Majority Reigns: Millennials Now Atop U.S. Workforce; Meeting Their Expectations Key to Business' Success

During the first quarter of 2015, millennials eclipsed baby boomers as the generation with the largest share of the American workforce, a Pew Research Center report revealed. This is an important wake-up call for employers, many of whom still ponder whether and how to address the priorities of this significant Internet generation of 20- and 30-somethings. Business leaders eager to attract and retain the best of them--and millennials' distinctive focus on flexibility, purpose, appreciation and collaboration--must determine whether their organizational culture and business model support that goal.

Seven years ago, PwC began to witness a clear shift in how our younger talent desired to work versus their older colleagues. We experienced millennials depart in greater numbers for opportunities that better aligned with their values. This proved alarming since our people are our greatest asset. Declining retention rates or an inability to attract the best new talent simply wasn't acceptable. By next year, millennials will constitute 80 percent of PwC's global workforce. We realized we had to adapt rather than let this critical demographic walk out our doors - or worse, not walk through them in the first place.

So we conducted extensive, unprecedented research, examined the data, and revised our once-traditional approach to human capital. The upshot: In addition to increased morale, significant bottom-line benefits have emerged, including higher employee engagement and very high marks for our approach to office flexibility.

PwC embarked on this journey because of our own talent needs, but we detected clients with similar issues. With roughly 80 million millennials in the workforce and growing, it isn't surprising that so many organizations are considering changes in the way they attract and retain millennial talent. Here are several key lessons learned from our clients' and our own experience:

Flexibility is paramount. Millennials want flexibility around when and where they work and what they work on. Technological advances have made working outside the office profoundly easier. Our teams effortlessly hand off work and responsibilities among different time zones and continents - and they do that from a mobile device in an airport to a laptop at a client site. By leveraging technology and discarding once-common obligations (think putting in "face time" at the office and using an individual rather than a team to be available 24/7 for a client), organizations can give millennials and others flexibility without sacrificing quality. At PwC, we also have expanded the avenues for employees to explore new roles and specialties and to adapt their professional obligations to meet changing personal circumstances.

Values matter. Organizational purpose may seem peripheral to some, but millennials focus heavily on whether their employer shares their values, including corporate responsibility. Organizations must give back to society, but corporate responsibility possesses the additional and critical benefit of improving the bottom line by increasing retention and performance. At PwC, for example, those who participate in more than one such firm-sponsored activity has an average tenure of 7.4 years, compared to 6.3 years for those who participated in none.

Build skills and give feedback. Millennials are more likely to shift organizations and career paths and are eager to start learning immediately. We now focus on developing our people holistically from day one through a new career progression framework, the PwC Professional. We also grasp that millennials place a higher value on frequent face-to-face feedback about their careers and want to feel appreciated. Providing in-the-moment feedback lets them address more quickly areas for improvement and build on their achievements. This greatly benefits our business, our clients and our stakeholders. As such, we have reoriented our culture to emphasize feedback throughout the year rather than waiting until an annual performance review as well as transparency about career progression.

While millennials have embraced these shifts, they benefit everyone. Depending on your point of view, these adjustments may seem marginal or massive. Either way, they are essential to retain the skilled talent required for future success. Our world is changing quickly, and we need to continue to attract and keep great people to solve tomorrow's challenges. Adapting our workplaces and organizational cultures to meet millennial needs lets all of us roll up our sleeves and do our best work.