an apprentice plumber, they may have received a swift kick in the rear end from their employer whenever they got something wrong, but I really think they would have preferred to have a better, more rewarding feedback system. They may have worked long hours for no pay, but they too would have preferred to go home in time for football training.

The world of work has de-stabilised, but if you can provide them conditions that will please other groups, you will likely please them as well.

And that's why we think beating up millennials is unfair. The world has changed around them, but they really aren't any different to any other employee group, or to any other group of millennials in history. They aren't more entitled (the list of what baby boomers prefer in a workplace is not different from what millennials prefer), and they don't need to be thought about differently. The world of work has de-stablised, but if you can provide them conditions that will please other groups, you will likely please them as well. Research in management and organisational development bears out that everyone's expectations of work have changed, not just millennials.

Millennials in the workplace

One last note. One of the research questions that we examined related to technology as a 'make-or-break' factor in the workplace experience of millennials. The theory was based around them being digital natives, and workplaces having to keep up with tech in order to make the workplace fit them.

Guess what? Technology wasn't a 'make-or-break' factor for millennials. The other organisational factors mentioned above featured much higher. The only time millennials referenced technology was when it got in the way of something else. For example, a number discussed the implementation of a new internal communications system, which disrupted their ability to communicate and get issues resolved. Similarly, a platform for recognition of other staff was mentioned because of the way that it was used/abused (and this was echoed in the wider recognition and feedback mechanisms of the organisation), not due to the platform itself.

So before you go running to tech to address any challenges with millennials - have a look at your organisation first. 

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