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Managing millennials in the workplace

It was the last stage of a recent interview to recruit a young and enterprising employee for a travel management company. There were three shortlisted candidates for one vacant position.

One of the candidates, 25-year old Linda (not real name) had an impressive resume. Apart from her good grades, Linda had been involved in and led a good number of student activities, and had tried her hands at two entrepreneurial start-ups, post-NYSC. Halfway through the interview, the panel was sold on her self-confidence, deep insights and drive. We were about to sign off and sign her in when I decided to ask one last question: “Where do you see yourself in the next five years?”. Her response was far from what we expected, “Really sir in the next five years, I hope to have completed my MBA (full-time) and started my own business. Actually, I plan to stay two years in this company if you gave me the opportunity”.

There are many young people in the workplace today who are like Linda. They are called Millennials, born between 1982 and 2000 and may be further categorised into young and old. Young millennials were born between 1990 and 2000 (18 to 28 years), and many in this age bracket are single and carefree, and usually very mobile. The older category is those born between 1982 and 1989 (29 to 36 years). They are less adventurous, constrained by decisions of relationships and of starting new homes. It is estimated that 50 percent (some say 75 percent) of the Nigerian workforce will be made up of millennials in 2020. Managing millennials have become one of the most challenging tasks in workplaces today.

Older managers, many of whom are Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1965) and Generation X’s (1966 to 1981) simply do not know what to do with these young and seemingly unconventional species of workers. They perceive millennials as arrogant, insubordinate, impatient, too inquisitive, lazy, unorganised and careless. Others believe they have an entitlement mentality, hate to be coached, have little or no regard for rules and policies and are generally unsteady.

Despite this negative perception, many business owners and managers agree that millennials are an asset rather than a liability to the workplace. In a recent survey, participants at the Owner Manager Programme at Lagos Business School were asked to tick “true” or “false” to the following statements:

  • “Millennials are a great asset to my team and my organisation”
  • “If given a choice I would rather work without millennials in my workplace”

A 100 percent of respondents ticked “true” to the first question, and “false” to the second question. So if millennials are indeed an asset, how then can we best engage them in the workplace?

The first step is to seek to understand who millennials are, what drives them and what they really want out of work and life. Millennials are young and enterprising, but that is not all. They are fast learners, digital natives, natural networkers and multi-taskers. They are ambitious, sometimes to the extent of being restless, they are opposed to office bureaucracies that inhibit progress, and they usually put achievement before financial reward. They naturally crave to be recognised, but before that, they relish challenging and sometimes impossible tasks. This is because they are driven by a sense of accomplishment and being part of a big breakthrough.

Millennials bring to the workplace new forms of relationship. Because they are assertive and have grown up as kids challenging their parents, they care less about hierarchy and would rather have their managers treat them as friends and colleagues rather than as subordinates or juniors. They also bring bright and innovative ideas to the workplace, which sometimes challenge the status quo.

Engaging millennials in the workplace can be easy if we understand what drives them. Because they are natural networkers, one sure way to get the best out of them will be to involve them in tasks that require collaboration; both physical and virtual.

Another way is to introduce flexibility and telecommuting at work. Flexibility is usually useful to the older millennials who need work-life balance to manage their young families. What you need is to put in place a proper feedback and performance management system to discourage abuse.

To get the best out of a millennial, business owners and managers need to place relationship before role.

Millennials also need to be coached and mentored as many are new to the corporate environment. However, the manager must be ready for reverse-mentoring, as millennials can bring up better and faster ways of solving old problems, so they need to know that their ideas count. Finally, millennials are not your typical candidates for long service awards. Their restlessness and sense of adventure will not permit that.

We gave Linda that job though she told us she was going to stay just two years with the company. Were we right? What do you think?

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