Popular mythology, particularly among America’s older generations, imagines that kids today are born knowing how to use smartphones, computers, and tablets. Before they so much as crawl or exclaim, “Ma-ma!” they seem to intuitively know how to swipe, snap, and scroll on touch screens.
While this might be an overly generous assessment of youth skill, there is another talent common among millennials and other younger generations that is of similar utility in the modern world. To put it bluntly, young people today have particularly sensitive BS-detectors. Insincerity or inauthenticity glows like neon on the Las Vegas Strip in the eyes of millennials. As earnest and idealistic as they can be, this sensitivity to what Holden Caulfield would likely have labeled “phoniness” can make them a touch cynical and prone to disengagement.
What this means for HR professionals, managers, recruiters, and anyone who aspires to work with, much less lead, millennials in the workplace, is that going halfway with engagement efforts won’t cut it. Superficial efforts to appeal to these scrutinizing young careerists are more likely to backfire than to make marginal traction.
The Benefits Smell Test
It may come as a surprise that a key subject of scrutiny among this youthful talent pool is not just workplace culture per se, but the non-wage benefits a company offers.
For example: It is easy to claim to value something like work-life balance, but quite another to offer flexible vacation time, and another still to encourage workers to actually take vacations. Millennials have been instrumental in getting “work-life balance” more attention and emphasis in workplaces across the country. That only gives them more sources of contrast when they encounter a culture that talks about balance, but has no substantive policies or programs in place to support it.
Millennials don’t want managers and HR teams to utter magic words; they want tangible evidence that these ideas matter.
Thanks to the internet, as well as decades of scientific research and anecdotal experience, millennials are, by and large, aware that even the most innocuous office can be a catalyst for chronic illness, pain, and mental distress. The negative health effects of sitting at work— an almost ubiquitous feature of the modern professional world — are well-known, pervasive, and deeply troubling to newcomers to the workforce.
HR professionals and management are hardly ignorant of the side effects of desk work and computerization. That explains the explosion in popularity of office wellness programs: productivity increases, improved morale, employee engagement, and a healthy dose of PR have all been attributed to such initiatives.
But those troublesome millennials, with their hypersensitive BS-detectors, recognize the irony of providing doughnuts for a morning meeting where a company wellness program is announced. They are as apt to focus on the ways in which the tacit goals of a program are undermined by the intrinsic features or layout of the workplace: no windows, for example, or decrepit chairs and monochromatic paint, disrupted only by the odd cat poster or reminder to take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Health Tech, Meet Wellness Culture
That brings us back to the unshakeable association between millennials and digital technology. Making an office culture work with, rather than against, employee wellness may very well require more than an attitude shift. Younger workers are more likely than not these days to have, at minimum, a wellness app installed on their phones, if not an array of step-trackers, heart rate monitors, and other such mobile devices and programs helping them quantify their wellness, and progress toward health goals.
Even hospitals and doctors are getting on board, recognizing that anything that helps encourage compliance with their recommendations is an ally in the fight against illness and injury. Employers, who get exponentially more contact with their employees than do doctors and nurses, might follow suit.
That could entail intraoffice competitions to get the most “steps” during the week; or healthy choice potlucks that facilitate recipe exchanges, as well as a break from the usual assortment of pastries and pizza that normally characterizes office gatherings. For the truly committed, it might mean investing in convertible workstations, or even desk treadmills designed to facilitate productivity and movement at work.
Anyone who has tried to start a fitness regimen or diet change on their own knows that committing to better health habits isn’t always cheap, and is almost never easy. Millennials in the workplace similarly recognize that office culture is easy to present as mission statements and verbal encouragement, but goes further when it is put into practice — or into office hardware.
With millennials overtaking all other demographics as the new majority in the workplace, it is time for HR to take more than nominal steps toward accommodating their expectations. When it comes to managing office culture and wellness, that is an investment bound to pay off both in and outside the workplace both for the current generation, and those to come.
Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native writing on trends in health, education, and global affairs. He has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant. He can be reached via email here or on Twitter @EdgarTwilson, and more of his work viewed through Contently.
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