Organizations intent on engaging the newest generation of employees are quickly discovering that the line between generations is defined by a lot more than an innate comfort with technology and gadgetry—and that the key to communicating effectively with young employees extends beyond the development of funky websites or the delivery of electronic media.

Like the generational cohorts that preceded them, new-generation employees—often referred to as millennials—are, in a word, different. They are entering the workforce with unique identities, values, characteristics, behaviours, and skills based largely on their experiences and life-defining events. Consistent with their generational identity, they are motivated by different factors and rewards (real and intrinsic) than their baby boomer bosses—and enter the employment relationship with an entirely different set of needs and expectations.

Successful employers will recognize the need to tailor communication practices and tools to engage this new generation, particularly when they realize that the nature of the three key variables that form the basis of effective communication has changed. Here is the new reality:

Leadership: Without the same respect for authoritative structures, millenials are more inclined to question direction and to place their faith in unofficial leaders, immediate managers, and other team members. A community of peers is seen as more credible than senior leaders.

What to do: Organizations must be prepared to communicate more directly with employees and front-line managers—and to accept the inevitable push-back that new-generation employees provide.

Rewards: Research indicates that millenials tend to be less career-focused and money-driven than their older colleagues, which means that cash-incentive and service-based programs will be of less interest to them. Millennials are looking for meaningful work and a place where they can collaborate and contribute.

What to do: Look closely at your work environment, management structures, development opportunities, and broader reward programs. Can employees influence their work and workplace? Is their input valued and acted upon?

Supporting media: Employees are bombarded with push media every day (print and emails primarily) because organizations lack the policies, processes and infrastructure to create a “pull communication environment” where employees can quickly access the information they need or want. And whereas boomers tend to believe that employee communication is credible when it comes from a manager/supervisor, a familiar department (like HR), or senior leadership, millennials disregard information pushed at them; they prefer to get it themselves. In fact, they want unobstructed access to it (or they want to “sign up” to receive information relevant and meaningful to them). Employee communication is more credible for millennials when it’s been vetted through their peers.

What to do: An overwhelming majority of new-generation employees want real-time, on-demand, peer-to-peer, highly personalized communications—and they want it online.

As the war for talent rages on, there is little doubt that millennials will continue to exert their influence in the workplace. There is equally little doubt that employers influenced by workers across the generational spectrum will struggle to find a balance between traditional people-management practices and more progressive solutions. Their challenge is to provide management structures and communication systems that are functional and effective for the existing ranks of workers, and also address the growing demand for technology-driven, interactive, peer-based and personalized communications that appeal to new-generation employees and recruits.

If we accept the premise that employees are the functional core of a company, employee engagement remains a key to operational success. Business leaders intent on winning the employment game have little choice but to take the time and effort required to understand and respond to employees’ communication needs—even if those needs challenge the leaders’ own generational identities and sensibilities.

Tips for Boomers in Charge
Build it or buy it: If you don’t provide peer-to-peer communication vehicles, they’ll build their own. There are no longer any boundaries protecting the employer. Communication is global and your employees and customers are online whether you want them to be or not. You might as well control some of the process and understand what they think and believe along the way.

Get employees’ input and act on it: Conduct focus groups or surveys and ask meaningful, actionable questions. Communicate what you learned and how their input affects their job and the business strategy.

Personalize it: Don’t waste your time with off-the-shelf communications. It cost somebody something; don’t waste the money.