Can Millennial Workers "Green" the Workplace?

Research firms, sociologists and pundits have created a cottage industry in recent years: analyzing the attitudes and behaviors of the millennial generation (those born between 1981 and 1999), and giving advice to employers on how to accommodate them.

That's not surprising, given that in 2015, millennials became the single largest component of the U.S. population. And by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they will make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce.

Two of the characteristics widely believed to define this generation will have a particular impact on how it shapes - and reshapes - the workplace of the near future. As Earth Day approaches, we take a look at those characteristics, and an overlap between them that gives millennials the opportunity to remake their workplaces for the better.

Technology and the Environment

The generation that began in 1981 is the first to grow up immersed in digital technology, from broadband to laptops, smartphones to social media. As a result, according to a PwC worldwide survey of recent college graduates, "Millennials have specific expectations about how technology is used in the workplace. Millennials expect the technologies that empower their personal lives to also drive communication in the workplace. 59 percent said that an employer's provision of state-of-the-art technology was important to them when considering a job."

For organizations that encourage or even provide the mobile devices and applications that younger workers expect, this is an opportunity to attract and retain the best and brightest among them. For other employers, who may be slow to embrace newer technologies or even require their workers to use outdated tools, there may be a mismatch between expectations and reality.

Another widely recognized characteristic of millennials is their awareness of environmental issues, and interest in having an impact on the environment at the personal, community, and wider levels. As Leigh Stringer wrote in The Green Workplace, "Recent college graduates have embraced sustainable principles and believe that every aspect of their lives, including their job, should leave a minimal environmental footprint."

Again, the expectations of this burgeoning population of workers pose a challenge to employers. According to a Society of Human Resource Management survey, 61 percent of employees whose organization participated in environmentally friendly practices reported they are "very likely" or "likely" to stay with their current organization because of these practices. But what of the workplaces where the entrenched ways of getting things done reflect inefficiency, waste, or unconcern for the environment?

An Opportunity to Effect Change

In most workplaces, there is a readily available opportunity for millennial workers to apply their technological savvy and environmental concern, and help create a more-sustainable work environment. Office printing is a classic example of a "taken for granted" activity that nonetheless results in massive amounts of wasted materials (paper, toner, cartridges, superfluous hardware, etc.), unneeded storage, and misused space, not to mention the impact on costs and productivity.

Drawing on their comfort with technology and concern for sustainability, here are specific steps that millennial workers can take to transform their office for the better:

  • Use mobile devices (tablets, laptops, smartphones) to view and share documents, rather than paper
  • Make the electronic version of a document the first option - e.g., attach a PDF file to a meeting invitation, rather than distributing agendas and handouts
  • Challenge the time-worn practice of "when in doubt, print it out"
  • Leverage print management solutions, to reduce excessive use of color, single-side printing, and mass duplication

The result will be a less cluttered, less wasteful and more efficient workplace - and that's an outcome that every generation can feel good about.