Top 5 Tips on Managing Millennials

Managing millennials is not like managing other cohorts. While baby boomers thought of themselves as a spirited generation, coming of age in the 1970s, they largely fit into the 9am-5pm, white picket fence, professional in the grey-flannel suit world that their parents built. Likewise, generation Xers were already in college when personal computers came into use and cell phones did not exist at all, gasp. Millennials have grown up without baby boomer boundaries and without contemplative, pre-technology, private time. How then does one relate to and, more importantly, manage millennials?  Here are five tips:

1. Be flexible on the work hours. Millennials will not be constrained by 9am to 5pm work hours; they work best on a flexible schedule. I have millennials who arrive to work at 6am and depart at 3pm, only to then go home and work half the night at a co-working space. I know because I get their work product in my inbox at all hours of the day and night.

I have tried to bring order to this “flexible schedule” because we work in government, an industry that is particularly sensitive to accusations of no-show jobs and “lazy bureaucrats.” But part of being a good manager is recognizing your staff for who they are and who they are not. Millennials are hard workers, but they are not 9am-5pm employees, so be flexible on their work hours.

2. Don’t sweat the wardrobe. Millennials are not the professionals in grey-flannel suits; they don’t like wearing suits. They prefer what was once called “business casual,” which now seems to be “standard business” attire. They make up for this relaxed aesthetic, or so they think, with fancy socks (in the case of men) or trendier clothes (in the case of women).

It used to drive me crazy because I was one of those people who wore the acceptable, but boring grey, blue or black suit. But it wasn’t just our suits that were prescribed, it was heels, hose and hair. When I was in law school, I spent the summer at the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan. It was hot and the commute was miserable. One day I wore a pair of open-toe shoes and no nylons, and an older female lawyer chided me for it. Then, I thought that she, and everyone like her, was deeply misguided. Is wearing an open-toe shoe such a breach of professional conduct that you dismiss my work product as unprofessional also? Ridiculous. Clothes do not make the work product, so don’t sweat the wardrobe. As long as they aren’t coming into the office in yoga pants and cut-offs, you should be able to get work done.

3. Let them be heard. I was sitting in a crowded, stuffy conference room in the New York City Comptroller’s office for a meeting on “green” building bonds. At some point in the meeting, our host asked everyone to introduce themselves and say a little bit about themselves. Everyone at the table had an impressive resume with decades of experience. They spoke briefly and succinctly. As we moved to the “cheap seats” behind the seats at the table, the junior staff started introducing themselves, and not only did they want to speak up, they also went on and on about their experiences.

One millennial in particular waxed poetic about her time at Georgetown as an undergrad and how proud she was of the University for building this dorm or that building in a sustainable way. Seriously? When I began my career in government more than two decades ago, I remember being told the Victorian adage that children should be seen and not heard. The clear implication being that I was a “child” in the workplace. But today’s millennials want to be seen AND heard. They have ideas, and plenty of them. Sometimes I have to count to ten to maintain my composure, but more times than not I find that millennials have fresh perspectives and interesting insights on a whole range of topics. So let them be heard. They are just trying to help and they usually do.

4. Be patient with their impatience (and tech-created need for instant gratification). Millennials are notoriously impatient. They want the corner office the day after they arrive. They want a raise within the first six months of their employment. And they don’t understand why they have a title that is not “King of the World.” It’s annoying. But, remember when you had all of that energy and enthusiasm? Remember when you saw new and better ways to do things and get things done?

It is the curse of the young that they want things to happen yesterday. But, be patient with their impatience; it shows they are enthusiastic and interested, which can be rare and wonderful qualities in employees.

5. Identify their skill set ASAP. Employees always do better when they work within their skill set or do the work they love. Everyone works harder, stays longer and is more invested in the work they love. Yet, most of us don’t get to do the work we love all of the time. Sometimes we have to do paperwork, phone calls, meetings or projects we just don’t care that much about, but it’s part of our job.

Millennials, in my experience, do not do work they do not like. I don’t know how they got to this point in their lives not doing their laundry or their homework or paying their bills, but they just don’t do work they don’t think is interesting, challenging or fun. You can try to change them, but it won’t work. It is better to identify their skill set ASAP and send them targeted assignments. The good thing about this is that millennials have a broader skill set on which to draw. They can do social media, manage metrics and find answers to perplexing questions faster than anyone else because of their tech savvy. Your job as a manager is to identify the skill set of the employee ASAP so you can target assignments to match your team members’ skill sets. This creates a win-win for your team and for your employee.

Managing people is complicated. It can be challenging. It can even be annoying. But, it is also extremely rewarding when you see your staff members evolve and grow in their professional capacities. Every generation is different and comes with its particular challenges. Understanding and harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of millennials is different than managing different cohorts, but no less satisfying. It always sounded like a cliché to me when teachers would say they learn from their students, but the truth is, even with over 20 years in government, I learn as much from millennials as from my other coworkers.         

Wilson Kimball is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Joyce tabb

Thanks for your input. I need help in #4 Be patient with their impatience (and tech-created need for instant gratification). I only work now with volunteers and interns. I’m trying my best to understand and be patient with them. That need for instant gratification gets to me. I’m someone who had to work my way up the ladder (over 20 years of working); no instant gratification for me. I also served 20 years in the military. Earned every inch of my E-7 pay grade through hard work, team work, helping others, and much sacrifice. I can go along with 1, 2, 3, 5. I feel this general needs to learn sacrifice, and helping others. It’s not just about me, my, and mine. Ask them about hard work and see what answers you get. Just my thoughts.

Brady Smithsund

Thanks for the post, Wilson! While there are certainly some millennials who have the impatient, inflated attitude like you describe, in my experience, they make up a pretty small percentage of the millennial workforce. Most millennials are smart and energetic young professionals ready to contribute!