How do you picture the average millennial? Tech-savvy? Optimistic? Socially conscious? The millennial generation often finds itself bound by a host of stereotypes, not all of them positive, and closely scrutinised – over its aspirations, proclivities, social expectations as well as attitudes to work.
Whether or not these generalisations are accurate, what is certain is that millennials are making up an ever-increasing proportion of the workforce; their growing influence should not be underestimated. It is easy to assume that millennials would only have a significant impact on younger industries, such as technology, which typically attract younger workers and where senior positions are generally accessible at a younger age. However, even the most traditional of professions are now on the cusp of a change in leadership norms and workplace priorities, as a cohort of millennials accedes to middle management and senior roles.
The legal sector, ostensibly steeped in tradition, is not immune to these changes in the talent pool. A recent study by Major, Lindsey & Africa explored the motivations and ambitions of millennial lawyers, to see whether millennial priorities and expectations might prompt a shift in workplace dynamics.
The data suggests that priorities might indeed be changing: nearly 75% of millennials said they would trade a portion of their compensation for either more time off, a flexible work schedule or even a cut in billable hours. Corporate loyalty, it seems, is also not what it once was with over 75% of millennial lawyers claiming either to be open to new job opportunities or actively seeking them.
Are millennials really ‘different’?
But are these statistics evidence of a new generation thinking fundamentally differently from the one that came before it, or is it simply the case that long-held views are finally being voiced by a cohort that is more vocal or more willing to speak up?
Employee disengagement is of course not an issue confined to millennials. It is worth bearing in mind that identifying generational differences can only go so far in addressing core underlying issues.
A desire for a better work-life balance, for instance, will often transcend the generations. Focusing on perceived millennial stereotypes risks underplaying the task at hand and belittling genuine concerns. Law firms and other professional services would do well to take stock of how they currently approach engagement within their teams, irrespective of the age of their employees.
What can HR teams do to retain millennial talent?
In the light of the concerns and desires expressed by millennials, how can HR teams convince new applicants and existing teams that their organisation can deliver a more modern and fulfilling vision of work?
This is undoubtedly a major challenge. However, far from striking fear in the hearts of HR teams, there is also an opportunity for organisations to demonstrate their wider recruitment credentials in the most compelling way and to boost retention by addressing critical employee engagement issues.
Traditionally, professional services such as law have tended to focus on technical expertise training when it comes to younger employees, and not on the commercial and problem-solving skills required when working directly with clients. As a result, highly-trained young professionals are often given menial, drudgework to do, which in turn could easily breed disenchantment or just plain boredom.
Training in law firms and across other businesses needs to be reimagined beyond technical expertise and unstructured learning on the job. Structured and contextual experiential training will result in a more meaningful purpose for millennial employees. Allowing teams to see the impact and value of their contributions with clients is a key aspect in building employee engagement.
This impact can be enhanced by strong internal communications. Organisations that clearly communicate meaningful and positive business aims to even their most junior talent will typically have more engaged employees. The key lies in finding ways to communicate a culture that is not solely centred on financial success, but is instead closely linked to the success of clients. Engaged employees are not only more loyal to their employer but they are also more productive, resulting in more satisfied clients. Resolving the tension between profitability and achieving results for clients, can help engender an emotional commitment from the workforce that will give businesses an edge in the war for talent, not to mention a healthier bottom line.
Any meaningful changes to work culture will not happen overnight. The challenge facing HR teams is now is to spur leadership teams into action and to position themselves as the internal champions of a work culture where employees feel both valued and empowered.