What Employers Can Learn From Millennials

By Christina Folz Jul 27, 2016

It's a tale as old as time: Middle-aged and older adults kvetch about the next generation and speculate on what this world is coming to. Business author and consultant Jamie Notter recently shared a reference to young adults' lack of respect for elders and poor work ethic—from the ancient Roman philosopher Cicero.

"Every 20 years, a new generation comes into the work world as adults, and we all freak out about it," says Notter, who co-wrote the book When Millennials Take Over (Idea Press, 2015). As the largest living generation, Millennials (those younger than 35) have perhaps borne more than their fair share of scorn.

"We are really mad about how many trophies they got," says Notter, who is a member of Generation X and founding partner of WorkXO LLC. "We're constantly saying they don't get it, they don't know how to work in the real world." In truth, however, they likely understand more about the future of business than others, given that they are shaping it. "They have a lot to teach us," Notter maintains. "We need to shift conversation away from complaining and more toward being curious."

For their book, Notter and co-author Maddie Grant researched organizations that had alignment with the Millennial approach to business. These companies tend to be:

Digital. This is about more than technology. It's a philosophy based on the concept that software must work for the user—by being customizable and constantly updated. "We need to bring that mindset into leadership and business," Notter says. The American Society for Surgery of the Hand, a Chicago-based organization with about 20 employees, shaped its whole enterprise around the needs of employees rather than management—by letting people wear what they want to work, for example—and the organization has experienced off-the-charts engagement as a result.

Clear. "It's not just transparency for transparency's sake," Notter says. "It's about making things visible in order to improve the quality of decisions that get made." Menlo Innovations, a technology firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., pairs two software designers at a single workstation; one comments on the code as the other is writing it, and each pair's tasks are posted on a wall so they know what is expected at all times. "They charge more than competitors and still have people lining up," Notter says. "The product is that good."

Fluid. The hierarchy is still there, but everyone is actively engaged in the organization's mission. At Quality Living Inc. in Omaha, Neb., a rehabilitation facility for people with brain and spinal cord injuries, there is a standing rule: No matter where a person is on the organization's hierarchy, he or she must connect decision-making to the hopes and dreams of the patient. "For this to work, you need to be crystal clear on what defines success," Notter says.

Fast. All the organizations Notter and Grant studied were agile and quick—in part because employees are trusted to make choices themselves. At Menlo Innovations, for example, "decisions get made without e-mail and boring status update meetings," Notter says.

Instead, employees communicate and resolve issues using something Notter referred to as "high-speed voice technology."

In other words, they talk to each other.

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.

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