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Companies must create cultures that meet millennials’ needs

Mike O’Leary

I can’t tell you how often I’m asked, “How are you engaging millennials?” It often comes up in conversations with business executives, hiring managers and nonprofit leaders, to name a few. It’s a smart question considering that millennials — defined as those between the ages of 18 and 33 — make up one-third of the global workforce and are becoming a driving force in the business community. Nearly two-thirds of Ernst & Young’s professionals in the Americas are millennials, and that mirrors our demographics in Minneapolis.

Our success depends on knowing what makes millennials tick, so we’ve made significant investments in researching what they look for in potential employers, how they prefer to work and what motivates this influential generation.

These young, talented employees are the future of the Twin Cities, so we’ve made it a priority to develop better ways to engage them in the workplace. To do so, we must first understand what’s important to millennials.

Deliver on promises

People spend about one-third of their life at work, so it’s no surprise that it’s important for millennials to feel that they can trust their employers and colleagues. EY’s recently released “Global Generations 3.0” report found that trust varies by generation. In the United States, a larger percentage of millennials place a great deal of trust in their boss (52 percent), team/colleagues (48 percent) and employer (42 percent) than other generations. The leading reason for that trust is that employees believe employers will deliver on their promises (67 percent).

In Minneapolis, we’ve used these findings to deliver on our promises to commit to equity and fairness; encourage a diverse and inclusive culture; and be more transparent by promoting open communication. Take, for example, our promotion of Sophie Campbell-Smith, advisory partner, to Minneapolis Inclusiveness Council Champion. In this role, Sophie drives diversity and inclusiveness strategy in the market by engaging our clients in the discussion, empowering our professional networks to deepen their relationships and networks and by ensuring that everyone, regardless of differences, feels valued.

Sophie and I also have recently worked together to foster very open dialogue with all our employees around the recent tragedies and difficult world events that have been painful and divisive across the country and close to home right here in the Twin Cities. While we don’t have all of the answers, our millennials appreciate the opportunity and respect us for having candid and honest conversations about such challenging and, sometimes, sensitive topics. Millennials consistently seek tangible ways to demonstrate that our firm is living its values and embodying our purpose of “building a better working world.”

Open communication starts with me. I want to foster dialogue from the top down, from the down up and sideways across our office. My family and I hosted Winter Warmups at our home earlier this year when I relocated to Minneapolis to become office managing partner. These informal gatherings — held across six different Saturday evenings — helped me engage with our employees and gave them the opportunity to get to know each other and me even better. They were casual, featured fun ice-breaking games and, most of all, showed our people that the partners genuinely care about them.

Empower employees to work flexibly

Millennials have moved away from searching for work-life balance and have instead begun to focus on “work-life integration.” EY’s very first Global generations survey found that 75 percent of millennials want the ability to work flexibly without dampening opportunities for advancement. Companies must recognize that offering flexibility is one thing, and creating a culture where flexibility for all is expected and accepted is another. The same study found that 74 percent of millennials want flexibility options, and they want colleagues and supervisors who support their being able to work flexibly without stigma.

We took a major step toward flexibility this year when we launched the most competitive parental leave policy of any of the large accounting firms, offering 16 weeks of paid parental leave for eligible parents. No matter if you’re a mom, dad, birth parent or adoptive parent, you still have access to this new benefit and are encouraged to maximize it.

But, we’ve heard loud and clear that parents aren’t the only people who want flexibility. Within account teams, our professionals are encouraged to share “quality of life goals,” priorities outside of work that each team member wants to accomplish — and they hold each other accountable for achieving these goals. We also offer day-to-day flexibility for our professionals who need to start or end their workdays earlier, prefer compressed workweeks, want to telecommute more or desire reduced schedules.

In fact, one of our very own EY alumna, St. Paul resident Gwen Jorgensen, competed in the 2012 Olympic Games and brought home the gold from the 2016 Olympic Games in women’s triathlon. As an EY employee, she was able to create a schedule that enabled her to integrate work and training without derailing either. Who could have ever imagined the achievements she would accomplish?

Provide opportunities to advance in careers

Our world is more connected now than ever before. Millennials have grown up in a global economy, so they yearn for on-the-job work experiences outside of the United States. We see this as an opportunity for our professionals to enhance their global mindset, learn how to work with people who aren’t “just like them,” and deepen their appreciation for new cultures and perspectives.

Each year, thousands of EY employees participate in global mobility assignments, partake in cross-border engagements and work on virtual teams spanning the globe. Many of our mobility opportunities incorporate a corporate responsibility aspect. EY’s Vantage Program, for example, uses skills-based volunteering to support high-impact entrepreneurs in emerging markets. In this six-week program, top-performing managers and senior managers work with entrepreneurs on a pro bono basis to help them develop their businesses and reach their goals — whether it’s improving financial management and operational efficiency or formulating a new growth strategy.

Millennials are our future leaders and change makers. Companies must create workplace cultures that meet their evolving needs. By enhancing efforts to deliver on promises, empower employees to work flexibly and provide opportunities for career advancement, companies can continue to retain and attract top millennial talent. 

Mike O’Leary is the Minneapolis office managing partner for Ernst & Young LLP, where he supports more than 700 professionals. He is responsible for developing talent, managing resources, creating high-performing teams and providing exceptional client service. 


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