Traditions Out As Millennial Input Shapes Workplaces

By Chris Fleisher
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Erica Shaffer isn’t interested in keeping workplace traditions at Excela Health.

“I don’t care what we did 10 years ago,” said Shaffer, who oversees the home care and hospice division for the Greensburg-based medical provider. “I want to know how we can move forward.”

That’s what 32-year-old Shaffer, a member of the millennial generation, said when her staff, some of whom who started their careers before she was born, questioned her suggestion to go to a four-day work schedule for nurses.

The move could give employees more flexiblity, but critics said it didn’t work when they tried it years before, and probably wouldn’t work now.

Shaffer persuaded them to give it another try.

Moving to more flexible schedules is among the many ways in which a new generation of talent is shaping the modern workplace.

Millennials, or anyone born after 1980, surpassed Generation Xers this year as the largest generation in the nation’s labor force. And their impact is being felt as employers shape policies and office culture to suit the demands of younger workers.

It is a generation that usually prefers to communicate using technology rather than face-to-face, dresses casually, enjoys collaborating with colleagues in open offices rather than isolated in cubicles, craves feedback from managers and demands flexible work arrangements.

They have the numbers — 53.5 million — to press for these changes at a time when digital technology has made it easier than ever to be an entrepreneur, to leave an unsatisfying job and work for themselves, said Anne Donovan, who has studied millennials for consulting and research firm PwC.

Pressure to adapt
It hasn’t been easy for employers or older workers to adapt, Donovan said. But the alternative — losing young talent to competitors — will be much worse.

“If you’re a GenXer and you have a bunch of millennials around you, it is less painful if you can keep them around,” she said. “They win in the long-run, the (companies) who figure out how to do this well.”

The pressure to adapt spans across all industries. It is being felt in health care, technology, energy, construction and finance, among others.

Pittsburgh’s newest skyscraper, the 33-story Tower at PNC Plaza, was designed with the next generation of workers in mind.

Access to wireless Internet extends throughout the building and two-story “neighborhoods” offer alternative work environments, with living-room like lounge areas where employees can get out from behind a desk and work on tablets or laptops.

Features like this address the team-oriented work style preferred by millennials, PNC’s chief executive officer, Bill Demchak, said as the bank readied the tower to open Oct. 1.

“I like the energy of the younger generation of employees,” Demchak said in an interview.
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“I’d like to give them a place where they’ll be able to thrive.”

Giving millennials a place to thrive means giving them a flexible work environment, Donovan said.

Jendoco Construction has a much less rigid culture now than when President Michael Kuhn was hired in the late ’90s, changes that Kuhn said were driven largely by the preferences of his younger employees.

“There’s been a lot more flexibility in work attire,” he said. “When I started working at the company, it was, you wear a suit and tie every day. That is not the case now, and I’m OK with it.”

Embracing technology
Some demands have been easier for employers to accommodate than others. It’s one thing to have a liberal dress code. But for managers used to physically seeing their employees, millennials’ desire for flexible hours and working from home can be a struggle, Donovan said.

“It’s the hardest thing to figure out,” she said. “It was way easier when we all had to come to the same place every day, wear a suit and tie and be chained to our desk.”

Chris King, 60, said she has been reluctant to embrace certain changes at Excela Health. She calls herself “technologically challenged,” and though she has an iPad, says she would rather use it to play Candy Crush games than for work.

King said she wasn’t a fan of Shaffer’s proposal to move to a four-day, 10-hour shift workweek at Excela’s home care and hospice division. She worries about scheduling coverage for that fifth weekday, when someone who would normally be meeting with patients is now off. She’s aware that her objections may come from her personal reluctance for change.

“Sometimes, I jump the gun in thinking, in my mind, this is never going to work without knowing the plan for how this is going to get accomplished,” she said. “I sometimes right away think, this is never going to work, without truly giving it an opportunity.”

King isn’t the only older worker to resist change, particularly when it comes to technology. At Jendoco, project superintendents have grumbled about having to use iPads in place of construction drawings, Kuhn said. But that is where millennials have helped Jendoco to adapt.

“The younger generation is helping the older generation embrace the available technologies and really implement the coordination and help projects run a lot smoother,” Kuhn said.

Making a difference
Millennials’ technological savvy has not always helped them in the workplace, said Don Marinelli, co-founder of Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, who has studied the millennial generation. Some struggle with face-to-face interactions more than previous generations.

“The ability to present in front of a group and compose one’s thoughts in real time has taken a hit,” Marinelli said.

Social media has shaped their expectations for instantaneous feedback. Millennials tend to seek more regular performance reviews from managers, Donovan said. Annual evaluations are no longer enough, and some companies have moved to doing several a year.

Jendoco used to have only an annual review, mostly focused on pay and fiscal performance. It now does three performance reviews a year that dive deeper into skill development, Kuhn said.

“We find that if we don’t, we get a lot of questions and nervousness about just not knowing how I’m doing,” Kuhns said.

Shaffer heads her department, but says she still seeks her staff’s advice and criticism. At a previous employer, she only got that feedback once a year, which she said was difficult for her. Not that she’s looking for praise.

“I don’t want to be told ‘good job’ all the time,” she said. “I want to know, ‘Am I doing what I need to be doing?’ ”
When she was first hired, Shaffer’s biggest concern was whether her older colleagues would accept her.

King and Jacki Peterson, another baby boomer at Excela, said Shaffer has earned the respect of her 12-person team. The changes Shaffer has brought have been uncomfortable at times, but have ultimately led to improved patient care.

That, Shaffer said, is what drives her ambition and the reason why she pushes for change.

“I have to know that when I’m at work, it makes some form of a difference,” she said. “For me, that’s more satisfying than money or title.”

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