Do Millennial Workers Want to Have Their Cake and Eat It Too?

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There's a lot of talk about millennials lately. Business owners and hiring managers want to know how to select great millennial workers, how to mentor and train those workers, and how to deal with this generation's unique quirks.

Since one-in-three American workers today are millennials, it makes sense. Plus, young people today possess unique qualities that make us great workers. Studies have shown we're tech-savvy 'systems thinkers' with strong ethics and cultural competence.

That said, our approach to work and life varies so dramatically from generations before that businesses are struggling to manage millennial expectations and retain young workers.

As a millennial myself, I think a lot about what success means to me and how to balance my professional and personal obligations. I'm also part of a small team at a forward-thinking marketing agency where I get to openly and freely discuss these things with my employer.

They've created a culture where I can perform my work in my own way and for the most part, on my own time.

They know that for millennial employees like me, flexibility is critical to job satisfaction. 60% of millennials leave their companies in less than 3 years, costing the companies an average of $15,000-25,000 per lost employee. It's not just nice of them to provide a flexible work environment, it's a smart business decision.

My boss was surprised, however, when I came to her asking for more structure.

"How can you ask me for flexibility and structure?" is what I could see her thinking. To her credit, she said something more like, "what does that look like to you?"

I get it. Her confusion was warranted. Business owners and hiring managers hear "structure" and they think rigid org structures with siloed departments to 9-5 work hours. Managers like mine are hearing concerns like mine and wondering how in the world to reconcile this contradiction.

But to me and many other millennial workers, it's not a contradiction. Flexibility and structure go hand in hand - but it has to be the right kind of structure.

In fact, I would argue that flexible work hours and so-called "work/life balance" only serve a company well when the company has clear expectations of its workers.

The ideal "structure" to me has nothing to do with 9-5 work hours, siloed teams, and complex org structures. I'm looking for crystal clear expectations, reasonable deadlines, and SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) goals I can work to achieve. The best managers in my experience are the ones who provide support and guidance without micromanaging - who help me figure out how I can advance the company's goals and then let me execute.

In large businesses, these clear expectations may be part of the culture, but for small businesses like ours, they can be a stretch. Small, early-stage businesses require a certain agility from workers. Every employee wears multiple hats and business objectives can evolve quickly.

Still, fast-evolving companies can do a better job providing clear expectations to meet the needs of millennial workers.

My boss responded by creating a job description for me - it's vague because my role is general, but still provides a clear outline of her expectations. She also organized weekly team check-ins where we set goals and review progress toward achieving them. As a team, we've worked on establishing clearer roles and responsibilities for each team member, and I've been able to create an onboarding process to help new employees understand our culture and expectations.

As a result, I always feel like my work is contributing to the bottom line. I know exactly what I need to do to meet team and company expectations, so I try hard to exceed them. This clarity has helped each member of our team move more consciously toward our company's high-level goals.

With that in mind, I urge small business owners to ask their employees (especially millennials) what kind of structure and expectations they need to be successful. Though every worker and every company is different, open communication on these topics will result in happier employees and more meaningful business growth.