A Perfect Storm, but in a Good Way: Millennials and the Rapidly Modernizing Workforce

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TechGenerally speaking, whenever I discover that yet another company is releasing a study on “millennials in the workforce,” I roll my eyes. Great,I think to myself. Another chance for a bunch of bored researchers to tell me about what kind of person am purported to be.

Not so with IBM’s latest report, “Myths, Exaggerations, and Uncomfortable Truths: the Real Story Behind Millennials in the Workplace.” I do not say this as a paid shill or anything of the sort: I genuinely think that, of all the millennial studies that have come across my desk, IBM’s latest is one of the most comprehensive, insightful, and — dare I say it — enlightening, even for me, a jaded millennial who is sick of hearing about myself ‘in the workplace.’

The report dives into a lot of topics — are millennials really more likely to leave their employers? Do they want constant attention and praise? Etc., etc. — so, unfortunately, I can’t touch on everything in this article. I highly recommend you read the full study for yourself.

That being said, I was able to speak with Carolyn Baird, global research leader at IBM Institute for Business Value about a few of the study’s points that I found most interesting. Allow me now to share that conversation, edited slightly for style and clarity:

Recruiter.com: The study found that millennials by and large want many of the same things, career-wise, that previous generations wanted — and yet, millennials are entering a working world that seems to be quite different from the one that boomers and Gen. X lived in (e.g., the rise of telecommuting, no more “lifelong” jobs, new technologies, a more entrepreneurial climate, new approaches to work-life balance, etc.). Will millennials need to adjust their expectations and desires to account for these changes, or will they be able to find the things they want in this new environment?

Carolyn Baird: If you think about it, when we asked the question in the survey — and we surveyed baby boomers and Gen. Xers as well — it would be like if you asked me that question today. What do I want out of my job? What do I want out of my career? I’m looking at the world that I know today and the marketplace today. I’m evaluating it today based on what my expectations are today — even though I am a baby boomer. If you asked me the same question 20, 25 years ago, I might have answered it a little differently.

The question of whether or not millennials need to adjust their expectations: I think the market today in many ways mirrors — or should be mirroring — what the millennials are looking for in the workplace, because they’re comprising the bulk of [the workforce] and will continue to do that, certainly for the next 5 or 15 years or so.

I’m actually very optimistic that, as companies continue with their own digital transformations, this is going to play very well to what millennials are looking for in the workplace … I think that, with the millennials coming on board and creating critical mass, companies can’t afford to not shift and change into a modern work environment. There are going to be a lot of older employees, too, who have wanted these changes for a long time. That was one of the key messages from the study: [baby boomers and Gen. Xers] been wanting these changes for a long time, and maybe not seeing them, but now they’re starting to come into reality.

RC: So, is this a situation where the millennials are exerting pressure? They want certain things, so employers will offer them those things, because the millennials are the bulk of the workforce. Is that right?

CB: I think so, and I also think that [millennials have] become a catalyst for the change. Some of it is empowerment, but you also have companies at exactly this time who are really, really hungry to move their companies forward, become more digital, become more collaborative, make sure that their brand is relevant to their clients and their customers, and a lot of that just has to do with modernization of the workforce.

I was going to say ‘perfect storm,’ but that seems to imply something negative. In this case, I mean it as a positive thing. Millennials are the bulk of the new employees coming in at exactly the time that companies are looking for that digital capital that a lot of millennials have. So, you have all of these things coming together at the same time. I see it as a modernization of the workforce, and a workforce that’s powered by millennials, instead of millennials actually forcing the change.

RC: The study also addresses a number of “Uncomfortable Truths.” And “Uncomfortable Truth No. 1″ states: “Employees are in the dark. Many aren’t sure they understand their organization’s business strategy — and their leaders are partly to blame.” How do we account for the prevalence of this situation, and what can we do to address it? Is this truth related to the fact that “leaders may be overestimating how well they’re connecting with their staff”? 

CB: That was one of the biggest surprises for me in the study. When we asked the question in the first place, what we were really trying to measure was, are millennials really getting the message about what’s going on with the companies they work for? We were so surprised to find baby boomers and Gen. Xers saying, “Yeah, we don’t get it either.” That was a big aha moment for us!

We found that workers — and I define workers as people who don’t have leadership or managerial responsibilities; they could be new hires, but they could also be people who have been around a little bit longer — were feeling not as confident that they understood basic fundamental business strategies. They weren’t sure what their business strategy was, they weren’t sure what their customers wanted from them, they weren’t sure of their brand promise in the marketplace, and they weren’t sure what their managers wanted from them. This is really a big deal!

I think one of the issues comes back to communication. We have some data points in the study that millennials really talk about looking to their leaders not just for information and guidance, but actually inspiration. I think that leaders really can make a huge impact — by leader, I mean it could be a leader in an organization, but it could also be someone’s direct manager. They can really make a huge impact on how well people — whether they’re new hires or not — can really feel a part of the organization. Some of it is basic information that needs to be communicated, and some of it is activities, programs, and other things they can do to help people really feel engaged.

I think what’s happening is the leaders might be overestimating how well they’re connecting with the employees … I think there needs to be a lot of work there to really help employees feel connected.

I was at an event where we presented some of these findings, and someone was saying, “It’s not like you can just have the once a year business meeting … and then think you’re done. It’s a day-to-day kind of connecting people to the zeitgeist of what’s happening in the company.

RC: Were there any other findings you wanted to mention? Things that were really surprising for you, or thing that you think are really important for people to know?

CB: The most surprising thing overall was how similar millennials, baby boomers, and Gen. Xers are. We did not expect that to be the case.

Underneath that, the one area where we saw the most differences was around decision-making. Millennials and Gen Xers: very comfortable with collaboration, very comfortable with seeking consensus. Baby boomers: not so much. The baby boomers tended to be a little more independent. When I’ve had the opportunity to talk to other people about this, and they’ve whispered in my ear and told me stories about tension in their own workplace, where they’re having struggles among the generations — when you unpack all that, when you talk to them about it and get to the root cause, a lot of times it comes down to different decision-making styles.

For business leaders, if you frame those concerns and cast it as decision-making — how we go about it, what those processes are — I think that’s an interesting way to get at some of those issues people are struggling with. It becomes less personal, and it becomes more about style, and process, and it’s something that people can work on together.

By Matthew Kosinski