Flip-Flops at Work: Millennials Finally Get What They Want

Put on hold during the recession, Millennials' workplace preferences are again front and center. Here's why smart companies are giving in.

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In a way, Baby Boomers caught a break when the economy fell apart five years ago: Millennials were just starting to assert themselves in the workplace, and then suddenly jobs were scarce and for many young people there was no workplace. So we all went to meetings and logged long hours at the office for another half decade, just the way Boomers like it.

“We were back in Boomer land with Boomer rules,” says Haydn Shaw, author of Sticking Points: How to get 4 generations working together in the 12 places they come apart. “The reset worked in their favor. But it’s starting to change again.”

Shaw is an expert on cultural differences at the office. New generations all experience the same resistance in the same basic pattern, he says. For the first five years at work their style and preferences are ignored. There aren’t enough workers this age to matter. The second five years, Shaw says, their numbers increase but older generations have the positions of authority and try to “fix” the the young workers.

After 10 years, a generation’s numbers are so big that older workers give in and try to cut a deal. The boss may not like flip-flops at the office but supervisors become willing to tolerate this style of dress if the work gets done–and that’s pretty much where we are today.

By Shaw’s definition Millennials, who number 80 million and are an even larger generation than the Boomers, are now aged 11 to 31. That means the oldest have been in the workplace for about 10 years. The last five years don’t really count because jobs have been so scarce that young people have not been able to assert their style. But with a recovery in hand and boomers starting to retire Millennials are beginning to get their way.

“Millennials are the next pig in the pipeline,” Shaw says. “Yet Boomers are in no way ready to surrender the attention they’ve enjoyed for so long.” So at many companies Boomers are still trying to change younger workers. But smart companies have moved on; they are cutting a deal with this generation to retain the best of them. Maybe it doesn’t matter if a young worker is in the office all day—as long as the job gets done. Maybe it doesn’t matter if they pay attention to everything going on at a meeting—as long as they are up to speed on what they need to perform well.

Compared to during the Woodstock era, more Americans now believe there are major differences in the point of view of younger and older adults, a Pew survey found. Yet today’s generation gap doesn’t involve nearly the same level of mistrust as the one in the 1960s. It’s less of a crisis and more of an annoyance, Shaw says. That means the differences, though vast, are shallow and can be worked out more easily.

The global accounting and consulting firm PwC estimates that by 2016 roughly 80% of its workforce will be Millennials. To better understand this massive segment of its employee base, the firm underwrote an exhaustive study and found that the generations aren’t as different as commonly portrayed.

PwC found that “Millennials are equally committed to their work,” though “they view work as a ‘thing’ and not a ‘place.’” In other words, yes they’ll work hard but won’t be slaves to a desk or face time with the boss. The firm also found that Boomers embrace some key aspects of the workplace changes that Millennials seek—most notably, flexible work schedules. From the PwC report:

Millennials want more flexibility, the opportunity to shift hours—to start their workdays later, for example, or put in time at night, if necessary. But so do non-Millennials, in equal numbers. In fact, a significant number of employees from all generations feel so strongly about wanting a flexible work schedule that they would be willing to give up pay and delay promotions in order to get it. The similarities in attitudes across generations are striking.

Beneath it all, then, perhaps we’re not really so different. Giving young workers the flexibility to work at 2 a.m. so they can spend three hours in the afternoon playing Grand Theft Auto would also benefit Boomers who overwhelmingly agree they’d like the flexibility to take off an afternoon, say, with the grandkids.

So get used to the idea of flip-flops at the office. It’s coming. But as Shaw writes: “Smart organizations don’t fight what they can’t stop. They figure out how much of another generation’s approaches they can embrace without hurting the business, and then they get back to the real work.”