Many organizations, for-profit and nonprofit alike, remain baffled over how to create the right environment and culture for young professionals. Whether the goal is hiring and retention or attracting new society members at the early stages of their careers, the problem of “how to appeal to the younger generations” seems to be more acute today than at any time since the 1960s. This time around, the generation gap is technology-based: Older adults often fail to appreciate the fundamental shifts in the ways Millennials, and their younger sisters and brothers in Generation Z, communicate, engage and get work done.
As a result, their efforts can be embarrassingly naïve. Companies often lamely pander to young employees by creating “fun” work environments, while nonprofits think the answer is to hold networking happy hours or give youthful attendees their own session at the annual conference. But even when these efforts don’t appear condescending, or cause further alienation, they’re not sufficient. The right question to ask is: “What do young professionals need and expect that we can provide?”
Each upcoming generation views the world in a way different from its elders, but today’s rapidly evolving landscape in social networking and communications makes the gulf seem wider. Organizations need to break some of the fundamental rules around how work gets done. Just as email greatly reduced the need for in-person meetings and telephone conversations, today’s collaboration platforms like Slack, WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams have become the primary choice for enterprise communications among young professionals.
Think about physical meetings these days: They’re often are held at multiple levels. There is the meeting itself, where someone is speaking to others in the room and to those dialing in, and then, at the same time, there is the meta-meeting, in which younger colleagues privately chat with each other. You may think it’s rude, unprofessional and disrespectful to the person speaking (and you’d be right). But it also points to the new way young people prefer to communicate, engage and collaborate – which is exactly what you’re trying to better understand when you worry about how to recruit and retain them.
The key is to focus on what young professionals need to move ahead in their careers. So, what are those needs? Don’t just guess: You must ask them. For Generation Z (born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s), networking, mentoring, internships and job opportunities may be key. But for Millenials, leadership positions, continuing education and collaboration may be most important. The key is to validate your assumptions by having conversations about career-based needs with the very people you’re trying to attract.
Think ‘digital first’
Once you’ve discovered their unique needs, the way to address them, we’ve found, typically involves the phrase “digital first.” Any new efforts or programming you decide to undertake should foremost be available on a mobile device and allow for communication and collaboration. Also, move away from hierarchies wherever possible: Allow young professionals to self-organize and form ad hoc, organic communities. Create spaces for new ideas to emerge from groups, rather than from the top down.
Instead of a rigid convention program track, for example, allow for a more unstructured environment balanced with goals that you still get to control and define.
By thinking from a digital-first perspective and focusing on what young people today need to advance their careers, leaders who are not digital natives will begin to identify areas of their organization that need transformation. Soon they’ll find they have created environments that naturally attract young professionals.