The workplace for millennials: How to attract and retain the new generation

In our recent research with Ipsos Mori we discovered that the second highest concern for business leaders (behind finding new customers) was finding and retaining the right talent. One participant in the research was quoted saying, “when we have great staff who move on, we need to start all over again”.

So we decided to take a look at the approach to recruiting and retaining the newer generation of “millennials” and how businesses can adjust their culture not only to keep staff on board but greatly improve their performance too.

As reported on by the BBC earlier this year, Virgin Group made staff go back in time for what they called “a corporate day” with staff behaving in a way that many traditional firms operate. With no twitter, no casual clothing and no personal calls, Sir Richard Branson said, “it was a horrible experience for everybody”.

To help us explore this area I spoke to expert on the matter Maxine Dolan, formerly Group Leadership Development Director at Tesco and panellist at our series of “Inside the Minds of Business Leaders” events:


Hello Maxine, can I start by asking you what is a “millennial”?

Well actually, the term “millennials” doesn’t really capture it. It’s easier to think of it as anybody under the age of 30. They are essentially your future leaders of the business.

How different are this new generation compared to previous generations?

There is a much bigger change in their attitude towards having a job which is very different compared to previous generations. They do work incredibly hard – their work ethic is very strong particularly as we now have a generation that have had to invest heavily to get through university and start their working life with a lot of debt.

So what’s different about what they want from a job?

More access to information and less hierarchy

I think access to information and technology in general is very important. There were times when even 10 years ago, access to the senior people in the business, and the future plans for the business could be all quite mysterious to you. These days it feels like if you want to email the top guy you just email him or tweet him! You can have a voice if you want to speak to him and technology has enabled that.

The younger generation don’t think about things in terms of hierarchies either. They don’t think, “Oh I can’t say that idea out loud because that person is older and more important than me”. They have grown up in a world, and I’m convinced it’s all to do with the internet, where if you want to have a voice, you can.

“Enjoyment and belonging are two things key to long term retention.”

This can sometimes be challenging because in many organisations the people running them are more likely to be in their 40’s. It’s a generalisation but, if you then put the younger generation in a culture of an old-fashioned hierarchy where people say “be quiet because you’re not allowed to speak until you’re 35!” they just won’t stay. Enjoyment and belonging are two things key to long term retention.

And this is the name of the game. It’s about attracting and retaining the very best talent however big or small your business. You want the best people, because at the end of the day it’s the people that make money.

A responsibility and “bigger purpose” from the business

People expect the business to have a purpose nowadays. They expect the business to stand for something and they want the company’s values to be in line with theirs.

There’s another really interesting angle on all of this: Are businesses who profess to have this bigger purpose doing it for PR reasons? Or are they doing it because it will make them a better more profitable business?

I think what we’re finding is that there are more businesses who are very serious about either lessening their impact on the world or doing something positive so that their impact is a good one. It’s starting to get traction now with the idea that it can’t just be a strapline – it has got to be a real thing.

There’s nothing wrong with making money, but if you can do it in a way that makes a contribution to the world we live in as well, then that’s got to be a good thing.

“They want to give their best otherwise they can get bored very quickly.”

An example of that is someone I know who is a young energy engineer – he’s just moved jobs largely because of the purpose of the business. In his new role, he is now part of the corporate responsibility team where they are trying to save energy and reduce their impact on the planet.

Previously he was part of the maintenance and engineering team which was all about saving the money. Now however, it’s much more of a focus on renewable energy and building sustainable buildings – and he went because of that. And, he’s a first class engineer from Imperial College London! So his previous company lost him mainly because of purpose and culture.

Career aspirations and a challenge

There is much more of an expectation around career development and how much of a challenge young people can have and when. They want to give their best otherwise they can get bored very quickly so thinking hard about job content and personal development really matters.

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The other interesting thing is what the new generation want from their managers. When I was younger I expected to be directed and told what to do – and as long as I did that and did that well then that’d be OK. Whereas these days the manager is there to support, guide careers and be more of a mentor – it can require quite a large mental adjustment from more senior managers to adopt a very different approach.

A social side to the workplace

The social aspect of working is more important than ever. If we think about the theme of retaining and attracting the best people, you want people to feel happy and motivated at work and part of that is just by letting them be themselves.

What we’re talking about here is the way the culture and environment is set up. Something as simple as a hang-out area to chat to colleagues – these matter to people in the age group we’re talking about far, far more than they used to do.

Clothing is also a very good signal of what’s changed – in a few short years, we’re seeing more relaxed clothing and less suit and ties. Funnily enough, when I was younger my dad’s aspiration for myself and my brothers, was that we could get a job where we wore a suit.

“The social aspect of working is more important than ever.”

I can remember a few years ago when Tesco introduced dress-down Friday and we thought it was going to be anarchy! And in contrast, later on in my career, it became the norm for people to dress quite casually most days.

The bigger point behind this though is about people being able to be themselves and feel comfortable and happy at work – that can be a decider for people choosing where to go. Value people for who they are and what they do – not what they look like.

And the things we are talking about are often things that don’t cost any money. So businesses can update their approach just by some of the signals they send.

Flexibility in working hours & location

The other thing that this applies is how you structure your working day and your working hours. That’s another big, big difference. In previous generations your working day was very structured, say between 8am to 6 pm.

Nowadays we live in a much more blended world and the downside of that is you can end up feeling like you’re accessible 24/7. But the upside is you can have a lot more degree of discretion as to when you do your work.

Related reading: “Just 1% of pension scheme members understand the full range of options available to them on retirement”

I’ve just done a piece of work with an organisation who were introducing “agile working”. They gave everybody funky new laptops in order that they could connect wherever they were.

But there were a lot of senior managers in charge of the place who were saying “oh hang on what’s going on here? My office is empty. If there’s nobody here I’m not getting any work done”. But the younger generation are saying, “What do you mean? I finished that piece of work off at 9 o’ clock last night and sent it to you”. It’s a completely different mindset.

“You don’t even need to think in terms of spending loads of money.”

Again in my mind, that doesn’t actually cost any money. If you think about the output that you expect from one person, as long as they meet or exceed that, then why do you care where they are sitting and how long they’ve worked for?

Of course, there are times and types of role where you do physically have to be there. However, it’s worth asking the questions – could you be more flexible and gain the benefits of a highly motivated workforce who are proud of what they do?

What are the boundaries in the way of moving towards that culture?

Well, where it can sometimes go wrong is that all these expectations are then mismatched. And there can be friction sometimes when you pair them up with a baby boomer or a generation-X-type manager.

It’s about having the dialogue and some give and take on all sides to get the best out of everyone. But actually, it really isn’t an age thing; it’s a state of mind. Some of the biggest changes I made in my own working practices came after I had hit 50!

There is also the initial unrest that can happen. I visited Telefonica quite recently who were actively changing their workplace culture and one thing that signified this was their new offices. They’d opened these offices that purposefully didn’t have enough desks. They had say, 500 people working there, but only something like 300 desks, because they actively wanted people to be hot-desking and working from home some of the time. 

At first it wasn’t great because it was so different. But, in the end the staff ended up liking it. They had a new system so that when you keyed-in when you arrived, you were asked where you would like to sit and assigned a work space. And I think that’s the look of future workplaces. Not only that, but the smaller building saved the company money.

Did you think this style of culture will be an inevitable shift for most businesses? Should they be actively moving towards it?

In the 1990’s we were thinking about on-site gyms and crèches, and now that seems to have gone away and it’s more about just an environment where people can feel comfortable to give their best. It may well be that there are some professional industries where it’s a little bit more formal and they’re going to stick with that, rather than go completely casual or something – so I don’t think everybody needs to move.

But businesses tend to plan for the future machinery they will invest in or what software they need to upgrade in the next 2 years and I struggle to understand why businesses wouldn’t want to think like that about their people as well.

It would serve any business well to think “what climate can I create to get the best out of my team?” You don’t even need to think in terms of spending loads of money – just what would improve morale, productivity and ultimately business results.


Maxine raises some great points about the shift in changing attitudes and expectations from “millennials” (or those under 30) and how mismatching those can have a significant effect on the ability to attract and retain staff.


About Maxine Dolan


Maxine is a leadership consultant with over 20 years experience in both large corporate business and public sector.

Her approach is to make leadership as simple as possible so that it’s practical and jargon free. She has deep experience of designing and delivering innovative culture change programmes at scale and within tight budget constraints.


Read more about Millennials

If you’d like to read more about “millennials” and retaining staff here are a few useful resources:

  • “Millennials In The Workplace: They Don’t Need Trophies But They Want Reinforcement” – BBC, 2nd February 2016. Read more
  • “5 Ways to Attract Millennial Interns” – Huffington Post, 8th June 2016. Read more
  • “What Do Millennials Really Want at Work? The Same Things the Rest of Us Do” – Harvard Business Review, 7th April 2016. Read more


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