How to Build a Millennial Friendly Company Culture?
A quick google search on “Millennials In the Workplace” brings up hundreds of articles and blogs that promise to help employers attract and retain the digital native workforce. While most of these materials point out ongoing trends, few of them get to the bottom of the challenge that we face in the modern workforce.
Over the last few years, I’ve done a great deal of work and research on the digital-native generation. I have studied how their mindset is shaped by the impact of technology and have identified 10 factors that drive their behaviour. In this article, I’m going to address the number one question that company leaders ask during my leadership workshops; that is how you can successfully employ and retain millennials. The answer to that question is that you need to first build a millennial-friendly company culture.
But, how do you build a millennial-friendly company culture?
Let’s start by comparing three dominant work cultures of our time. As we go through this exercise the answer to our question will unfold.
Three Dominant Work Cultures of the 21st Century
Currently, there are three dominant cultures in the 21st-century career landscape: the Corporate Culture, the Start-Up Culture, and the Influencer Culture.
The native digital generations, which include both Millennials and Gen Z, tend to shy away from the corporate culture. Instead, they are attracted to more entrepreneurial endeavours or building their personal brand on social media. That’s another way of saying that many of them dream of becoming influencers.
According to Bloomberg, British children are now more interested in becoming YouTubers than pursuing a career as doctors and lawyers. A similar trend is on the rise in the United States and many other countries. In fact, British and American children are three times more likely to want to be Youtubers over astronauts. It’s essential to appreciate why this generation is drawn to the influencer culture and entrepreneurship. If you understand what makes these attractive to them and what millennials want in the workplace, you may be able to create a culture of “intrapreneurship“ within your company and create a more millennial-friendly work environment.
So let’s take a closer look at each of these three work cultures, starting with the most established one.
The Corporate Culture
This is the oldest and most established of the three. It’s analytical, functional, textual, and logical. It’s also known to be rigid, hierarchical and somewhat competitive. You have to remember that the original architects of the corporate culture were mechanical engineers, rather than human resource specialists, or psychologists.
The origins of the corporate culture go back to the industrial revolution and the management of factories in the 1800s. More precisely, it started with an American mechanical engineer called Frederick Windsor Taylor, who became a manager in a Steel Works factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Taylor saw that many steelworkers were taking their time. In his opinion, they were not working hard enough. He wanted to increase their productivity, but back then, there were no formal methods of measuring productivity. So Taylor created his own system based on observation of how machines worked. As an engineer, he knew that in a machine, each cog was only responsible for one action which then triggered the other gears. So he started to observe the work processes in his factory, just like you would in building a machine.
He took a person’s job, say a skilled engineer, and then he broke down all of his work into smaller tasks. By doing this, Taylor was able to measure how long it took to do each task. By breaking down the work to its components, he was also able to bring in less-skilled workers to do most of the tasks. So he managed to reduce the cost of production massively and increased their output. In doing that Taylor achieved productivity, but he also shattered people’s sense of pride in the skills that they had spent years learning.
His system made the company a lot of money, but it also had an immense negative psychological impact on the workers. Taylor didn’t care about the workers, though. In fact, his favourite worker was a man called Henry Noll, who worked extremely hard and never complained. But Taylor didn’t see Henry Noll as a person. He didn’t even bother saying his name; he simply called him “Schmidt”. For Taylor, a worker was like a cog in the machine, and automaton.
Now, this story goes back nearly two centuries ago!
So, the question is:
What does this story mean to us, today?
Taylor’s methods of supervision and control became the foundations of “scientific management” theory, which shaped the corporate culture through to today.
Henry Ford was another person who had a huge impact on mechanising the work processes in a similar way. This new approach to work also dehumanised time.
Most young people don’t even know these stories, but the attributes of the corporate culture have become well known in society. It gives people a feeling of restriction and lack of freedom to express their identity or feel that they are making a meaningful contribution. These are some of the problems millennials face in the workplace today.
It gets worse:
The mechanistic structure of the corporate culture, also, meant that the WHY behind the vision of a company was lost to its employees. Once the work was broken down into its components, each person was only responsible for a narrow set of tasks. So workers became detached from the bigger picture.
People turned up every morning, performed a set of repetitive tasks, and went back home. Over time, they became disengaged with their work. They were physically there, but they were daydreaming. They were no longer mentally present at their workplace.
Now, that’s not everything:
In addition to being mechanistic, and functional, the image of the corporate workplace is associated with leaders who are often middle-aged white men.
By the beginning of the 21st Century, only 2% of executives in the FTSE 100 were women, and in the US Fortune 500 companies had only two female chief executives.
So, although many corporations are starting to think about diversity, they still have a long way to go to change that image. By contrast:
Next, we’ll take a look at the startup culture.
The StartUp Culture
The kind of startup culture that I’m talking about, here, is based on companies that were founded after the 1960s and 70s. Of course, today, we have startups of all shapes and sizes, from micro-businesses to giant tech companies like Facebook and Google.
In some ways, you could say their culture was a rebellion against the traditional corporate culture which I talked about earlier.
A few things happened after WWII that sparked this new generation of entrepreneurs and inspired them to build businesses with different sets of values and structures. Let’s take a look at a few factors that shaped the startup culture.
1- Workplace Psychology
After the war, people were trying to recover from the psychological pressures of the past decades. By then, psychology was becoming a more established discipline.
The next generation of management consultants who replaced people like Taylor started to talk about things like a worker’s sense of well-being, self-management, and autonomy.
One of the most famous management consultants of this era was the Austrian-born Peter Drucker, who coined the term knowledge worker in 1959. By this time, knowledge workers had started to occupy more positions in companies, as the majority of manual labour work was beginning to be automated.
One of the critical concepts that Peter Drucker advocated was the idea of self-management and autonomy. He believed that workers didn’t need to be micromanaged and that they could be trusted to take ownership of their work.
During the war, Drucker had observed that teams worked efficiently and sometimes even better without supervisors. Although many corporations were not as open to Drucker’s ideas, new technology-driven startups adopted some of these new practices.
Today we see that many starts up tend to be less strict with work hours and are generally more open to flexible working, allowing their staff to self regulate their hours. Arguably we owe these changes to the likes of Druker, who vouched for more flexible work culture.
2- Digital Technologies
The second factor in the development of the startup culture was the advent of digital technologies, which fundamentally changed the very tissue of the modern workplace.
In the 1980s, a former MIT computer science professor called Michael Hammer introduced the idea of “reengineering the workforce”.
He suggested using the new digital technologies to get rid of many of the middle management roles in companies
Inspired by his knowledge of computer science, Hammer suggested that companies could flatten their structure, and automate many of the tasks that were previously done by middle managers.
For the new tech startups, this was great news because it meant that they could start and operate with less overhead. Their company structures were much leaner, so they could adapt to the new digital technologies faster.
However, big traditional corporations had to go through a painful “delayering” process, which basically meant letting go of some of their staff.
But, here is the deal:
The very DNA of these corporations was based on a left-brained, analytical, and hierarchical model.
So many of them struggled to adapt to the digital age. The flatter culture of tech startups is one of the reasons why their founders are more open to being on social media and feel more accessible.
- Mark Zuckerberg recently posted a picture of him with his wife and kids all wearing matching pyjamas. Elon Musk shows his sense of humour with posts like this, a Bee wearing a hat, and Elon says “this is my pet bee, Eric”.
- Virgin’s Richard Branson regularly posts updates of him playing with his grandchildren.
- Gary Vaynerchuk shows his day to day life in his reality series “Daily Vee”.
- Bill Gates talks about what books he read on his holiday.
For leaders of traditional corporations, it’s much harder to display this level of openness and social media presence. If you want to know more about how to change this check out my article on How to Attract Millennials by Building Your Team Leaders’ Personal Brand!
We’re yet to see the directors of JP Morgan and HSBC in their Pyjamas, or the CEO of Mercedes with his pet. We don’t know who the face of Barclays is! Unless Simon Cowell qualifies! Most of these long-established corporations suffer from being faceless.
So the digital transformation has given the modern startups leverage: firstly by saving them money since they can run with a leaner and flatter structure – and secondly, by making their leaders more accessible and relatable to the younger generation. Entrepreneurship and the startup culture has also been pushed through in education, with Stanford University dating its origins in higher education to 1971.
3- Intuition and Creativity
Finally, the last factor that makes the startup culture more adaptable is its openness to intuition, emotional impact, and creativity both in the workplace and in marketing.
The first two industrial revolutions were all about mechanisation and mass production, which mainly affected the labour markets. However, the digital revolution of the 1980s and 90s has increasingly affected the knowledge workers.
Digital technologies and artificial intelligence are making it possible for many of the tasks that previously required left brain thinking to be automated. So, we now need more intuitive thinkers and people with a higher level of emotional intelligence to enter the business landscape.
Once again, this gives startups an edge over long-established corporations. Their lean structure will make it easier for them to shift their culture and adapt to this new direction. In many ways, this way of thinking is already ingrained in many startups, something that doesn’t come to long-established corporations naturally, since they originate from mechanical engineers, and the scientific management theory.
When you compare Apple with other competitor brands, for example, Apple is the embodiment of “design thinking”. It’s doesn’t sacrifice functionality, but it gives more priority to how it feels. Apple wants to appeal to your emotions, and Steve Jobs was a great example of an intuitive thinker
To this date, many traditional corporations wouldn’t be open the style of leadership that Steve Jobs personified.
The bottom line is:
Intuitive thinking, emotional intelligence and creativity are less tangible or quantifiable, which is why they may be dismissed in traditional business environments. However, as we enter the fourth industrial these qualities are becoming increasingly important.
In the meantime, a new approach to work has emerged, thanks to the virtues of the virtual wolds! It’s called the influencer culture.
The chances are that many of the young people who work in your company dream of becoming a social media influencer. Even if they don’t, so much of their behaviours and attitudes will have been impacted by this culture. So, it’s essential that you understand its influence on your existing and future workforce.
To understand today’s influencer culture, we need to look at its parent, the celebrity culture.
Before there was “celebrity”, we had a different way of describing people that were in the public eye and carried some influence in the society. We called them “renowned”. The clerics, the jurists, and the scholars were renowned.
There is a difference between celebrity and renown:
People were renowned for the office or institution that they represented. Modern celebrity, on the other hand, is a much more individualistic notion.
Modern celebrity has its roots in the industrial revolution, which made entertainment accessible to the masses. Of course, many psychological attributes go with this culture- for example, a desire for immortality. But, here, I’m looking at the relationship between modern celebrity and a history of work.
I argue that the desire for fame and recognition was a direct response to the dehumanisation of work in the industrial age.
Remember Fredrick Taylor whom we talked about earlier? He dehumanised Henry Noll, by calling him, Schmidt.
Henry Ford dehumanised and mechanised the assembly line in a similar way. The race for efficiency and mechanisation systematically tore apart the workers’ sense of worth, one skill at a time. Having lost their sense of self-worth and individual identity, people looked for a way of making sense of who they were, and what it meant to live in this modern society.
Here is an observation:
There was a tangible void in people’s lives, which became amplified after WWII. Entertainment became the answer to this void.
Bear in mind:
Modern entertainment reshaped and reprogrammed a new sense of identity in the masses. It showed them a world so magical and mesmerising and a lifestyle that portrayed happiness. By the mid 20th Century, production houses were putting millions of dollars into entertainment.
TV and radio joined the ranks, and modern show business slowly reprogrammed the masses and their sense of individual identity from the ground up. This new individuality was inspired by the image of a lifestyle that celebrities portrayed in movies, TV shows and the press. The idea of this new lifestyle of freedom and happiness enables companies to sell advertising.
Now here is where it gets interesting:
Attention turned into an arbitrage worth investing in and even manufacturing. Historically, only a small portion of the society used to appear on the silver screen. The advent of TV made it possible for more people to join the ranks. Artists, musicians, sports champions, and even newsreaders and quiz show hosts became famous.
TV brought the celebrity into people’s living rooms and made it more accessible, but it was still difficult to become famous. Someone had to give you a chance.
The internet changed all of that. Ordinary people found that they too could create and distribute content freely. The internet removed the gatekeepers of show-business. Now everyone could have a voice.
For the past century, we’ve been programmed to associate the screen with celebrities. To this date, people still associate the screen with fame, celebrity, and influence. Social media influencers portray a lifestyle that mimics those of traditional celebrities, but they feel more accessible and more real. Of course, making a comfortable living as a content creator can still be extremely difficult.
Becoming an A-Class internet celebrity can be as challenging as becoming a Hollywood star. Only a small fraction of social media influencers make it to that level.
Nonetheless, this culture is still very attractive to young people. It allows them to transcend time and space and gives them the ultimate freedom.
On the surface, the influencer culture and celebrities portray wealth and a designer lifestyle. But on a much deeper level, as we saw earlier, this culture was able to rise to prominence, in response to what you could call a crisis of individual identity in the industrial society and workplace.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously recognised that once people’s basic physiological needs of food, shelter and sex were met, they looked to fulfil their emotional needs of safety, love, esteem, and self-actualisation.
The modern millennial workplace has to put these emotional needs at the top of its agenda.
So to recap:
Here is how you build a millennial-friendly company culture and tap into millennial engagement in the workplace. Take the best of the three work cultures that we discussed here and get rid of their negative sides. I’ve put together a summary to help you achieve that.
1- Define your WHY and make sure that everyone on your team connects with it. Don’t just put up a mission statement or your company values on the wall and forget about them.
2- Build a millennial work culture, a genuinely diverse culture that accommodates people from all backgrounds and with different styles of learning and working. And address the intergenerational differences in the workplace. The native digital generations have different sets of values and habits.
3- Don’t be a faceless company. Put your leaders out there on social media. Build their personal brands and thought leadership. Allow them to have a dialogue with young people and share their perspective. Also, bring in the positive aspects of the influencer culture into your company. Encourage your team to become influencers within your organisation and your industry
4- Last but not least, prepare your team for disruptive technologies. Empower them to develop the crucial skills that we need in the age of Artificial Intelligence. These are mostly right-brain skills that require Emotional Intelligence, Critical Thinking, Contextual Creativity, and Mindfulness.
Want to learn more about the millennial mindset? Check out our other blogs.
Written by Somi Arian, Sep-2019.
Please do not copy without permission and crediting, and linking to the original blog post on this page. To book Somi Arian for speaking and workshops, please contact Lola Ortiz, at email@example.com. Visit this page to learn more about our workshops. If you haven’t already done so, watch our multi-award winning documentary “The Millennial Disruption”