'Hacking' Engagement

A new study finds millennials are the least-engaged demographic in the workforce, and part of the problem is that millennials tend to expect more from work and their supervisors than previous generations did. What can HR do to help meet or modify their expectations?

Monday, May 12, 2014
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If you've noticed that the age 20-ish and early 30-ish employees at your organization often seem a bit less enthused about their work than their older colleagues, you're hardly alone.

According to Aon Hewitt's 2014 Trends in Global Employee Engagement annual study, millennials are the least-engaged generation in the workforce, with engagement levels of 56 percent. This compares to 66 percent for baby boomers and 60 percent for Generation X.

Millennial engagement was a recurring topic at a recent "Hack the Experience" event in San Francisco, described by its creator as the first-ever "employee-engagement hackathon." At the day-long workshop, the 100 attendees were divided up into 12 different groups and instructed to come up with creative new ways to increase employee engagement. The best idea was then selected by a panel of judges representing area companies. came from large companies throughout the Bay Area, says Liz Kelly, who organized the event.

"We have a lot of 'hackathon' events for coders in the San Francisco area, and I thought it would be fun to apply the same loosely structured, cross-functional concept to an event focused on employee engagement," says Kelly, founder and CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based consultancy Brilliant Ink.

Many of the resulting ideas were focused on making work more interesting and understandable for millennials, says attendee Kathy Arizon, senior IT communications manager at San Francisco-based technology firm Autodesk.

"A lot of the attendees came from companies that are concerned about millennial engagement," she says.

Part of the problem is that millennials tend to expect more from work and their supervisors than previous generations did, says Courtney Templin, chief operating officer at JB Training Solutions in Chicago.

"For millenials, no news is not good news -- if they don't hear regularly from their manager on how they're doing, then they think they're doing a poor job," says Templin, co-author of Manager 3.0: A Millennial's Guide to Rewriting the Rules of Management.

Having grown up with lots of structure in their lives -- from parents shuttling them to planned daily activities to advisers and coaches giving them regular feedback -- millennials can find the less-structured atmosphere of the workplace unsettling, she says.

"Organizations need to set clear expectations and provide structure -- you can wean them from that eventually, but you do need to provide it," says Templin.

Older managers shouldn't assume that millennials have the same mindset that they did in their early to mid-twenties, says Robert McKinney, director of product management at Watertown, Mass.-based Harvard Business Publishing, which is releasing a series of products designed to help organizations retain millennials.

"Organizations tend to underestimate how different millennials are from other generations," he says. "Older managers who say millennials 'need to just grow up and mature' are missing the point: Their whole life experience is different."

Millennials, showered with praise and trophies from an early age, tend to have higher levels of confidence -- veering into a sense of entitlement -- than previous generations, he says.

Although the desire to prove one's self is hardly unique to this age group, says McKinney, "as a generation, millennials are rather over-confident -- they put themselves forward more often than other generations did."

This mindset can make it a little harder for them to be content with routine tasks such as data entry, he says. Managers can make things easier by connecting these tasks to the bigger picture.

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They can explain how data entry, for example, can be helpful for learning more about the company's customers, enabling it to provide better service and, ultimately, generate higher profits, says McKinney.

"It's providing that transparency of how your daily work impacts the team's mission and that of the entire organization," he says.

One of the ideas generated at the engagement hackathon in San Francisco could potentially help millennial employees become more independent: Career Safari, a mobile app that would serve as a kind of "FitBit" for career management, selected as the best idea by the event's panel of judges.

With the Career Safari app, users would set, design and track their career-related goals, and would have access to a project board they could use to see if someone elsewhere in their organization was looking for a collaborator with their skill set, says Dianne Faieta, who was part of the team that created it.

"This would get employers off the hook once they've provided this -- it helps employees manage their own careers," says Faieta, a career coach based in Moraga, Calif.

"For me, I thought the highlight of the event was the group dynamic in our team -- you had three generations of folks who had never met working together, with the only commonality being the interest in our subject, which was engaging employees from day one," she says.

The idea from Arizon's group, Be a Pilot, was a runner-up for first place among the 12 presentations.

"The idea is to help employees understand how they fit into their company's mission and to encourage them to initiate their own mission-related projects," she says.

Arizon says she may apply some of what she learned in helping to create "Be a Pilot" to her job at Autodesk, where she's working on a project to help the company's IT group transform its culture to one that's less risk-averse. 

Employees of all ages can feel frustrated when they don't see a link between their daily job and the big picture, she says.

"If you feel like you're just punching a time clock and then pressing buttons all day, not understanding whether or how doing this has any sort of impact, then it's hard to stay engaged," says Arizon.

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