Keep Your Free Ice Cream, Young Workers Want Flexibility and Balance

As businesses of all shapes and sizes return to their offices, companies must finally learn the lesson that actions speak louder than PR ploys, writes Nathan Peart

From free ice cream to headline-grabbing bonuses, companies are getting increasingly creative in attempts to lure office workers back to desks. Investment bank Jefferies gifted staff Peloton bikes, PwC’s UK employees will receive an extra £1,000 and Goldman Sachs’ workers can head to Hackney Gelato for complimentary ice cream. However, with the much-anticipated return to work trying to get under way, will younger workers really want to abandon their working from home routines for free food and cash?

Historically, high salaries, bonuses and financially driven gimmicks offered by many high-profile companies were an effective way to keep attrition down and increase employee engagement. For example, some of the “Big Law” firms managed to keep profits high and attrition low by throwing money at juniors year after year, despite the long hours they were expected to work. For the young lawyer, sticking it out for a few years to cash in and set yourself up for life was often seen as the trade-off.

Now, after 18 months of remote working, the battle to retain good talent has become creative, as competitors try to woo new hires over to their camp by offering them what they really want: flexibility rather than frills.

After months of hard work and no play, a young employee’s world outside of the office has never been more important. Indeed, the brightest young minds in traditionally intense industries like law and banking are increasingly turning down eye-watering salaries in pursuit of positions that offer more generous flexible working policies.

In the legal market, for example, some candidates have moved out of cities and away from offices, or are pursuing activities alongside their main career, so aren’t always chasing the money. Often citing work-life balance or the need to leave law, the pandemic has made their priorities more family and life-centric.

In fact, our research shows that a third of millennials would be willing to trade a portion of their compensation for more time off and a quarter would take a pay cut for a more flexible work schedule. For Gen Z, this trend continues. Priorities are shifting and money doesn’t always talk anymore.

As such, deep-pocketed organisations, used to dangling lucrative carrots or gimmicky perks in front of workers, may soon discover that it is culture over cash and luxury incentives that will win out in the return to work.

After all, haven’t millennials long been told that they can have it all? Now, they are refusing to settle for anything less. Smart young people know that it is an employee market and are grabbing the opportunity with both hands. In fact, if an organisation’s post-pandemic working model doesn’t suit them, they are increasingly jumping ship – free ice cream or no free ice cream. Does a cash bundle make up for the lost hours seeing friends if an employer forces you to return to the office and commute five days a week? Ultimately, throwing money at the problem – one of the oldest tricks in the books – no longer cuts the mustard.

This month, as businesses of all shapes and sizes return to their offices, companies must finally learn the lesson that actions speak louder than PR ploys. Employers need to recognise the efforts employees have made during the pandemic and reward them not just with bonuses, but with a commitment to flexible working and a better work-life balance.

A hybrid model or flexible working framework is quickly becoming a must-have in a young person’s job search. If they don’t get it, they will quickly hit the apply button elsewhere.

PwC, Goldman Sachs and some law firms may find, therefore, that their recently announced cash prizes and perks prove to be little more than a sticking plaster on the junior exit flow. The destination of these migrating millennials will likely be companies that are flexible rather than frivolous with their cash.

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