According to Pew Research, Millennials now make up 35 percent of the U.S. labor force, making them the largest generation represented in U.S. workplaces.
In 2017, more than 56 million Millennials were either employed or looking for work, compared to 53 million Gen Xers and 41 million Baby Boomers.
Millennials are a critical and growing portion of the American economy, but they often get a bad rap when it comes to the workplace. You can’t log onto social media or read a business publication without seeing some sort of piece about how Millennials are demanding more office perks, are unwilling to conform with the business status quo or are changing their business environments for the worse. But this reputation may be undeserved, and actually represent something quite normal – a new normal.
As each generation enters the workforce, they tend to redefine the way business operates – and weather criticism for it. Boomers faced similar challenges when they joined the Greatest Generation in the workplace. Gen Xers still have a reputation for being too cynical. Generation Z is only now entering the workforce in large numbers, so their impact has yet to generate any defined stereotypes.
While Millennials aren’t the workplace pariahs some would suggest, they do have certain characteristics that need to be taken into consideration. In fact, according to a Gallup poll, only 29 percent of Millennials are engaged at work, and fewer than 40 percent are “thriving” in their current roles. This is leading to incredibly high turnover, with 60 percent of Millennials considering leaving their current employer and 21 percent changing jobs in the past year. The cost of Millennial-specific turnover to businesses? An alarming $30.5 billion annually.
In Businessolver’s third annual State of Workplace Empathy Study, we took a look at the state of the American workforce to better understand what drives employee engagement and retention across the generations. This year’s study shows that the key to recruitment, engagement and retention particularly among Millennials isn’t a decked-out break room or free food: It’s workplace empathy. In fact, more than 80 percent of Millennials surveyed say they would leave their current employer if the workplace became less empathetic, or if they were given a job with a more empathetic organization.
We know exhibiting empathy to Millennial employees is important, but what does it mean in practice? We believe there are four key ways specifically to use empathy to engage – and retain – Millennial employees:
- Understand what drives them: To successfully show empathy to any employee group, you have to be aware of where they are in life, what challenges they’re generally facing in and out of the office, and what they value most. This means understanding their priorities and what milestones they’re experiencing. For Millennials, they value financial security, community engagement and active social lives; they are now buying their first homes, starting a family and becoming mid-level leaders in their organizations. Walking a mile in another’s shoes might sound quaint, but it still holds true today. Understanding what motivates a Millennial allows leaders to structure tasks, communications and career pathing based on the employee, resulting in a higher likelihood that they’ll be more engaged– and therefore more likely to stay with – the organization.
- Harness the power of – but don’t rely on – technology: Millennials are, understandably, often thought of as the most technologically advanced generation. They grew up with smartphones and haven’t lived in a world where access to the Internet wasn’t a possibility. But research shows that we often make assumptions about how much they want to use technology as a replacement for human interaction in the workplace. In the State of Workplace Empathy Study, Millennials were actually the least likely to rate virtual or digital tools as empathetic. They value face-to-face interactions as the way to show empathy, and more than 60 percent worry that artificial intelligence and similar technological advances could negatively impact their ability to connect with their coworkers.
This flies in the face of what we assume about Millennials, and it means that leaders need to offer various channels for communication and not rely exclusively on technology. Communicating in an empathetic way (i.e., through the channels and in the manner that the employee wants) can better engage employees in the conversation and make them feel truly heard in the workplace.
- Redefine flexibility: Across the State of Workplace Empathy Study, all groups agree (nearly 9 in 10 respondents) that flexible working hours, taking time off for family or medical issues and supporting personal working styles all exhibit workplace empathy. But similar to technology use described above, assuming there’s a “one-size-fits-all” approach to flexibility can be problematic. Some employees may desire the opportunity to leave a few minutes early to make after-school pick up, while others may appreciate the ability to hold meetings outside for some fresh air and inspiration. Understanding employees’ definition of flexibility and what’s a priority to them in creating a flexible work environment is incredibly important to reap the engagement benefits of an empathetic workplace.
- Offer training and feedback: According to the State of Workplace Empathy Study, 85 percent of Millennials (more than any other age group) believe that empathy skill development is valuable for an organization. Millennials are skeptical that empathy can be learned (only 65 percent say it can be, compared to 75 percent of Gen Xers), but they’re willing to take part in – and think it’s important for their organizations to adopt – training that deals with empathy. Millennials also value face-to-face meetings and are looking for feedback from their managers in those meetings. A study by Gallup found that only 21 percent of Millennials meet with their managers on a weekly basis. That’s a troubling statistic for a generational group that has made it clear they greatly value personal interaction. Meeting regularly with Millennial employees to discuss work or provide feedback is a critical piece to exhibiting empathy and keeping them engaged in their jobs.
Ultimately, smart business leaders understand that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The generations and their preferences may evolve, but what doesn’t is the desire to be heard, understood and supported at work.
Millennials, like other age groups in the workplace, appreciate office perks. But beyond free lunches and spa days, they seek an employment experience that is supportive of their motivations and priorities. As Millennials have become the largest generational group in the U.S. workforce, it’s more important than ever to keep them engaged in their jobs.
Savvy employers are realizing the power of this generation and are working to retain them in their positions for longer. It turns out, using a little bit of empathetic communication and best practices – not avocado toast and time off, as those Internet memes might have you believe — might just be the key.
Dive into the 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Study and check out our results below.