How to Offer Win-Win Perks to Millennials

Support Millennial Needs and Desires without Letting Matters Get Out-of-Hand

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The internet is overcrowded with wishy-washy soft-leadership tips for managers and business owners about how to make their workplace friendlier and more appealing to millennials - and the majority of those tips take the form of exciting, exotic-sounding perks like free food, company-provided dry-cleaning, or the option to bring pets to the office.

Many of these articles, however, are written by people with no management experience whatsoever and offer flashy narratives (“Imagine – ping pong at work!”) without the proper context for how such perks are implemented and regulated.

Because human nature is what it is, you can forgive a manager for implementing a half-baked idea, then watching in horror as canny young employees exploit their good intentions.

When you understand the most pressing desires of millennials, as evidenced by hard data, you'll know how you can tailor perks to appeal to those needs, without letting things get out of hand.

Desire: Financial Independence and Stability

Perk: Bonuses and Raises

Contrary to popular belief, money isn't of the utmost importance to millennials. In fact, a great deal of evidence suggests otherwise. However, according to a study by San Diego State University, it is true that millennials - wracked by the effects of back-to-back recessions and stuck living with parents - are more motivated by the prospects of financial independence and stability than members of previous generations.

Unfortunately, this has led to an impasse between millennials and employers, who have weathered the same financial crises as their employees.

Employers have had to slow or halt wage increases as a result. Most companies have simply frozen wages altogether.

Naturally, then, in seeking to entice employees, many employers turn to what seems like the next logical step: a merit-pay-model, such as paying salesmen solely on commission or offering performance-based bonuses.

Research shows, however, that such models don’t always work and sometimes actually discourage productivity.

In seeking to attract millennial employees, the single strongest financial tool is a competitive salary. In seeking to retain them, the most effective financial incentive is offering wage increases tied to a clearly-communicated schedule.

Millennial employees want transparency in financial matters. They want to know the rules, the rewards and the pitfalls of what is offered to them. So make them an offer they can’t refuse, and then communicate the implications honestly and in a straightforward manner.

Do that, and you won’t need to worry about finicky performance-evaluation models. Even better, your employees won’t have any ability to game the system or any reason to.

Desire: Work/Life Flexibility

Perk: Vacation Days, Sick Time, Bereavement, and More

Millennials crave a strong work-life balance, which standard PTO-models simply aren't operationally robust enough to encompass. Increasingly, employees desire a model that allows them, for example, to complete their work, then skip out early on a Thursday afternoon for an appointment.

They don’t want to spend a finite resource like personal days or put in extra time later just to make up arbitrary butt-in-chair time.

Overeager employers have learned, however, that offering too much flexibility on time-off matters, as encouraged by some experts, can lead to negative consequences (though not the ones you might expect).

The goal is for employees to fall within the sweet spot. For them to have a work/life balance flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances, without remaining ambiguous or open to exploitation. You want workers comfortable enough to be maximally productive, without feeling so relaxed that they turn to slacking off.

You also want employees productive enough to meet necessary goals, without leaving them so crunched by metrics that it leads to burn-out and the deleterious effects of feeling tired.

What that means is that it is incumbent upon you as a manager to honestly assess your business’s needs and answer the question, “What really matters most?” What time-based requirements are firm, and which are merely incidental?

What output-related goals are absolutely critical, and which are merely secondary? After assessing your goals and needs, tailor your PTO schedule accordingly. If it’s not critical for salaried employees to remain in the office after all of the widgets ship, give them the option to leave as soon as they've finished the job.

At all times, set clear criteria, establish reliable measurements and communicate both effectively.

Desire: Workplace Success           

Perk: Employee Recognition Programs

Millennials crave feedback - and not just scheduled performance reviews, but real-time attention. It’s not because they’re needy or are displacing some strange Freudian obsession: It’s simply that they want to learn and grow. They don’t require constant praise, just enough information to know how well they’re doing.

Similarly, millennials seek recognition for going above and beyond - or else why bother to do so?

Many companies seek to address employee recognition demands through the old faithful standby: the Employee of the Month program. But experience shows that such programs do little to achieve their stated goal of employee recognition and reward.

Instead, these programs often become a perfunctory practice done only out of ritual, subject to scorn and mockery, and acting as a disincentive to extra effort - especially if employees perceive criterion as unclear or feel excluded for not having been selected.

So instead of arbitrarily singling out and elevating employees above their peers, find ways to integrate employee feedback into daily practice - and not just sending the occasional kudos, which is an easy habit to let slide. Go for real, verifiable, hard-and-crunchy feedback mechanisms that demand additional work on the part of management.

Create a clear reward and recognition plan with easily-communicated criterion for eligibility, and resulting reward. For example, “Here is the baseline for your job. However, if you also do X, you will be recognized as Y and rewarded with Z.”

Desire: Social Contribution

Perk: Charitable Involvement

In the San Diego State University study mentioned earlier, millennials responded more positively than members of previous generations to desires like “acting as a leader in my community” and “making a contribution to society.”

Yet most employers, if they have any charitable involvement at all, limit that involvement to something like cutting a tax-motivated Christmas check to the local homeless shelter - and trench employees have almost no awareness or participation in that gesture.

So why not kill multiple birds with a single stone and pay employees to volunteer their time to pre-approved local charities and events? It’s excellent company PR, a tremendous boost to employee happiness and health, and it’s still tax-deductible.

Even better, by allowing employees to submit charities and events for managerial approval, you can utilize good will, open channels of communication, engage employees in their community, and also get them thinking about the relationship between the community and your company’s mission.

Desire: Social Connectedness

Perk: Events, Workshops, Luncheons, and Field Trips

Likewise, the SDSU study cites “having strong friendships” as one of the most highly-ranked desires millennials hold in the workplace. Millennials don’t just want to shove in next to a numbered cog in an adjacent cubicle, they want relationships with their coworkers.

This can get out of hand, however, when workplace relationships become too casual, and the goal of fostering team cohesion is subsumed by the misguided goal of simply turning everyone into buddies.

Similarly, the intention to have a fun work environment can quickly get out of control when alcohol is provided and not regulated. In fact, it’s estimated that alcohol misuse costs the US economy over $220 billion per year, 72% of which is attributed to lost workplace productivity.

Having strict regulations in place for such perks is essential in keeping them under control. It’s also important to encourage meaningful and productive activities. Extra-curricular team-building exercises (trust-falls, field-trips to the zip-line emporium, etc.) are great, but they aren't enough.

Your goal isn't merely to turn your millennial employees into weekend drinking buddies, but rather, to improve their ability to function as a team in a working environment.

You can go one step further and create and foster a team-oriented business structure and a teamwork-based company culture. Give your team a paid week off and send them to an industry education conference. Or, less expensively, single out high-performing employees and offer them a reward in exchange for taking on a mentoring role.

Millennial desires are fundamentally different from those of previous generations, and tailoring your business to appeal to those desires requires a great deal of creative thinking. It requires flexibility and a willingness to experiment. It’s also necessary to implement new programs, track their effectiveness, and tweak parameters based on their results.

But remember that even with all of the other qualities of a reward model that appeals to millennials, a firm and steady hand is required to keep the kind of pie-in-the-sky perks that accompany soft-leadership styles from running away with your business.

But if you can manage to pull it off? The many and powerful rewards of employing millennials await you.

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