Millennials Are Defining the Workplace

Millennials lead the pack when it comes to digital influence.

And understandably so. After all, now in their 20s and 30s, these adults have grown up in the digital era. It comes naturally to them. It is part of their every day. It defines them and they, in turn, have significant influence on those around them, whether from home, the workplace or the treadmill.

Social media, of course, are the favored form of communications. With smartphones, tablets and other digital devices, each tap matters greatly as they share thoughts and concerns or read what friends and others have to say.

Pew Research calls Millennials "digital natives." In its 2014 report, "Millennials in Adulthood," Pew points out that they are:

"the only generation for which these new technologies are not something they've had to adapt to. Not surprisingly, they are the most avid users.

"They have taken the lead in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era - the internet, mobile technology, social media - to construct personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups."

In what may seem as no more than the blink of an eye, these Millennials are fast becoming the largest group of employees at companies large and small. Neither idle nor quiet, many of them are making their mark.

Fast moving through the ranks and exerting greater influence in the workplace, they are now forcing changes in how to motivate and engage with employees. And you can count on that continuing for a long, long time.

Ron Alsop, journalist, author and former Wall Street Journal editor, set the tone for how the Millennials would eventually dominate the workforce in his ground-breaking 2008 book: "The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up The Workplace."

Mr. Alsop saw early on that the Millennials would bring a set of values and priorities that differed significantly from the generations that came before them: Gen X and Baby Boomers. With the Millennials, he wrote, "employers are facing some of the biggest management challenges they've ever encountered."

While the earliest assessments of Millennials tended to be very skeptical of this group - quick to call them coddled and focused on themselves - we now have better insights and see this generation as having very different expectations of employers than did their predecessors. Among Millennials, loyalty is hard won, independent thinking is prized, questioning is the norm and proof is what they are looking for.

Pew adds another very important distinction: Millennials, the research says, are "unmoored from institutions," or unattached from organizations that have been so important to earlier generations. This applies to religion, social groups, corporations and politics. Adding to their sense of not belonging, they see themselves as "low on social trust."

When it comes to the workplace, Millennials don't seem to have the same sense of loyalty to their employers as do earlier generations, particularly Baby Boomers. They keep their distance, slower to make an emotional connection. They tend to be quicker to change jobs, vote with their feet and seek a more open corporate environment.

As a retired CEO -- with six millennial children of my own -- I've seen firsthand the underlying impact of this generation. Others may be apprehensive of the changes being brought about by Millennials but I, for one, am not.

I see this as an opportunity to change the traditional paradigm of employer-employee relations and engage more closely in order to foster a stronger bond. It is an opportunity to encourage more of a partnership where views are exchanged, opinions are sought, and the dialog is candid ... of course, within the limits of regulations and disclosure.

To motivate and engage, the patterns of the past must change. Millennials eschew tradition, including hierarchical behavior. And senior management at today's companies - a mix of Gen X and Baby Boomers - must be willing to step back, give up some authority, use digital techniques and invest time to better explore how Millennials can help the company as they gain something for themselves.

After all, the digital voices of Millennials are among the loudest, the most pervasive and the most credible. They are heard far and wide and influence others through what they say and how they feel.

Remember, smartphones in the office transcend firewalls. Sharing views with others takes only one click. The bottom line is that this group has an enormous ability to shape perception and reputation.

So, it's time to rethink the power of our youngest generation in the workplace and focus on both what works for companies and what works for them.

In our digital age, these Millennials have power and influence well beyond their age.