They might be demanding, but the bright young things have much to offer
There is a fair bit of building work going on at the Manchester headquarters of technology firm Brother right now. Some 30 desks have been moved aside to make space for a coffee shop on the first floor. There will be soft seating and benches so employees can meet there throughout the day for informal conversations.
The rejigging is not some mad whim of managing director Phil Jones. It is in response to the changing demands of his employees – in particular, the group known as “millennials”, 18- to 30-year-olds who have grown up with the internet and social media and are turning the workplace on its head. Jones says: “We are shifting everybody around to create a landing space so that the entire company can be more conversational. It is being driven by the fact that the millennials … want a much more informal way of working instead of having meetings down corridors behind locked doors.”
There has been much talk about their effect on the workplace, and with good reason. While every generation has its quirks, this group has an entirely new set of characteristics, many of which are completely at odds with the way things have been done before. Louder, bolder and more confident than their predecessors, the brightest expect a stimulating work environment, a stream of interesting projects, constant feedback and fast-track career progress. They are also picky about where they work. Deloitte’s latest global survey of 7,800 of them found that 78pc are influenced by how innovative a company is when deciding whether to join it.
It’s presenting a challenge to SME leaders as they grapple with what changes to make to their business to attract these people, without losing its identity or alienating older generations. At media planning agency Maxus UK, for example, where they account for 70pc of the 250 employees, chief executive Lindsay Pattison has set up committees to give them more say in how the firm operates. She says: “They have very high expectations and they want a workplace which is fun and interactive. If you can provide an environment that gives them that, they will take on lots of responsibility and take their career quite seriously. If you don’t, the good ones will leave.”
And at communication firm Engine, where the group accounts for almost half of the 850 employees, chief executive Debbie Klein has introduced constant feedback and faster career progress. “Millennials crave regular advice and direction and they don’t want to wait for anything. We need to structure the business so that we not only hire and inspire them but also make them want to stay,” she says.
Overwhelmed SME leaders might be forgiven for wondering if doing nothing at all is an option. That would, however, be a big mistake. For a start, while millennials may sound like needy, overgrown toddlers, the brightest are also hardworking, ambitious and highly motivated.
Second, they are here to stay – and there are a lot of them. They already account for a large chunk of employees and by 2025 will make up 75 per cent of the global workforce. If they decide they don’t want to work for your business, you will soon be in trouble. As Chris Harris, partner with executive search firm Grace Blue, says: “There is a real shortage of really good people and the companies that survive will be the ones that can attract top talent by providing this new kind of environment.”
The third, more cheerful reason, is that by adapting to the needs of this group now, you will be shoring up your business for the future because many of the changes they demand will make it leaner, fitter and better able to compete. Customers are drawn to firms that are ethical, innovative and transparent and if yours can stay one step ahead, so much the better.
As Emily Dent at innovation consultancy What If says: “Millennials are here to stay and their influence will only increase as they grow up to become leaders themselves. Now it is up to you to make them feel welcome.”