A few employers ago, a member of my team who was 20 years my junior came back from her first visit to our parent company’s headquarters with some news. On her visit, she had spotted something I hadn’t on my own trips to HQ.

“They have a room for Millennials,” she told me, disbelievingly. “It’s literally called ‘The Millennial Room’ and it’s in the basement, near the cafeteria. It has beanbags and a foosball table.”

“Really?” I remember asking her. “Why? What is it used for?”

“I asked around,” she told me. “Apparently, no one goes in there.”

Millennials have been getting short shrift for years, suffering untold comments relating to avocados, snowflakes, and living with their parents – as well as indignities like the “Millennial Room” described above. According to a recent study by the University of Missouri and Kansas University, when it comes to the workplace, they’re not going to take this kind of nonsense anymore. And nor should they, as they enter their 40’s and ascend into their working prime.

The study’s new findings of what Millennials value most in the workplace will surprise some people – specifically, those who always have an avocado joke at the ready.

Because what Millennials really want is respectful communication at work, as well as acknowledgment from their bosses.

Respectful communication, and some acknowledgment now and again. If that’s not the very soul of reasonableness, I am not sure what is. And the fact that Millennials have to ask for these basics is very telling indeed.

Setting the scene for Millennials to quit their jobs 

As one who has been eyeballs deep in research about ‘the Great Resignation’ and employee engagement, I feel like a lightbulb just went on above our collective heads. A quick search of the headlines suggests that feelings about Millennial workers are still ambivalent. Although the Millennials and their younger Gen Z cohorts make up almost half the workforce, the headlines about these two groups still skew negative.

According to a Harvard Business Review article titled, ‘Generational Differences At Work Are Small. Thinking They’re Big Affects Our Behavior,’ the evidence for generational differences in preferences and values ‘suggests that differences between these groups are quite small. In fact, there is a considerable variety of preferences and values within any of these groups.’

The real issue, the article notes, isn’t the differences between generations, it’s the belief that these differences exist.

Beliefs drive behaviour, and herein lies a real problem. Broadly speaking, the treatment Millennials have received throughout their professional lives has been such that the things they want most can be summarised as basic human decency.

It should be no surprise, then, that Millennials are leading the charge in ‘The Great Resignation” and resigning at some of the highest rates of any cohort. The PriceWaterhouseCoopers ‘Pulse of the American Worker’ survey found that Millennials were more eager than other generations to make a change, with more than a third saying they planned to look for a new job after the pandemic, compared with about 25% of workers overall.

They’re not just chasing higher salaries, either. Instead, many Millennials report leaving their jobs to garner improved mental health, combat burnout, and try wholly new careers.

Retaining Millennial workers

As we learned earlier in this article, generational differences are, in reality, very small. Workers of every stripe and generation appreciate having a clear vision from leaders, understanding how their role contributes to the strategy and purpose, having access to the tools and training needed to do the job, and recognition for their efforts.

However, to retain Millennial employees, leaders will need to address some of the nuances impacting this group, which means addressing the perceptions and subsequent behaviour of their peers. Three steps to take: 

  • End the bias 

However, as we also now realise, perceptions are powerful drivers of behaviour. In short, they create bias, and it’s past time to identify biases against Millennials, and consciously end them. A good place to start – set assumptions firmly aside, and focus upon peoples’ contributions, effort, and outcomes.

  • Cut the gimmicks 

What’s going to drive more lasting success and engagement? Bean bag chairs and foosball, or leaders who are focused on employees’ wellbeing, career development, and quality of life?

An article from Fast Company titled, ‘RIP Ping-Pong. The Era of Wacky Office Perks is Dead,’ gets to the heart of workers’ priorities:

“The research suggests that companies should invest more in training managers to communicate respectfully and nurture employee well-being, rather than kitting out offices with trendy new accessories. And in the post-COVID-19 era, when many employers are offering the flexibility to work from home, solid communication from superiors will be even more important than having a cool office.”

  • Refocus on the fundamentals of healthy employee engagement

The study by the University of Missouri and Kansas University cited at the beginning of this article noted the importance of what we consider employee engagement basics to Millennial workers:

“Autonomous respect — acknowledgment by supervisors — and respectful engagement, or a respectful workplace environment, were drivers of job satisfaction, loyalty, and retention and other positive measures.” 

If your organisation has paused its assessment of employee engagement due to the chaos of the last year, it’s probably time for a checkup. Organisations and their people have changed dramatically throughout the pandemic, and understanding what’s working and what isn’t will help leaders improve morale, motivation, and retention – for Millennials and their peers in other cohorts.

That which gets measured, gets done 

A focused engagement strategy like the one we advocate, which includes quarterly surveys that assess engagement along multiple dimensions, can also reinforce training and shape behaviour.

The maxim ‘That which gets measured, gets done’ absolutely applies to employee engagement. Surveys and anonymous employee feedback enable leaders to understand if change is sticking.

And by the way, this isn’t difficult. The key to employee engagement we’ve found most effective is adopting the principle of Kaizen — making small incremental changes consistently over time, leading to continuous, employee-led improvement, which in turn builds engagement, loyalty, and performance.