David Spencer-Percival explains how he approaches employing over 300 millennials

David Spencer-Percival
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Obsessing over ping pong tables and unusual staff perks is an unhelpful red herring (Source: Getty)

If you're having difficulty attracting younger employees, you’re certainly not alone. Many businesses struggle with hiring and retaining millennials, and many millennials, in turn, struggle to adapt to the corporate workplace. I should know: my company employs more than 300 of them.

A recent experiment by Virgin illustrates this quite handily. The company held a “corporate day” in which its millennial staff were expected to dress appropriately, avoid Twitter, and arrive on time. The results, in Sir Richard Branson’s words, were “horrible”.

Read more: Why firms are ignoring millennials' leadership needs

This doesn’t mean millennials are entitled, narcissistic, monstrous, indolent, or selfish – or at least, no more so than anyone else. The problem is one of expectations. If you grow up with the foreknowledge that you’ll probably spend your life working for one company and wearing the same, intermittently dry-cleaned suit, it’s not going to disappoint you when that’s exactly what happens. Millennials grew up expecting rather more.

The misconception

Let’s dispense with a particularly stubborn cliché. Yes, millennials enjoy ping pong tables, beanbag chairs, and office dogs. They take Xbox breaks and drink smoothies, and if your workplace has an open bar, they’ll take advantage of it. Perks are great: they motivate employees and boost morale. But while these things are nice, they don’t translate to staff satisfaction.

First, as well-intentioned as many of these things are, they often don’t have the desired effect. Unlimited holiday policies, for example, often create fear and apprehension about taking time off: nobody wants to be the most absent member of the team.

Read more: Millennials are fleeing London

Second, it fundamentally misunderstands what millennials actually care about. A great company culture is something to strive for. But it’s worthless without a great company – and that’s what they want to work for.

A different breed

Millennials are the most educated generation there has ever been. By the time they start working for you, they’ve generally spent three years in an open, collaborative, intellectual environment where their voices are heard and valued. Consequently, they value creativity and flexibility over sheer graft. The boundary between home and the office has blurred: they want work to be an extension of themselves, rather than a place they go to.

If you want to attract millennials and get them to stick around, you’ll need to account for these preferences. This doesn’t mean doing away with hierarchy or structure – flexibility is important, but only within certain parameters. They want your ambitions, ethics, and standards to align with theirs, and they want a clear idea of how they can progress within the business. You need to sell them on your vision, and how they fit into it.

If they don’t have a clear idea, they’ll go elsewhere. And yes, they do care about money and job security: you shouldn’t complain about them being disloyal unless you’re prepared to commit to them.

Beneath the beanbag

That said, the burden of adapting isn’t entirely on your company. Millennials tend to arrive with unrealistic ideas about corporate life. They see Facebook and Google employees enjoying nap stations and office showers and think it’s some kind of bar. They don’t realise that Google employees sleep and shower at the office because they sometimes stay on premises for days at a time.

In the right environment, with the right incentives, millennials will work incredibly hard for you. In the wrong environment, they’ll always be uncomfortable – beanbag chair or no. Be as clear about your expectations as you can, but be prepared to meet them halfway.