Six Unwritten Rules for Motivating Millennials

Thursday 23 April 2015
They operate to a new set of workplace rules, so why would you even think of using old-school leadership styles and management techniques when trying to motivate millennials?

This week, the recruitment industry’s big guns gathered in north London, including: Graham Palfery-Smith, the serial CEO who floated HW Group; Ann Swain, CEO of the Association of Professional Staffing Companies; CXC MD Michelle Reilly; recruitment entrepreneurs Dan McGuire, Guy Rubin and Jamie Woods, and others.

Conversation was dominated by how to manage millennials - the digital natives born after 1980. Opinion was raw and divided. This generation will make up 75% of managers by 2020 and, while some of this forum love their hyper-flexibility, always-on connectivity and deep technical understanding, others said millennials can sometimes be shambolic, and easily distracted.

How best to motivate and engage them? According to this group, many old rules no longer apply.


1. Give Them Tech and Let Them Share

Millennials have an instinctive understanding of new technology. They use it everywhere. Yet many organisations still provide clunky devices or, worse, limit access to technology. Madness. Instead, try turning millennials’ technical nous to your benefit. “Challenge them to come up with new ways to streamline processes and to exercise creativity,” was one of the recommendations made in PwC’s How to Manage the Millennials report.

With technology comes a willingness among millennials to share, mix and collaborate. And they expect a similar openness and clear feedback from their managers. This isn’t a generation that will be satisfied with an annual appraisal.

2. Let Them Do Side Gigs

Few millennials expect to have a job for life, and it’s likely they’ll be comfortable with holding down several jobs or projects at once. So play to this natural entrepreneurialism, encourage them to work on side projects. They’ll learn more by doing so, and you’ll earn their gratitude. Ann Swain of APSCO says, pithily: “you don’t own their talent. It’s theirs, not yours.” Michelle Reilly, UK MD of CXC Global actively encourages her own team to take time out for volunteering. Playing to this theme, the Conservative party election manifesto vows to “make volunteering for three days a year a workplace entitlement for people working in large companies and the public sector”.

3. Let Them Work to Their Own Rhythms

Cube19 founder Dan McGuire had a persistent late arriver in his workplace analytics business; the problem was, it was one of his top people. First, McGuire tried shifting his office opening hours from 08.45 to 9am. That worked for a few days but then Rex (not his real name, but he knows who he is!) started rocking up even later. In the end, Dan gave up and instead introduced a totally flexible regime: the team now has to do 35 hours, but they basically decide when they get the job done. “My CTO prefers working at night, and is more productive then,” says McGuire, so the new system works well for him. (Note that in some companies, you can lose flexible working privileges if you don’t hit targets or follow the rules.)

In a variation on this theme, some companies tie flexibility to tenure, so that you earn the right to work flexibly over time. In others, people can earn a regular “work from home” day if they hit targets; this goes down particularly well among working parents. Any employer who’s tried out such models will tell you that everyone works more than the allotted hours. None of my sample have, though, yet moved to the Netflix-pioneered unlimited holiday rule, but this’ll surely arrive in the UK soon...

4. Money Isn’t Everything

What’s the best tool for incentivising millennials? Sure, money works, but it’s by no means the only way. Try mini-incentives such as allowing people to come to work in casual clothes or, as above, get work-from-home allowances. Back in the day, companies used to dish out crystal glasses to high performers and, often, lovely products still trump cash. “Young, aspirational people will often choose a nice product over and above cash,” says Palfery-Smith. “With cash, you’ll probably feel that you’ve got to use it to pay off your credit card bill,” said Dan McGuire. CMI research last year found that nearly half (45%) of young workers would choose workplace flexibility over pay.

5. Make Work Fun

Staff parties are as old as the hills. Because they work. For millennials, work and fun often overlap; they’ll network and socialise with work colleagues. Michelle Reilly at CXC Global has a legendary annual shindig, to which her whole team is invited. The party is so good that she deliberately sends out the invites months in advance, knowing that people are less likely to leave the business and, thus, miss the party. Reilly also opens up the staff bar on a Friday afternoon. These are the kind of gestures that could mark out your company vs the competition. “It’s all about how many stories your team are going home with to tell their mates,” says Jamie Woods at JCW. Online collaboration tools like Slack and Yammer, while they need strong user protocols, can add to an organisation’s openness and sense of fun.

6. Give Them Lunch

In many tech companies, lunch is on the house. Sure, it costs - and it’s a hard perk to ditch once you’ve been providing it for a while - but it has powerful effects. First, it keeps people in the office and generally they’ll take a shorter break than they would if they have to go out to grab a sandwich. It also provides a focal point to the day when team members can talk to others they wouldn’t normally bump into. And you can at least be reassured that your people are getting one decent meal a day. That’s a non-trivial consideration, particularly with devs and engineers.