Managing the millennial gap

The millennial generation is now entering the workplace in numbers, placing new pressures on HR, and the enterprise as a whole, to accommodate unique millennial work ethics.

South African millennials are much like their global counterparts in their approach to work, technology, collaboration and motivation, say local enterprises.

However, many of them differ from their global counterparts in that they have emerged from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and have to learn a different social etiquette as well as having to carry the responsibility of supporting extended family members.

Accenture places great focus on finding ways to engage, motivate and increase the productivity of the millennials in its workforce, says Monica Rubombora, managing director of the talent and organisational portfolio at Accenture.

With a growing number of employees born after 1990, it is important to have ongoing programmes to support this, she says.

Sandy Mohonathan, enterprise and HR lead at Accenture, says 58% of Accenture’s South African employees are aged between 26 and 35, and 11% are under the age of 25.

Rubombora says: “One thing that I’ve noticed is that with millennials, we use fewer people to do more work. They are more au fait with technology and they are using it to enhance their efficiency and enable productivity.

“They are also better at collaboration than older colleagues and because they grew up using social networks, they naturally lean to online collaboration tools to solve problems and innovate.”

Mohonathan says: “They are comfortable hunting in packs or individually and are flexible and adaptable.”

In line with global research into millennial views, Accenture has found that millennials tend to demand a good work-life integration and can easily toggle between both.

“This generation is comfortable giving their free time to work, but they are also comfortable taking time from the workplace for personal matters. Their loyalty is to themselves, and they want diverse and flexible work with the pay to go with it. They want to get promoted quickly and if companies can’t give them this they will move on.

“Their leaders have to be inspirational and aspirational, and employers need to create an environment for rapid career progress, job enrichment and inspiration. Accenture’s learning culture is aligned to what millennials want,” says Mohonathan.

Rubombora says: “Millennials tend to get bored easily. They change jobs freely to seek new challenges. We try to keep them motivated and engaged through a job rotation system that exposes them to new challenges and environments at least every 18 months. They like that.

“If they get put on the same project for two years they start getting fidgety and bored. Keeping them challenged is part of Accenture’s overall employee value proposition.”

Unfortunately, she says, this means some top performers who are excelling in a particular area may also have to be moved, because as soon as they don’t feel challenged, they are likely to leave the company altogether.

It is sometimes challenging for the HR department to persuade managers to allow top performers to move onto different assignments if they are already excelling at the current ones, she says.

Rubombora adds that in general, millennials are less risk averse than their older colleagues.

Although this may help spark innovation, it also means that HR has a role to play in closing the “emotional maturity gap” and helping educate younger employees about the benefits of calculated risk.

Mohonathan says this appetite for risk amid an increasingly complex and stressful society means that younger recruits may also be prone to mental health problems, substance abuse and reckless behaviour. HR needs to ensure that proactive processes for support and interventions are in place to assist them, if necessary, she says.

Confident and innovative
Simon Carpenter, director for strategic initiatives at SAP Africa, says: “Without being ‘ageist’, SAP is on a determined drive to hire younger people. Knowing that we are selling into companies that will soon be led by millennials, it is important for us to stay relevant.”

Carpenter describes himself as a baby boomer and works closely with a large number of generation X and millennial staff.

“There are differences between the older and younger generation —notably the level of comfort younger staff have with technology,” he says. “But basic human nature, the desire to learn and progress, is the same across the generations.”

While some baby boomers may express issues around the work approach of younger staff, Carpenter feels that enlightened baby boomers tend to want to learn from the millennial approach.

“I find myself a little in awe of them sometimes,” he says of millennials. “In general, they seem to be more confident, articulate and innovative than we were at their age. Our generation was very accepting of the rules and hierarchies. This generation seems more ready to challenge and ask questions.”

Noting the millennial emphasis on environmental and socioeconomic issues, and their demand for better work-life balance, Carpenter speculates that the millennial generation watched their parents become workaholics, climbing the career ladder at the expense of everything else and resolved not to be like the older generation.

“Earlier generations messed up a lot of things and this generation will have to fix that. We should be listening to them and helping them repair the planet,” he says.

Carpenter believes attracting and retaining millennial skills places new demands on HR.

“Diversity isn’t just about gender and race,” he says. “It is also about including a diverse group of ages in the workforce, provisioning the work environment to meet generation X and millennial needs, and ensuring that programmes providing the necessary training and mentorship are in place. The IT department also needs to support this, by enabling the enterprise social media platforms and supporting people who want to bring their own devices. If you want to win the war for talent, you must provide the best environment to attract next generation.”

James Hu (25) joined Unilever’s graduate programme in January last year and is currently a HR business partner assistant for supply chain projects. In line with what research says about millennial values, Hu says he applied for the graduate programme on the strength of Unilever’s staff, scale of operations and its sustainability agenda.

“I applied for the graduate programme because Unilever has a strong reputation as a top employer. At career fairs on campus, Unilever representatives stood out from those of other companies — I liked their young culture. They were extremely dynamic and passionate about their work,” he says.

“Then I did research and thought the scale of the company was impressive, and found that the company is also doing a lot for the environment and for society. This very much aligns with my values.”

Hu feels Unilever’s culture delivers much of what he and other millennials seek from a working environment. Money is not his top priority for job satisfaction, he says.

“Obviously, it is important, but what is more important to me is the opportunity to grow, bring my own skills and passions to the environment, and feel that my work has a positive impact.”

For example, Hu’s interests include photography and design. His management is aware of this and encourages him to use those skills to add creative elements to team presentations.

His desire to impact positively on society and the environment is fulfilled through the company’s culture of actively engaging all staff in its sustainability agenda.

He feels the corporate culture at Unilever has ensured that he — and other graduates — stay enthusiastic and fulfilled in their work.

“We have quite a young team in general, and it’s a very dynamic environment, things change all the time in the FMCG world. There is a strong mentoring programme and tremendous development focus, with a rotation based programme that allows us as young people to experience various facets of the business. Getting exposure to all the areas has been hugely beneficial for me,” he says.

Millennials in the workplace — the key differences
Numerous studies have been carried out in recent years into the millennial approach to work. Among the main characteristics of this new generation of employees are:

• They care about environmental and social-economic issues.
• They want to make a positive difference.
• They share all the time.
• Little is left confidential.
• Millennials fully integrate social media into their work and personal lives.
• They believe more strongly than previous generations in workplace transparency and ethics.
• Honest and open communication are important to millennials.
• They prefer to work for a company whose values match their own.
• They seek rapid career progression and ongoing training.
• Flexible hours and good work-life balance are as important to millennials as income is.
• They seek ongoing change and challenge, and change jobs easily.

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