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Jeanne Meister, partner, Future Workplace

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Interview by Joseph Coombs, SHRM Workplace Trends and Forecasting Specialist 

Job security and compensation are traditionally among the most frequently cited factors in determining employees’ job satisfaction. What else would you say is becoming equally important for workers’ happiness on the job, and why?

Future Workplace just completed an online survey in May 2012, titled “Multiple Generations @ Work.” The survey probed the expectations and needs of multiple generations of 1,189 employees and 150 managers. The generations that were included in this online survey were Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976), Millennials (born between 1977 and 1997) and Generation 2020 (born after 1997).

There were several findings on the range of expectations employees have for employers. One of the most interesting was this: When knowledge workers and managers were asked, “What makes an attractive employer?” workplace flexibility ranked the highest and, for employees, trumped competitive compensation and career progression. For all generations of knowledge workers, 35% cited workplace flexibility as their top priority in vetting prospective employers. For Millennials, this increased to 39%. Interestingly, managers underestimated the importance of flexibility in the workplace.

Also of interest, we looked at our research data from the point of view of Millennials and Generation 2020 (this included a sample of nearly 650), and we found a new set of benefits of interest to the youngest members of the workforce. These new benefits include 1) the ability to share my ideas in the workplace, 2) the opportunity to work for an organization whose values match my own, and 3) the assistance from my employer to build my financial literacy skills and help pay off student debt.

This last benefit is extremely interesting, as the amount of student debt in the United States has reached $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt in this country. As prices soar, a college degree statistically remains a good lifetime investment, but it often comes with an unprecedented financial burden. This is a significant issue, as the recent data shows that nearly one in 10 borrowers of student loans who started repayment in 2009 defaulted within two years, and this rate is double that in 2005.

Your book, The 2020 Workplace, discusses the effect that social media has had on talent management. What are the benefits--and perhaps any drawbacks--that Twitter, Facebook and other mediums have brought to the workplace?

The book examined myriad ways companies are using social media inside the enterprise. First, it is important to note that a small percentage of business leaders are using social media today (micro-blogging, internal social networks and wikis). According to a survey of 3,500 business leaders conducted by Deloitte, only 18% believe social business is important to their organization today, but 63% say it will be important to them in the next three years.

There are many ways the “early adopters” to social business are using social media inside the enterprise, including:

-- Recruiting and outreach. The U.S. State Department, for example, has more than 295,000 followers on Twitter and is using it to not only recruit new prospective employees, but also to involve senior-level executives in a series of outreach discussions. For example, Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine recently held a Twitter Q&A to answer questions on everything from exchange programs in Pakistan to who inspires her (answer: her children). In addition, Secretary of State Senior Advisor for Innovation Alec Ross spoke to 100 European Union public diplomacy professionals in Brussels recently, where he underscored the importance of social media. One point both executives emphasized was that social media is a place for listening and discussing, not just talking.

-- Employee learning. Procter & Gamble recently deployed a social learning platform called “PULSE” to its 130,000-plus employees to connect people to people, enable learning across geographies and provide a venue for knowledge sharing. P&G is just one example, and the company joins a range of others that are using a social learning platform to reimagine and reinvent learning to be more social, personalized and visual across the enterprise. Other early adopter companies across a range of industries include Deloitte, McAfee, Telus, Unisys, Cerner and Neiman Marcus.

When we query participants in our “Social Learning Boot Camp” on the benefits and barriers of using social media inside their companies, the benefits noted by these early adopter companies include knowledge sharing, increased productivity and expertise location (i.e., being able to quickly find experts to solve immediate problems). Interestingly, the barriers noted included the culture of the organization, a lack of understanding among senior management and a lack of training on how to reasonably use social media inside the organization.

What are employers doing wrong today in terms of their efforts to retain top talent?

Employers must develop a better understanding of what motivates employees to stay with a company, in other words, what are the key levers of attraction so top talent decides to stay rather than jump ship? And this is a particularly important issue for companies recruiting and trying to retain top Millennial talent.

In the book, The 2020 Workplace, by the year 2020, Millennials will represent 50% of the workforce, and they will soon outnumber Generation X predecessors, particularly in parts of the world where birth rates are low, such as Japan, Korea and parts of Western Europe. Millennials are already focused on how they can learn and develop faster in the workplace. I like to call them “the learning generation,” since access to training and development and career progression are top criteria for staying with an employer. I see five efforts employers can start to retain top Millennial talent:

1)     Workplace flexibility and work/life balance. These are often more important than financial rewards. This generation is personally committed to learning and development, and this often is their first choice benefit from employers. So employers need to re-examine their investment in learning as well as their modes of delivery. After all, Millennials are asking for what all of us want in the workplace: the opportunity to have flexible schedules and learn when and where we want to.

2)     Immediate performance feedback. The annual performance review will slowly be replaced by immediate and often web-based tools to deliver real-time feedback and peer reviews. The companies that are early adopters to this are those with large populations of Millennial workers, such as the professional services firms and technology firms, where feedback on performance happens each day.

3)     Moving up the career ladder faster. Career progression is a top priority for young professionals, and in our “Multiple Generations @ Work” survey, Millennials and members of the Generation 2020 ranked the opportunity for career progression higher than competitive compensation.

4)     Using power of corporate social responsibility (CSR) to retain talent. Millennials are attracted to employer brands they admire as consumers. A Cone Communications study of 1,800 Millennials found 88% were looking for employers with CSR values that matched their own. So if a company has an extensive CSR program, this needs to be touted in recruiting and reinforced in daily communication to employees.

5)     Life skills training offered by employers. In our “Multiple Generations @ Work” survey, we found that life skills training was becoming increasingly important, and employees are viewing this as something employers should be offering to them. Key topics for life skills include financial literacy, health and wellness and language training.

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