From Emojis to Emotional Connection: How Millennials Are Shaping Office Collaboration

From Emojis to Emotional Connection: How Millennials Are Shaping Office Collaboration

Millennials in Collaboration. Image courtesy of #WOCinTech Chat

Image courtesy of #WOCinTech Chat


This month we are doing a series on Collaboration, the calibrated process of building as a team. It occurs when multiple minds work together to generate ideas, and then take action to realize a shared goal. We’ll be publishing a few posts from several members of our team who have chosen an aspect of Collaboration to elaborate on. This is part one in that series.


As more and more millennials are entering the workforce, the office dynamics are quickly changing to accommodate everyone. The shift in corporate culture is predictable, but we as engaged as we could be?

I was hired to work at an obscure internet startup company a few years ago. Not surprisingly, most of my coworkers were at least 20 years my senior and almost all of them were married and had kids. For a long time, I was the only woman working there. It was my first full time job since leaving college, and I was going into a field that was completely outside of my area of study (anthropology & women’s studies). I was nervous– here I was suddenly part of a team of seasoned programmers, quality assurance specialists, and tech entrepreneurs, and I was not really any of those things yet. The anxiety and doubt I internalized came from that universal insecurity of feeling “unqualified”. Looking back, I find it funny how close I came to quitting (more times than I’ll admit), before my first year. I had gone from feeling “unqualified” to “unappreciated” in just a matter of months.

I think this kind of trajectory is a common one; you might even be experiencing this now, in your own corporate culture. Even though I worked in an office that could very easily have been collaborative, I felt flustered and directionless. It surprised me, how difficult it became to ask simple, clarifying questions or just get feedback on a task. Ad despite our proximity to each other–there was a mere 10 feet between my desk and my boss’s glass-panel office–I would rarely get a chance to engage a conversation, both in person and online. Our communication was so often 1-way, I never knew if I was doing a good job, or if I was handling the problems that came through efficiently. I would even come in to work on holidays, only to find the doors locked, because I never knew which ones we had off. Is this normal? I’d wonder.

Maybe it is. Collaboration, after all, has come to take on a very specific definition for the millennial worker. According to PWC’s global generational study in 2013, millennials place a greater value on being supported and appreciated in their work environment than almost any other factor. Of course we do! We want to be part of a flexible and team-oriented culture. We crave opportunities for interesting work. We are hyper self aware (or we want you to think we are) and we want to be independent. We are constantly consuming, creating, & critiquing online content. We want to be seen as authentic and culturally relevant. And we’re obsessed with that new show on HBO! How would you know this, though? I’m not saying that all of these quirks are exclusive to 20-something year olds, either. Interestingly, millennials attitudes are actually not that much different from everyone else’s. Non-Millennials want to have interesting careers too. And research shows that (all) workers are happier and more satisfied when they have greater flexibility in their work space. What we are really seeing is that the biggest differences lie in what importance each generation has placed on various aspects of their daily workplace happiness. For our younger, less experienced coworkers, that happiness is greatly influenced by being part of a team-oriented culture. And I think there’s a lot of value in taking a closer look at that one tendency that so often presents itself in our millennial mentees: an aptitude for collaboration.

When I say collaboration, I’m talking about both formal and informal collaboration. From the obligatory weekly conference room meeting or call, to the early morning pep talk with your fellow coworker, to the quick ping on Google chat to a supervisor–the seeds of cooperation are probably already a part of every office dynamic. The generations preceding millennials are often described as being individualists and tend to have an ‘inward looking perspective’. These were the generations of the early cell phone, but before the internet was as accessible as it is today (x). Millennials, on the other hand, are natural collaborators because they aren’t used to constraints. They have grown up with technology and constant access to information; not only are they tech savvy, they are natural multitaskers. The best ways to collaborate, according to a millennial: chat, text, online meeting applications (Skype, Slack, Facebook’s Workplace etc.), & cloud-based document management (like Dropbox, iCloud, etc.). And don’t forget, these methods need to be easy to use.

So, there’s definitely a learning curve–and keeping up with all of the new technology is half the battle. Fortunately, these methods are just tools, and the tools are supposed to become more powerful and more intuitive. But the method of communication is not as important as the communication itself. These are just vehicles for reaching out to each other, sharing information, building on each other’s ideas, following up, checking in. Forging a cohesive, cooperative, passionate team requires this kind of thoroughness. But does implementing this level of engagement have value for the company as a whole, or are we just indulging our millennial coworkers and employees?

Let us consider the bigger picture. Employee turnover rate is a problem for a lot of companies. You may have heard that millennials play a big part of that. A recent Gallup report suggested that millennials are the “least engaged generation in the workplace”. But, wait! That’s not even the whole story. It turns out, employee turnover is actually a phenomena that takes place in every generation. Historically, younger workers have always changed jobs more frequently than older workers. So, a better, simpler question to ask would be, how do we engage our younger employees? It’s not so hard to see why a young person would be craving that emotional link when they’re first assimilating into the workplace. You might, perhaps, remember feeling this way yourself. When you were an entry level employee, what helped you feel more part of a team?

I want to be clear, I think we millennials have a long way to go before we’re ready to be the leaders, mentors, and coaches that are very much needed in the current corporate structure. That said, our contribution to the corporate culture goes beyond knowing how to work the printer, or figure out the new operating system update. We are looking to be part of a team that is ready to collaborate to build an efficient, effective, (and maybe even fun) environment.

Dealing With (Hopefully Not Too) Difficult Millennials


A lot of people have written about millennials. The problems with them, potential ways to fix those problems. They have written about what they want or how they think or how you should treat them. There have been so many of these types of think pieces that some people (probably millennials) have created applications that replace the word “millennial” anytime it appears on the internet to creative alternatives from ‘snake people’ to ‘pesky young whipper-snapper.’ Heck, we here at the Connect blog have even written about millennials before – and here we are doing it again. But all this writing has not been a waste. Unlike other trending topics on the Internet, this is one that deserves its attention. Capability Connections sees millennial/boomer relations and general culture and change management as the biggest issues facing organizations today. Often two meetings in one day will both bring up issues stemming from the generational divide. Many of our courses and services address this challenge and Capability Connection has now gone one step further by bringing a millennial voice to the Connect blog. That’s right, I am myself of the infamous millennial generation. I am writing this from my laptop with several social networking sites open and my cell phone always beside me. I have posted selfies. I have recently graduated from college and yet the thought of buying a house anytime soon is terrifying. I have had several conversations with people my age about needing fulfillment and meaning from my career in the last month alone. This is one of the reasons they have brought me on to the Capability Connections team. I will be bringing my millennial perspective to the Connect Blog by serving as the resident millennial voice. In this and future posts I am going to attempt to bridge the generational gap by applying wisdom this team has gained from over 30 years of experience in human resources and organizational behaviour consulting through a millennial lens to the problems you are experiencing in organizations.

In our Dealing with Difficult People course we present a triangle method for solving disagreements. One bottom corner of the triangle is ‘Know What you Want.’ The other is ‘Know What They Want.’ Only when you know both of these things can you reach the top of the triangle, proposing a solution that works for everyone. So how can we apply this triangle to the problem of a changing workforce with generational differences? Let’s assume that the first corner represents managers of organizations. What do you want out of interactions with millennials? (I am guessing here, but I promise that this post has been edited and reviewed by non-millennials so hopefully I am not too far off). You want new hires that are engaged, loyal, team players who work well in your organization. You want people who are not constantly leaving for better opportunities or demanding unreasonable rewards. You want a solution to the employment-skills gap, which leaves you unable to fill vacancies with effective workers despite higher numbers of college graduates than ever. These are the problems organizations all over the country and they will only increase.

Understanding your side of the triangle is only the first step. Next, you have to really want to understand what the other side wants. In this case, you need to try to understand what millennials want as this will inform their different behavior in the workplace. One way to start to understand millennials is to ask what problems are they facing that might be different from those faced by other generations? Here is where I can help. Those born during the 80s and 90s grew up in a time of great global uncertainty. This uncertainty came as the world shifted after the events of September 11th 2001. It grew in the throws of the 2007 recession. And each new (easily accessible via social media) report of the realities of climate change, global unrest, and continued domestic difficulties reinforce this uncertainty. Our obsession with technology constantly keeps us aware of the ways the world is failings to live up to what we were told to expect. One of the biggest gaps between expectations and reality is the current higher education system. While more and more people are going to and graduating from college, the cost of this education has increased dramatically. Consequently, more and more people are graduating with higher and higher levels of student loan debt. Worse, this is happening while the guarantees of return on investment of a Bachelor’s degree have plummeted. In order to ensure quality workers, many companies have increased the requirements for entry-level positions. This often requires that students participate in unpaid internships to gain experience something that is out of reach for many (especially lower income) students. All this means that many recent graduates are often underemployed in jobs that do not excite or challenge them, and still often struggle to pay their bills. All of this influences both millennial expectations and performance in the office.

Understanding millennials in this context will change the assumptions you make about their motivations and performance. For example, think of a recent grad who eagerly accepts an entry-level position at a salary that cannot sustain their student debt for very long. They will most likely not stick around for 5 or 6 years waiting for a promotion if something with higher pay comes along in two or three. This appears to older generations as “expecting too much too soon,” but it is also just a simple financial reality for many millennials.  Millennials are perceived as being less loyal and not good team players. This could simply be because they are narcissistic. But maybe instead, their perceived self-interest comes from the anxiety of growing up in a world where nothing is certain and anything can change. Their desire for rewards maybe doesn’t only come from misguided entitlement but from very real financial pressures. These new assumptions may or may not be true, but they will definitely be more effective in increasing empathy. Instead of resenting differences you will be more willing to work with millennials to implement solutions. As well, by knowing more about where millennials are coming from, your solutions will be more effective. In the Get What You Want paradigm, the top of the triangle represents a compromise everyone can accept. This might look a little different for every organization. The solutions will need to be tailored to both your, and your millennial employees, needs. But the possibility for progress and productivity is always there. Millennials may be anxious, or engaged by different issues, and some may actually be narcissistic (this is something I intend to address in future post) but we are definitely, despite everything, inventively optimistic. You might just be surprised with your results.



Generation Why? Millennial Employee Training Needs Authenticity


As I work with organizations one concern stands out amid all others. The culture gap between Baby Boomer senior management and the Millennial entry-level workforce seems to be the root of all organizational problems.

The Pew Research Center states that the millennial generation (those aged 18-33) are “unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, …[and] distrustful of people.” At first glance, this generation might not seem like ideal employees that will be loyal, engaged team players. And these are precisely the complaints I hear on a regular basis. I hear, “millennials don’t value our structure.” “They don’t meet traditional goals, but they expect all the same advancement.” And, “they spend too much time on social media.” The answer is tailoring millennial employee training that fits the values and culture of the younger generation.

Underneath this surface is a generation of well-connected and well-educated individuals with an interesting instinct for authenticity that when understood can be a real asset for your organization. In The Millennial Consumer Study , the Brand Research Group Elite Daily found that authenticity ranked higher in importance (43%) to content itself (32%). Elite Daily founder and CEO said, “Our findings confirmed that millennial employees are highly educated, career-driven, politically progressive and–despite popular belief–do indeed develop strong brand loyalty when presented with quality products and actively engaged by brands.” OK, so millennials develop brand loyalty to companies that offer authentic content, engage meaningfully with them on social media, or have highly ranked consumer reviews. What does this have to do with millennial employee training and engaging them in the workplace? Well, millennials bring these attitudes to all aspects of their life, including their careers. And this drive for realness can actually help your organization. Here are some ideas:

  • Problems respecting authority? Try explaining why the chain of command is important to the team or how the structure evolved. Remember that when millennials offer ideas out of turn it isn’t out of lack of respect, but because they value hearing all sides and just want the best possible solution for the group. Then, experiment with loosening the structure to try out new ideas from the crowd-sourcing generation. A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from.
  • Do you have millennial on your team that seem capable and smart but who aren’t meeting expectations? Try restating goals to include their natural sense for collaboration. Develop employee training that shows individual goals move the group forward. Also, don’t link goals with compensation which is seen as divisive and not motivating. Link their goals to more responsibility and link compensation with the success of the team and growth of the company. You will see natural collaboration, team building and retention. You might even see your entire bottom line improve and you will retain a team of committed workers.
  • Does it seem like the younger employees on your team are always on Facebook when left alone? Do they sit quietly in status meetings and seem checked-out? Try moving the project discussions online. Project management software and online tools let millennials engage with projects and discussions as ideas occur and you will see team members staying engaged at their own pace and committing to projects by working on ideas at all hours.

The divide between boomers and millennils does not have to be a deal-breaker in employee relations. With millennial employee training you might see Generation Y as more than what they first appear, the Generation Why Me? turns into Generation Why Not All of Us? And this “Generation Why” may question everything but in the process they will build a more authentic culture with lasting success.