What Makes Millennials Happy?

While finding fulfillment at work is not a new concept, millennials are bringing new values that are forcing companies to rethink how they can make workers happy.

Did you know happy is the new edgy? How about that keeping millennials happy is now its own genre of management training? I’m all about happy millennials (food works, folks), and as happy as I am that management is taking our needs into consideration, I was surprised by the push to put this on everyone’s agenda. Did we talk about this when Gen X entered the workforce? Should Gen Y be happy just to have a job? I interviewed Sean Brennan, senior strategist and envisioner at innovation design consultancy Continuum, to find out what companies can do to actually make their employees happy — beyond the pingpong tables — including things that wouldn’t occur to most companies, like how their back of house digital operations function and why millennials’ happiness is such a priority these days.

Why is having meaningful experiences and feeling fulfilled by work so important to millennials? Was it the same for previous generations?

Brennan: Millennials are a generation raised on the idea that we’re special. I should know — I’m one of them. We were told that if we followed our dreams we could be or do anything. I could be president if I wanted. So, having meaningful experiences at work seems like something we’re entitled to. Sean Brennan, Continuum

And really, all we have are our experiences. Well, those and a ton of student debt. Millennials are the first generation expected to do worse financially than the generation before — without extra money, we use experiences to define who we are. Work is a big part of our lives, so it should be meaningful, and we want to be proud to link ourselves to what we do. Self-identity, both online and in real life, is a guiding force for Gen Y.

How things look and feel matter. On the surface, this might seem shallow, but we came of age in the Apple era, when how a device was designed was as equally important as what it did. We’re transferring the same expectations we have for product and service experiences onto other areas of life.

In today’s climate of constant change and a focus on innovation, we need to kill the idea of work-life balance — it’s time to embrace work-life merge. What we really need is a job that can blend in with our lives (and values). Since the people who don’t turn their brains off when they walk out the door arrive at the best solutions, employees should be passionate about their jobs, for their benefit and the benefit of their employers.

Is it a leader’s responsibility to make sure a millennial is happy at work? I don’t think this was on leaders’ minds 20 years ago. Some older leaders might be frustrated by this.

Brennan: It is a leader’s job to keep millennials engaged — since they will comprise the majority of employees very soon. By 2015, they will comprise 75 percent of the workforce.

Talented millennials know that a company needs them more than they need the job.

We’ve created and perfected our own way of doing things and we expect companies to adapt to us, not the other way around. We aspire to be visionaries, and visionaries don’t compromise. 

Too harsh on the people we work with? So was our idol, Steve Jobs. Not the most dynamic presenter? Neither is Mark Zuckerberg, and that’s part of what earns him geek cred. Millennials grew up admiring a business elite who broke the rules, embraced their flaws and disrupted our industries. We may not be starting our own companies just yet, but we want to be part of one that encourages us to be who we are — the good and the bad.

Any engaged employee will naturally have a point of view on how things could be better. So let us say so, and then hold us accountable. Create a culture where feedback is solution-focused and not about whining.

Gen Y is specifically fluent with new technologies, and will be happy to give you feedback on how to make your systems better. Doing that is a real challenge, because updating enterprise systems is a huge investment. But these are opportunities to change the system and enlist your employees into improving your model.

How can organizations make their employees happy? What do workers, especially millennial workers, want from work?

Brennan: To earn their respect, trust and admiration, tell Gen Y employees what’s up with you, your business and their work performance. Don’t talk in buzzwords. Be honest. If a 10 percent revenue increase means the company can hire another employee, tell us that. It will make us feel included (or, to put it another way, special) and also give a larger context for what’s going on. It will give us motivation to succeed, because by telling us what’s going on, you’ve demonstrated that we’re valuable employees whose hard work is needed.

Aside from wanting flexibility and the right tools to do our jobs, millennials, constantly connected and unafraid to seek help when we need it, are the ultimate collaborators, so why not hire a high-functioning team rather than an individual? Let new employees experience your culture with buddies who they already know (and know how to work with). They might even move in with each other and carpool. A study at Carnegie Mellon found that groups of students who conversed easily did better work than groups stacked with super-smart individuals. Personal intelligence wasn’t correlated with group performance.

What organizations are doing this well?

Brennan: Smart companies let their employees get obsessed — we all know about Google’s 10 percent time for employees to pursue whatever they want. But really, figure out how that translates to your business. Understand that each unique Gen Yer has a unique process that they’ve cultivated for themselves. And that great, innovative work comes out of obsession. Carve out time for people to get obsessed with their work and to get it done in their own way, following their own processes, experimenting and sharing back.

Ikea is one organization that is taking care of front-line employees by raising its minimum wage— they’re helping Gen Y financially and also responding to a trend we’re seeing often in our work, that an engaged workforce will deliver better customer experiences.

One of Airbnb’s investors told them not to mess up their culture, and they are also keeping Gen Y engaged by leading by example, knowing the way leaders treat their employees will trickle down to how employees will engage with clients. To keep up engagement and embrace work-life merge, they offer biweekly workshops led by employees on topics they’re interested in, like bike maintenance or how to play Catan. One employee there told me they are “fed twice a day and given endless snacks,” giving them “lots of ways to participate [with] very few obstacles.”

Organizations that are focusing on employee experience are seeing that their workforce is increasingly made up of Gen Y talent. Keeping them interested and engaged is a major responsibility facing leadership today, but a worthy investment in the future of their companies.