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Millennials in the workplace: The reality around the myth

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/gpointstudio)

Apparently, the millennial generation is having a growing influence on the world. This perceived influence has prompted a host of businesses to hone in on this group and attempt to examine and understand them. With 50 per cent of the world’s population being under 30 the focus on this demographic is wise, but sadly there is a woeful lack of science being applied to these investigations… and in workplaces in general. Organisations are in danger of adopting a whole new approach to their workplace environments based on mass generalisations, sweeping statements and unsubstantiated myths.   

The first challenge is that there is no specific date for this cohort; researchers tend to use the 1980s as starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years. However, the World Economic Forum has recently released its 2017 ‘Global Shapers Survey’, which encompasses the views of under-30s in 180 countries, and this study challenges stereotypical opinions about generational attitudes to work. It states that salary remains the most important criteria when considering a job, a ‘sense of purpose’ coming in at second and an ‘opportunity for career advancement’ ranking ahead of having a good work-life balance. So that’s attitudes, but what about how they’re actually working? 

Millennials are often labelled as ‘disruptors’ in the workplace, but in reality, this just isn’t the case. The question is, are millennials really challenging the way we work and most importantly, how we create, design and shape our workplaces? Maybe not to the extent we think they are. 

Leesman is the world’s largest assessor of workplace effectiveness, and we’ve surveyed over quarter of a million employees worldwide. Since the benchmarking tool’s launch in 2010, our team of independent statisticians have not derived any evidence that millennials are rebelling against typical workplace strategies. In fact, our databank’s latest research on activity-based working (ABW) – where employees can select a series of different spaces that best supports the particular activity being undertaken – reveals that millennials are, contrary to the headlines, the least likely group to work in an activity based way, and are instead the most likely to sit at the same workstation to complete their daily tasks. 

In fact, those in our database under 34 are the age group who are reporting the highest satisfaction with their workplace environments. Unfortunately though, there appears to be a fixation on workplaces not being ‘fit’ for millennials or indeed any generation beyond that - especially from those who could benefit from redesigning your businesses’ space. Granted, they aren’t functioning the way they should be for employees, but the problems go much deeper than what the usual headlines say. We constantly hear of young people’s desires for beanbags, sofas, imported grass, fashionable artisan coffee offerings and the occasional slide or swing. The thing is, we aren’t seeing the evidence to back this up. And if the recent headlines on Apple’s new campus are anything to go by, they’re not helping people work effectively or remain satisfied. Instead, our research is pointing in the direction of the real challenge – to create workplaces that are able to support a wide-range of different tasks. 

As individuals progress through their career, the number of different types of tasks that form part of their average working days starts to accumulate and become more complex and it is here that corporate workspaces are really failing. The ABW study shows that the more complex an employee’s daily work profile and the more activities they carry out, the more beneficial it is for them to work in a mobile way that utilises multiple settings and areas – not just their assigned desk or workstation. 

Employees who do work in an activity based way, in environments developed to support that workstyle, report higher levels of satisfaction and are more likely to report that the workspace enables them to work productively. 

With all this being said, the adoption of activity based behaviours in ABW spaces is woefully low, with 71% of employees stating they perform most or all of their activities at a single workstation. The data suggests that this apparent failure to adapt to surroundings could be crippling the productivity gains organisation’s thought possible. Despite commendable business intentions, employees are failing to adopt the behaviours necessary to realise the potential benefits of activity-based work models. This may merely be because the nature of their role doesn’t require them to work in a mobile way; or it could be because the physical, virtual and cultural infrastructure does not actively encourage the appropriate mobility behaviour. If activity based working can be proven to further support the diverse needs of the workforce, employers must then provide the necessary ‘support systems’ if their employees are to reap any benefit from such a transition, and this can’t just be tailored to certain generations or demographics, it needs to be across the entire workforce. 

So perhaps millennials, being the newest additions to workforces, have a much simpler activity profile than an employee who has spent over a decade at the company. Millennials only represent 25 to 30 per cent of the working population in most organisations, so designing purely for them risks disrupting the workplace for everyone else. Seeing as they are the least likely to embrace or gain from this trend of agile working, business leaders and designers alike should stop generalising and instead begin looking at how we can make workplaces better for employees of all ages. 

Ultimately, our myopic view of millennials needs to stop, particularly when we’re discussing our workplaces and the demands of millennials with regards to this - as we’re yet to see evidence to support the well-versed myths. We also need to be reminded of the fact that if sweeping statements about millennials are made, shared and sensationalised, they might appear very real,  they might even be true, but don’t assume it’s exclusive to this generation alone.  

Chris Moriarty, MD UK and Ireland, Leesman 

Image Credit: Gpointstudio / Shutterstock

Chris is MD at Leesman, the world’s largest independent assessor of workplace effectiveness. Chris is passionate about helping organisations understand the link between people and place with the data amassed.