Managing Millennials: Dealing with Special Circumstances

By Hannah L. Ubl, Lisa X. Walden, Debra Arbit

It’s understandable if you are toying with the idea of reassessing your organizational structure but feel hesitant. Frankly, it would be odd to have a mind free of doubt, especially if you work remotely or in an office so traditional that it has an uncanny way of transporting people back to 1960, or if your structure is so devoid of actual structure that an outsider can make no sense of it.

Here’s a trio of tactics for dealing with special circumstances:

  • Don’t panic. Just because you don’t have the perfect situation to adopt doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try at all. Changing the organizational structure or process isn’t supposed to be easy, but the fact that you’re thinking about it is a good start.
  • Keep an open dialogue with your Millennial hires. Acknowledge any unusual or sticky situations that you’re in and encourage them to bring their ideas to the table; they may have a perspective that no one else has. This may be one of the greatest gifts of the next-generation hires — and new hires of all generations.
  • To borrow the phrase from Sir Francis Bacon, knowledge is power. Research what others have done in your situation: What are your competitors doing? How have organizations like yours conquered these challenges? Why have any of them fallen short? What (or who) makes your situation different? Thorough planning and research will help your organizational world go ’round.

Put these tactics to use when considering the environment you work in and how to best form your organization model.

Managing Millennials remotely

Your situation:

You are one of those 21st-century workers who manages some, if not all, of your employee base remotely. You may also be managing digital nomads, unattached but eager to use the wonders of technology. While all generations can create, focus, and get results untethered to a certain geographical location, the youngest generation may face some challenges. Sure, these Millennials can build relationships via tech and electronically submit their work, but maybe you struggle as a manager because you lack opportunities to connect, scheduling informal check-ins is awkward, and soliciting input from them at the water cooler is truly physically impossible.

The challenges:

  • Millennials are wont to write an email rather than pick up the phone.
  • Few, if any, opportunities exist for impromptu run-ins, which can be critical to collaboration and innovation.
  • Authentic relationship-building can be a challenge.
  • There’s a potential lack of trust. Can you really believe that someone is working his hours if you don’t see him doing the work?

The strategies:

  • Accept the realities. Get comfortable with the reality that Millennials are more phone shy than other generations. Though some buck this trend, know that there are other creative ways to seek input and build relationships.
  • Make a big effort for connection. Budget time and dollars for team gatherings, whether virtually or in person. A Skype meeting once a week can get the energy and enthusiasm that you need from Millennials. Additionally, find a way to budget an annual event (most expenses paid) that brings everyone together for work and fun. Many startup cultures successfully build loyalty, trust, and one-on-one relationships by virtue of these kinds of events.
  • Clarify how you see trust. Set timing expectations. It’s easy for a remote worker to adopt a highly flexible schedule if she isn’t needed at the home desk/coffee shop every hour of the day. As a manager, be very clear about when and how you expect your employees to be available and prove that they’re doing the work.

Managing Millennials in an extremely traditional environment

Your situation:

You are leading the next generation in a law firm, a government agency, a financial institution, a medical office, or even a retail store, where your organizational structure may be quite rigid, sometimes for good reason. Adapting to a transparent network model is likely out of the question and almost laughable. Before you get a side stitch, know that although this may be your reality, you still need to find creative ways to adapt if you hope to attract and keep your next-generation hires.

The challenges:

  • Strict, controlled flow of information that can feel bureaucratic if you’re not careful
  • Necessity for polished, professional attire
  • Disengagement as a result of authoritarian leadership styles

The strategies:

  • Focus on small things. Set up your own infrastructure for informal feedback. As a manager, invite ideas in one-on-one meetings with your reports. Make it clear that you want to hear your Millennials’ ideas, even though it’s likely that many of those won’t be implemented — for now at least. Champion their ideas with higher-ups.
  • Take time to explain the why. This is one of those cases where over-communication wins the day. To you, it may be obvious why the Millennial can’t knock on the CEO’s door, wear flip-flops to the office, or present a revolutionary idea to the leadership team. For the next generation, the reasons may be less clear, but they’ll heed your words if you explain the reasoning behind them.
  • Know when to let go. Some people are drawn to rigid and structured environments, but they could be either few and far between or unsure if there is an open position that fits their skills. While you may have the drive to help Millennial hires mold to your environment, acknowledge when the molding causes you more energy than it’s worth. Whether it’s recognizing when to say goodbye to an outdated process or someone who’s not a good fit, just embody Elsa’s famous line and “Let it go.”

Managing Millennials in an extremely nontraditional environment

Your situation:

For you, it’s difficult to find any traditional organizational structure in your company because you’ve adopted a highly networked model. You likely either work for — or patterned your work environment after — an ad agency, a newsroom, or the seedling of a tech startup. Working around the clock is possible because hours are crazy and unstructured, there is no obvious layer of management or leadership, and your company culture is either still in the process of being determined or so out there that it can be hard for people to wrap their heads around it. Chances are you work in this environment and love it … or you’re struggling to find a way to focus in the perceived chaos.

The challenges:

  • No obvious route for career progression
  • Lack of clarity around “normal” work processes like pay raises, reviews, and job changes
  • Confusion around who is in charge and who is accountable for information and direction
  • Too much exchange of ideas (enter the overshare)

The strategies:

  • Make sure Millennials know who to turn to. One of the biggest pros of the hierarchy is that you know who to ask for what you need. When there are no silos and you’re truly cross-functional, it can feel like trying to find a path in a deep fog (not in a sketchy, horror-film way) to those seeking assistance, information, or guidance. Make yourself accessible to help people find the path by either announcing your open-door policy or writing a thorough flow-chart of information sourcing.
  • Make it visual. As organizations reinvent what the standard org chart looks like, take the time to draw your own version of the org chart. Many organizations that have altered their structure have depicted their hierarchy in alternate but familiar patterns like a circle, matrix, or Charlotte-esque spider web. Whatever shape or blueprint yours takes, draw it out so that not only Millennials but all generations have an idea of how things work.
  • Take accountability. The next generation may be drawn to a networked environment where every person has the same amount of power, but they’re ultimately looking for someone to take charge and, if necessary, take the blame. The more you take on — both good and bad — the more likable and respected you’ll be as a leader or manager.