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What do Millennials teach us about the future of the workplace?

By Aaron Green, 05/19/08

They're outgoing, technologically skilled, and they love a challenge. They've got a reputation for being spoiled and demanding. They are the millennials, otherwise known as Generation Y, and they are the future leaders of our institutions and businesses. Roughly defined as the population born between 1980 and 1995, with about 80 million members (a group larger than the Baby Boomers), this generation of Americans will have an enormous impact on the future landscape of the workforce. As these new employees begin flooding the workplace, we can expect organizations to respond and change in a number of ways.

Technology-driven communication
As the first generation to grow up learning computers along with the alphabet, technology comes naturally to millennials. Combine this with their ambitious nature and you'll find organizations of the future becoming more driven than ever to be on the cutting edge of new technology. Millennials are very comfortable with electronic communication like texting, instant messaging, and online networking and will use that familiarity to further communication efficiency. They will urge their organizations to implement video conferencing, new computer software, advanced phone systems, and the like. Their older colleagues will find themselves opening up to and learning new forms of communication.

Focus on teamwork
Critics of Gen Y believe that their dependency on their parents during youth would create friction and lack of responsibility in the workplace as adults. This concern has been proven unwarranted. In fact, millennials are superior team players. Whatever they supposedly lack in independence, millennials make up for with a high level of aptitude for working in teams. From soccer camp to student council, they've been taught the importance of working in teams from day one and they will bring these values into their places of employment. Gen Y'ers are known to be social and outgoing, and these characteristics have brought teamwork in the office to a whole new level.

Integration of social networks with business
Coming from colleges and universities where there was a built-in community and social network, millennials are looking for the same experience at their workplace. They want to be part of a community at work not only to socialize, but also to help each other out. This can be a win-win for companies and employees: socializing at work makes employees happier and networking helps them solve problems and do their jobs better. Businesses can benefit by establishing and growing mentor, training and specialized peer group programs.

Acceptance of diversity Most millennials grew up in an educational culture of acceptance, and were taught to celebrate differences among people. Having diverse social circles and networks is second nature to millennials. As a result, the future workplace will inherit this nature. In general, diversity is a fact in for the future of any organization. While most progressive organizations have a built in diversity strategy to handle the changing workforce, the immersion of millenials will only further the inclusive workplace culture trend.

More flexibility in the workplace
In addition to desiring the freedom and flexibility of virtual offices, many millennials also want to forego inflexible long hours and spend time outside of work focusing on their personal lives. While this is certainly a cross-generational concern, millennials - compared to other generations of workers - are more vocal about demanding flexibility in the workplace. Expect to see a shift in the workplace that de-emphasizes face-time in the office and puts the focus on completing assignments and getting the job done without being tied to specific hours.

Global solutions
Generation X'ers looked to libraries and encyclopedias for their school reports, but millennials could reach across cultures and continents with the click of a button. Exchanging information with students from other parts of the world is very common for Generation Y students. This heightened connection to other cultures, not to mention bilingualism, will lend itself, more than ever, to a modern workforce that embraces collaboration with people in other parts of the planet. The end result will be more outsourcing of services to companies overseas and otherwise seeking resources internationally.

Priority on social responsibility
Millennials were brought up with an enhanced focus on volunteerism and a culture of giving back. Young employees want to work for an organization that is socially responsible and aware. Corporate cultures will continue to see an upswing in altruistic efforts, including support of community events, donations to charitable causes, and environmental best practices. Millennials are attracted to and retained by companies that prioritize these efforts.

Investment in development
Critics argue that Millennials, as a result of having been told "you're special" to an excess growing up, are self centered and demanding. The truth is much to the contrary; their parents' mantra perpetuated a sense of self confidence and the desire to find their own unique talents. While it is true that this generation of workers expects a lot of their employers, they also want to give a lot and they thrive on being challenged. Accommodating the egos of millennials may seem daunting, but employers should realize that they will reap the benefits of their efforts when they invest in the development of these young workers. Millennials are talented, ambitious, and driven people who are used to a lot of positive reinforcement and who focus tremendously on education. Furthermore, they are eager to learn, particularly from Boomers and X'ers who have the expertise they want to acquire. Companies that invest in mentoring, training and development programs will get the most from their millennial workers. In turn, as millennial workers become leaders, the emergence of mentoring and development initiatives within organizations will become more prevalent. The confidence that the "you're special" message perpetuates will advance a unique generation of mentors and leaders in the workplace of the future.

The millennials will have an impact at work, that much is certain. Many of the changes they institute will drive our workplaces forward in positive ways. By harnessing the input from this generation, employers and managers can help shape the future of our workplaces.

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