By Manon DeFelice
If you want to tap into the mindset of millennials, the person to ask is Adam Smiley Poswolsky. Best known as Smiley, Poswolsky is a millennial workplace expert, speaker and the bestselling author of The Quarter Life Breakthrough: Invent Your Own Path, Find Meaningful Work, and Build a Life That Matters. Recently I caught up with him to talk about how millennials feel about flex work, the gig economy and the changing workplace in general. In many ways millennials themselves, with their focus on autonomy and finding meaning in their work, are propelling the very trends that are shaping the future of work.
Manon DeFelice: The current trend toward workplace flexibility is making the traditional 9-to-5 job obsolete. How important is flexibility for millennials?
Adam Smiley Poswolsky: When it comes to flexibility, there are lots of different facets. There’s flexibility to the hours you’re working, the definition of the role you have and recreating your position, remote work and the type of work you’re doing. The important thing that never gets talked about is flexibility in terms of navigating your career. That’s the biggest thing to think about when it comes to millennials—the freedom and autonomy of redefining your role, constantly learning, growing and becoming a different employee on day 10, day 35, day 106.
When you look at the data around millennials, what they’re looking for in a job is an opportunity for learning and growth. Their career is going to have lots of different starts and stops and twists and turns; the average millennial is going to have more than 15–20 jobs in their lifetime. In the 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey, Deloitte found that globally two-thirds of millennials say their employers have adopted flexible arrangements. They found that the greater the deployment of flexible work, the higher the rate of satisfaction, productivity and engagement is among millennials.
Obviously, remote work doesn’t work for all individuals and all teams. You have to figure out what works best. But the data does show that increased flexibility is linked to increased performance. Flexibility also increases trust. When they have more flexible work, millennials—who are prone to distrust systems and organizations—see that they’re getting leeway and freedom and a certain amount of trust to get the job done. So they’re going to return that trust back, which probably leads to increased loyalty and retention. You’re going to stay someplace longer when you trust the people you’re working with.
Why do millennials want flexibility?
I think what they’re really looking for is meaning and purpose and fulfillment. It’s not just millennials; everyone is looking for that in terms of their work and their life. It’s a chance to do something that matters. Also, with increased flexibility, millennials feel more aligned with their work because they get to call some of the shots . It’s that blending of work-life that we’re seeing in general these days. Who you work for and what you do really defines your identity. If you don’t have a voice in that, you feel taken advantage of. What’s important is that you are part of the conversation in determining how you work.
It’s the same thing with performance; they want to choose the metrics they’re being graded on. They don’t want to be graded on a performance plan that was invented six years ago, or KPIs that have nothing to do with who they are. They want to determine the numbers they want to hit. The companies that are getting this right are seeing that there’s no one-size-fits-all. You have to figure out what works.
How are the needs of millennials changing the work culture?
The trend is toward a much more people-focused work culture. It’s helping people do their best work but also attend to their needs, whether it’s health and wellness, or life coaches available at work, or learning and personal development programs. Some companies take advantage of millennials; work is taking over a lot of young people’s lives. I think there’s a line that gets crossed. Work is becoming more all-consuming, which is leading to stress and anxiety.
The millennial generation is having kids and starting families later. Instead of 401(k)s and more traditional benefits, they want flexibility. Some people say this is a very short-term focus; a lot of millennials are not investing or saving. But this is the first generation with less wealth than the previous generation. So they’re a little more distrusting of delayed gratification. A lot of millennials in major cities can’t buy a house, even if they have a good job. It’s not accessible to most people. So you start to put your priorities into other buckets, and one of them is work and workplace engagement and doing something you care about.
There’s a trend toward job-hopping rather than working for one company the old-fashioned way. Is this a positive thing?
I think it’s a reality. The loyalty of staying at one company for the long haul is over. The traditional “ladder” career path is dead. The new model is doing lots of things over the course of your career and having a variety of different opportunities. This is a good thing because you’re constantly learning and growing and adding value and developing your career.
Of course, that turnover is incredibly costly for organizations. Millennial turnover costs US companies $30 billion a year. People are like, what’s the point, should we just let everyone leave? You have to find the sweet spot. You can’t expect them to stay eight years, but you can’t have them stay just six months either. Millennials are always looking for the next thing, and I think that’s a factor of the digital and social media world we live in. So the challenge is, how do you get them excited about what they can do in the present? How do you increase the tenure from two to three years to four to six years?
The gig economy is hot right now. How can millennials use it to their advantage?
The gig economy provides a lot of opportunities for people who are in between roles and figuring out what’s next. It’s a good way to test out whether a company or role is a good fit. For people in the creative space, a lot of these roles are going to be moved toward part-time. We’re going to see a lot of organizations that share talent. It can be a great opportunity to learn and grow, especially if you’re transitioning to a new skill or career.
But the jury is still out on the fact that we haven’t created workplace policies to support people who are depending on the gig economy to survive. Healthcare, tax withholding, unemployment—some of these major benefits have traditionally been available only to people who work full-time jobs. Companies are getting away with not having to pay for worker compensation and benefits because they found this loophole where workers are 1099 contractors. A lot of people are depending on the gig economy to survive, but they’re also getting screwed by it. More than one-third of US workers are freelance now, and 40% of American workers will be freelance (non-full-time employees) by 2020. The number of self-employed is rising, but we don’t have the systems to support that.
What about companies that don’t offer flexibility? What do you think will happen with them?
I think if you have no flexibility you’re going to lose some people, because it leads to disengagement. IBM just got rid of their remote work program and I think they’ll lose some millennials, because that blanket elimination says to people, “We don’t hear you.” I’m not saying that going all remote is always good, especially for an organization that depends on innovation and building in teams. You need a lot of people in the office, but not everyone and not all the time. The name of the game is adaptability, flexibility and trial and error. Figuring out what works and not saying, “We do it this way, and that’s it.” That’s exactly what millennials are not interested in.
What it comes down to is control and autonomy. Daniel Pink wrote a book called Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, and he found that one of the main things that motivates people is autonomy in how they live and work. Flexibility is a great way to provide autonomy. If you get to say in the morning, I want to go to a yoga class or take care of my daughter or read a book, and you get to your desk at 10 or 11 a.m. but you still get your work done, who cares that you started late? Especially if you’re happier and more productive. If you’re harsh as an organization and can’t understand that, then you’re going to lose some very creative people who are going to work very hard for you.
Find out more about Adam Smiley Poswolsky at smileyposwolsky.com.