Ask a manager about the most important challenges they face in today’s workplace and they’re very likely to say: “How do I manage millennials?” Defined as the generation born during 1981-1996, millennials seem like strange creatures to many people. On one hand, they seem to be all about pay packets, instant gratification, and job-hopping. On the other, they seem to cherish meaningful experiences. Given these contradictory signals, what is a manager to do, short of tearing out one’s hair and giving up?
There’s no shortage of research about millennials. They value interesting work, a healthy work-life balance, working-hours flexibility, work of high quality that develops their skills, and giving back to society. They are also realistic, need positive reinforcement, and value autonomy and diversity in the workplace. They especially cherish work that is personally fulfilling and is socially conscious. They want work that is challenging, meaningful, and allows for creativity. In other words, they have very high expectations from work. It’s no wonder that many companies are seeing astronomical turnover rates among millennials. The old rules that made their parents loyal employees need to be thrown overboard for millennials. Clearly, what’s sauce for the goose is sludge for its goslings.
There’s a way out of this seemingly hopeless mess. As researchers at the Indian School of Business (ISB), we’ve surveyed thousands of managers and have come up with a new lens for looking at the future of work. We call it beingful work. The philosophy underlying it is called ‘Beingfulness’. It is the quality of experience associated with a way of life that is true to our whole being, which in turn enables our well-being. Simply put, whole being = well-being. It’s an equation as new as positive psychology and as old as ancient Indian wisdom.
What millennials want
Beingful work is work that fulfills the needs of our whole person or being, which includes our material, psychological, social, and higher needs. Our research shows that when the workplace (better yet, workspace) aims to fulfil the needs of our “whole person”, we can be more authentic at work, and also see our work as meaningful and engaging. These, in turn, greatly improve our well-being, given that more than half our waking life is spent at work. As a prominent scholar, Prof. Dave Ulrich, a professor of business at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a leading scholar in the field of HR once put it, companies really need to “engage not only the body but the mind and soul of every employee.” Our own research shows that meaningful and engaging work accounts for more than 20 per cent of an employee’s overall well-being in life, which is large by all measures! Other studies show that employee engagement similarly adds more than 20 per cent to the company’s profitability, which is one way to measure corporate well-being.
The ideal workplace for millennials is, therefore, one that seeks to fulfil the needs of the whole person or being, including physical health, monetary, career and ambition, intellect, personality, emotions and feelings, sense of freedom, collaboration, service, desire for societal impact, connection to nature, doing the right thing, and spirituality needs. The key to this whole puzzle is to realise that seeking to fulfill these “whole person” needs will lead to positive energy, which results from positive emotions and feelings. Positive energy is to the workplace what gravity is to matter – it has an irresistible pull, and there’s no limit to it.
What managers can do
The wise manager is one who knows the many sources of positive energy at work. We create it when we are authentic, when our personal purpose is aligned with our company’s purpose, when we find our work to be meaningful and engaging, when we feel we are making a difference to someone or something we care about, when we can craft our work to our liking, when we feel we are growing through work, when we can have a life outside of work, and in hundreds of other ways. And yes, when we feel we are earning what we believe we are worth in a “red hot” marketplace.
Since millennials differ considerably in how much they emphasise each of these different needs, the most important thing that a manager could do is to get to know each of their millennial employees well and learn about what motivates them individually. A manager who thinks that a leadership style of “one size fits all” is in for a rude shock. If digital techniques have enabled today’s products and services to be customised to an individual, then why shouldn’t managerial techniques keep up too?
All this means that the primary role of a manager is that of a coach who customises her interactions keeping the person in mind. For example, Google’s Project Oxygen identified the ten most important competencies of managers. Being a coach was #1, ahead of everything else we associate with leadership skills. It appears that the best preparation a budding manager can do is to be certified as a coach! It also means that you have to lead by example. If you want to retain millennials, you first need to retain yourself — be authentic in your interactions. Millennials seem to have superpowers in sniffing out inauthenticity. They watch what you do more than listen to what you say. They’re less impressed with appearances, having watched their boomer parents often show one face at home and another outside. It’s no wonder they care about work-life balance rather than being on a work treadmill, since many of them paid the price while growing up for their parents’ work obsession. It sometimes seems that the millennials are our chickens coming home to roost!
The millennial contract
As we look at the future of work, and how to manage millennials in this future, we are in the process of creating a new implicit contract for work. It seems that this contract has evolved and grown over time with the generations that dominated work. The boomer’s parents, also called the greatest generation, focused on monetary needs and long-term employment to secure food on the table and a roof over their heads. The boomers and Gen-Xers, despite their youthful rebellion, stoked their ambition through career obsession, while still caring about money and security. The millennial contract still cares about money, but seems to have exchanged security and career obsession for meaningful and engaging work, and work-life balance. They seem also to have added social needs such as social networking, dealing with social anxiety, and making a difference to society, things that the next generation (Gen-Z) is likely to emphasise even more.
In this smorgasbord of different needs, it helps to think of the whole menu and to recognise that individuals vary widely on the items for which they come back for seconds. The concept of beingful work provides a useful lens through which millennials can be managed. Without such a lens, managing millennials could become a Russian Roulette of retention and attrition, filled with managerial miscalculations that add up to a millennial myopia.
Ram Nidumolu is Professor of Organisational Behaviour (Practice) at Indian School of Business (ISB). Sai Shubhangi Vajja is Research Associate, ISB. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)